The beer industry continues to reinvent itself with the rise of microbreweries and craft brewers. It’s safe to say that the king of beers now shares that throne with a plethora of unique brews that have redefined the conventional standards. The best microbreweries in America are willing to experiment with new ingredients, taste profiles, and fermentation processes. Let’s explore what is on tap.
Defining a Microbrewery
Before we delve into our top picks, we’ll begin with some definitions. The federal government regulates all breweries that sell beer. It spells out the rules for ingredients, usage, and alcohol content. It also considers production. Mass-produced beers will produce millions of barrels each year. Craft beers, on the other hand, make up around 6.2 percent of the $107.6-billion beer market.
However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. The industry as a whole has seen lackluster growth in the last five years. Craft brewers have shaken up the industry by shifting the market landscape with nearly 14 percent growth between 2012 and 2017. A craft brewery produces between 15,000 and 6 million barrels each year. They make up about 73 percent of this segment. Microbreweries account for 20.4 percent.
Microbreweries produce less than 15,000 barrels. However, state laws vary on production limits. Arizona, for example, allows up to 200,000 with restrictions on distribution and sales. The key word is limit. That means the products of many establishments don’t have the following that national brands will. While that may sound like a disadvantage, these businesses have capitalized on consumer support which has driven the industry’s growth.
How Microbreweries Differ from Other Breweries
A microbrewery is a different operation from the ground up which gives it an edge on several fronts. The business culture is the polar opposite of a nationally available product. They often have just one or more owners and a smaller number of investors. While production is lower, they have more latitude to create their brand and offerings.
That becomes evident from product names to beer styles—and everything in between. A microbrewery puts the craft in craft beer. For example, compare the ingredients of Budweiser to Minnesota-based Surly Furious. The former gives the consumer some information, but the latter speaks to connoisseurs. They list the type of malt, yeast, and hops used in the product along with specs for color and original gravity.
Part of the reason is that the connection between production and the consumer is closer. The brewer approaches it in a different manner not unlike how a vintner looks at wine. Microbreweries craft beer rather than just make it. They experiment with different ingredients and types of the stables of yeast, malt, hops, and water.
They’ll use other fermentation methods including cask aging. They may add helper ingredient or adjuncts to complement this process. The result is a more complex beer with nuances that mass-produced products can’t touch. You’ll often see it in the number of offerings that a brewery has. Surly, for example, has produced over 100 types including seasonal, anniversary, occasional, and now retired beers.
Microbreweries are often fixtures in their communities. That gives them an enormous advantage when it comes to fostering consumer loyalty. Many have tap rooms to build stronger relationships with buyers. They may offer entertainment or food options which makes them more than just a brewery.
The formula has worked. Of the microbreweries that have opened since 1980, 76 percent are still operating. And the trend still continues with 1.2 breweries opening every day. There are 3,132 microbreweries in the country which is a 21 percent increase since 2015. That leads us to the next question. What are the best microbreweries in America?
Our Picks for the Top Microbreweries
Sifting through the overwhelming number of excellent microbreweries isn’t an easy task, but someone had to do it. We looked to the experts in the industry who their craft the best to home in on the ones that stand out among their peers. Of course, it’s not an exhaustive or conclusive list. But it certainly can give you a good excuse to join a microbrew of the month club to expand your beer horizons.
Sunriver Brewing in Sunriver, Oregon is a new player in the microbrew scene. Its year-round lineup has some different styles that are sure to capture the attention of the beer connoisseur. They include Ripping (northwest ale), Fuzztail (Hefeweizen), Vicious Mosquito (IPA), and Paddy’s (Irish stout). The inclusion of an IPA is a smart choice given that it is one of the most popular of the craft beers.
It produces four seasonal beers which is another excellent move on the brewers’ part. It also has an impressive list of seven limited release and specialty beers. It has some great credentials including its the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) silver medal for its Ripping NW ale and a gold medal for its oak-aged barleywine. It is also picked the 2017 Small Brewing Company of the Year
- Sunriver Brewing likes to push the boundaries with different styles.
- Information about its beers is easy to find.
- Consistency reigns supreme with the brewery winning awards every year.
- We’d love to see better availability of some of its limited release offerings including its Belgian strong pale ale.
Sunriver Brewing is a consistent winner that likes to branch out with different beer styles that makes it worth a look.
Melvin Brewing got its start in Jackson Hole, WY in 2000. Beer is in the blood of co-founder, Kirk McHale, who began home brewing at age 14. The brewery’s lineup includes four styles of pale ale, a Mexican lager, and an IPA. Almost all of its beers have received awards except the lager. Its Herbert MPA received a gold medal at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival. It also received the 2015 Small Brewpub and Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year.
- It’s the brewery with the beers you’ll enjoy if you’re a fan of ales and IPAs.
- The brewery produces a line of collaboration beers which is great for the community and beer drinkers looking for something more.
- The brewery only offers its beers in cans which can be a buzz-kill for some.
- The selection of styles is limited if you’re looking to try something different.
Melvin Brewing has a narrower focus on beer styles, but it does it well even if you’re jonesing for a stout.
Rip Current Brewery
Rip Current Brewery has two locations in San Marcos, CA and San Diego, CA. It has an interesting selection of beers that include a few sure to please the beer drinker looking for something such as its Delaminator Doppelbock or Rescue Buoy Russian Imperial Stout. It even has a tart sour beer called Peach Guava Tart. The brewery received the 2015 Very Small Brewing Company and Very Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year GABF award.
- The wide range of styles it produces means there’s something for everyone.
- Information about the beers is straightforward and easy to understand even for the novice.
- The brewery has 10 beers available year-round.
- Their beers come in cans.
- All beers are not available on tap at the San Marcos location.
Rip Current Brewery is a destination if you’re looking to refine your beer palate with some different offerings.
On Tour Brewing Company
On Tour Brewing Company in downtown Chicago is another brewery that likes to experiment with new styles. We loved the fact you can try different ales including rye, brown, Belgian, and, of course, IPA. It produces not one, but two porters. It received the 2017 Very Small Brewing Company and Very Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year from GABF.
- You can take a virtual tour of its tasting room.
- The website is very user-friendly with information for getting to the brewery by the L or bike through a Divvy station.
- The brewery offers its beers in a variety of sizes including 5-ounce tastings.
- Not all styles are available for purchase in growlers.
The On Tour Brewing Company ticks off a lot of the boxes for a brewery that understands its consumers with brews that stretch the bounds.
Picking a top microbrewery isn’t an easy task. Taste, of course, is so subjective. We focused on the diversity of offerings and the styles that each one sells. That said, the On Tour Brewing Company takes high honors as the winner of the best microbreweries in America. We liked the fact that it offered variations on several styles so that you can see the craftsmanship at work.
It is definitely a business that understands its clientele and what they want out of their beer drinking experience. Having tasting sizes available is just one example of this trait. Besides, the tasting room has a cool steampunk kind of vibe about it that we really enjoyed. If you’re in the area, it’s worth a stop if just to do a flight of its different ales and IPAs.