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The U.S. is well known for a lot of things, baseball, NASCAR, and McDonald’s among them. Over the past decade, it’s also become a mecca for craft beer lovers far and wide. New businesses are opening daily across the country, producing some of the best breweries the nation has ever seen.
In this guide to our must-try best breweries in America, we’ll give you a rundown of what it means to be a craft beer in the U.S. We’ll talk about the numbers, the definitions, and reasons why it’s so popular. Then, we’ll discuss our five picks of top breweries that every beer lover should try.
Whether you’re looking to travel the nation sampling brews along the way, or just want recommendations on a new pick to try next time you’re at the liquor store, we’ve got you covered.
Craft Breweries by the Numbers
Craft beer is more popular than ever, and that growth trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down. According to the Brewers Association, there were over twice as many craft breweries in America in 2016 than there were in 2012. With over 5,300 different manufacturers, the only other time in our nation’s history that there have been anywhere close to this many independent brewers is back in 1873 before the large national chains took over.
Today, craft breweries account for over 99 percent of all of the breweries operating in America. Around 80 percent of the U.S. lives within just 10 miles of a craft brewery.
Regarding beer consumption, around 12.5 percent of the beverage purchases annually is produced by local breweries. In other words, one out of every eight beers drank in the country is a craft beer.
Craft Breweries Definition
The definition of what, exactly, constitutes a craft beer is a subject of debate amongst amateurs and experts. While there is no clear-cut definition and mandatory criteria, organizations like the Craft Brewer’s Association based in Colorado believe that a craft brewery must have three elements to qualify. They are:
Breweries Must Be Small
If they produce an annual production of six million barrels of beer or less, a brewery could be eligible to be recognized as a craft brewer. This piece of the definition is a point of contention amongst critics. The argument is that small batch beer isn’t necessarily good, much as large-business produced beers aren’t necessarily bad. That said, part of the appeal of frequenting craft breweries is the notion of supporting small, locally owned and operated businesses and that element is missing in larger operations.
Breweries Must Be Independent
Less than 25 percent of the business can be owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member who isn’t themselves a craft brewer. This is one of the criteria where a lot of the controversy lies, especially for craft brewers who are bought out by large beer conglomerates like Anheuser Busch or InBev.
Breweries Must Produce Traditional Beer
Whether the business uses traditional or cutting-edge techniques, it’s crucial that the majority of what they produce is beer. Malted beverages don’t count if you’re trying to qualify as a craft brewery.
Reasons to Drink Craft Beer
Craft beer connoisseurs swear by the small-batch brews for dozens of reasons. Whether you’re a loyalist, or are new to the scene here are just a few reasons to give it a try.
1. Support Local Businesses
Not only are small craft breweries known for creating unique blends of flavors in every pint, but they are deeply ingrained in the local economy. Most brewmasters live near to their business, and purchasing their beverages supports local families and economic growth in your area.
2. Distinct Flavor
Craft beer is known for having a rich taste and distinctive flavor, and it’s a favorite for many reasons. While larger companies may invest a portion of their efforts into marketing or other areas of their business, smaller breweries tend to focus on what they do best- brewing. This can result in brews that are anything but watered down and generic tasting.
3. Wide Variety
While large manufacturers have dozens of flavors that they do best, craft breweries are known for being more experimental. By both using unusual ingredients and techniques, these small-batch options produce hundreds of bottles with different flavor profiles, textures, and nuances. No matter what you’re in the mood for, you’ll find it in a craft beer.
4. Potential Health Benefits
While there are some documented health benefits of drinking beer, consuming craft beer may be even better for you. The use of fresh ingredients that produce powerful antioxidants and a significant dose of B vitamins can help slow the aging process and fight off disease. Recent studies also demonstrate that silicon, which is found in beer, could act as a barrier in the brain and protect against the decline of cognitive functions. Cheers!
5. More Booze for Your Buck
While it’s not recommended to drink until you get drunk, one nice perk of craft beer is that it tends to have higher alcohol by volume than what you’ll find in bottles from large manufactures.
Top 5 Best Craft Breweries in America
With over 5,300 in the U.S., it’s hard to whittle down our picks for best breweries to the top five. Here, we’ve chosen our favorites and give you a little history of the business, as well as a few notable brews to try.
Located in Portland, Maine, Allagash Brewing Company has been a front-runner in the craft beer market since opening in 1994. They were among the first in the U.S. to focus on Belgian-style beer, filling a market void that founder Rob Tod had identified. Allagash was also the first craft brewery to install a commercial cool ship in 2007, launching a trend among brewmasters of experimenting with spontaneously fermented beers.
Best known for their original beer, Allagash White, they focus on educating their consumers on what to expect from the traditional Belgian-style brew. Expect all of their options to have a yeast-driven character, but with some delightful nuanced differences. For example, Curiex is a Belgian ale aged in oak barrels, giving it a color and flavor pallet unlike any other.
You can find Allagash beers in 17 different states, or stop by their brewery for a free tour, tasting, and to take home a few cases of your favorites.
A member of the popular Port Brewing family based in San Marcos, CA, The Lost Abbey started as a brainchild of one of the company co-founders, Vince Marsagila. His vision was to produce a range of beers brewed using some of the techniques used in age-old monastic brewing traditions. After years of business development, in 2006, he along with his partners opened a 3-vessel, 30-barrel brewery that started producing 5,000 mega barrels of beer per year. Today, they produce over 15,000 mega barrels.
The company is split into two parts: the Port Brewing label which produces the traditional San Diego/West Coast styles, and the Lost Abbey label who makes an award-winning Belgian-inspired series.
Since their opening in 2006, the brewery has received several honors, including being named Small Brewery of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival, and Champion Small Brewery and Small Brewer at the 2008 World Beer Cup competition.
Today they continue to produce varieties of exceptional quality, thanks in part to their library of over 1,000 different oak bourbon, sherry, brandy, and wine barrels used for their aging programs.
You can find their beer at hundreds of retailers around the country, and they produce both seasonal and year-round options. With clever names like Devotion, Judgement Day, and Lost and Found, these brews aren’t just tasty; they also deliver an almost religious experience while you sip them.
Founded in 2013, this brewery and tasting room sits in the heart of downtown in sunny St. Petersburg, Florida. Known for their unique barrel aging processes, the brewery handcrafts each of their varieties as a series, releasing bottles at various points during the aging process to highlight how the barrel flavor impacts the beer.
While visiting the brewery in-person to experience a taste of several steps in the series is incredible, you can also purchase bottles from the series at retailers in the southeast.
Some of their most popular are Trademark dispute, Rare DOS, and Monday.
Casey Brewing and Blending is a notable pick on our list for several reasons. Not only are their creations incredible, but they are on our best breweries list despite not actually being a brewery.
Founder Troy Casey contracts local award-winning brewers to cultivate his wort which is then transferred to his headquarters to be barrel fermented and blended. His passion is with the science behind how to create delicious 100 percent oak barrel fermentations using a mix of specific enzymes and bacteria and local Colorado ingredients.
He doesn’t limit himself only to sourcing locally; Troy also chooses seasonal ingredients to ensure that each of his brews is made with components harvested at their peak freshness for exemplary flavors and finishes. For a tasty example, try the Fruit Stand Montmorency Cherry.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about craft beer in the US without mentioning California-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Founded in 1980 by Ken Grossman, many credit this brand with IPA’s rise to popularity in the 2000’s. At the time, the heavy hop flavor of his beer was extremely unusual, but it paved the way for others to experiment with more bitter beer flavors.
While they’re still known today for their incredibly popular Pale Ale, the brewery has much more to celebrate. They now boast national recognition, two locations, and a concert venue, all while remaining independently owned and operated.
Narrowing the best breweries in the country down to a top five list was incredibly daunting, and crowing a clear winner is a near impossible task. Everyone on our list has something unique that makes them stand apart from their competition, but there are still over 5,000 others to choose from and love equally. If you are only going to try just one, any of the bottles from The Lost Abbey are exceptional and incorporate old-world brewing techniques that you won’t find commonly used. This produces unique flavors that have to be experienced to be believed.
But don’t take our word for it. We highly recommend that you give them all a try and make a decision for yourself.