Like many beer lovers, I have an unwieldy collection of beer-related T-shirts. One of my favorites, from Alewerks Brewing Company in Williamsburg, has an outline of the state of Virginia and reads: “Local beer tastes better.” Another, from Fortside Brewing Company in Vancouver, reads: “Drink beer from here.”
These slogans are obviously encouraging residents to support their local beer communities—a sentiment I appreciate—but one could also interpret these slogans to mean you should drink beer wherever you happen to find yourself. In other words: Drink beer from “here” when you’re here, but also drink beer from “there” when you’re there. When in Rome, drinking what the Romans drink will not only ensure you get the freshest pint possible, but it’ll also help you gain a peek into a different community and culture—which is, after all, one of the best reasons to travel in the first place.
As the holiday season approaches, many of us are making plans to visit relatives and friends outside of the Pacific Northwest. If you are one of these people, let me encourage you to seek out beer you may not find here at home. To help you decide what to drink in an unfamiliar market, I’ve created this handy guide to the best beers in different regions of the U.S. For the purposes of this short article, I’ve split the country into five parts: Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and our home, the Northwest.
What is arguably the best beer in America hails from the Midwest, specifically from the small city of Kalamazoo, Michigan. That’s where you’ll find Bell’s Brewery, whose Two Hearted Ale is one of the most delicious IPAs I’ve ever tasted. But you don’t have to take my word for it: Two Hearted Ale has been voted the best beer in America for the past three years in a row by readers of Zymurgy, a magazine for homebrewers and beer lovers.
Another wonderful Midwest brewery with less national recognition is Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland, Ohio. Their award-winning Dortmunder Gold Lager is worth seeking out for its clean malt flavor and zing of spicy hops.
Vermont is the home of the original hazy IPA, so if you find yourself within drinking distance, seek out Heady Topper, the iconic double IPA from The Alchemist in Stowe. This beer is consistently rated one of the best beers in the country.
If you find yourself closer to New York than New England, I recommend sampling some of the offerings from Brooklyn Brewery, whose brewmaster Garrett Oliver is one of the smartest and most experienced people working in the beer world today. Try their Brown Ale for a tasty standard or, for something a bit more off the wall, get a bottle of their Sorachi Ace, a Saison with a lemony kick.
Beer lovers in the Northwest know that Bend, Oregon is the place to make a beer pilgrimage. Well, in the Southeast, that place is Asheville, North Carolina. Even national brands like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have taken notice and built east-coast facilities in the area, but you can get those beers anywhere. Instead, ask your bartender for the latest release that can’t be found west of the Smokies.
Around the Atlanta area, or really anywhere throughout the South, I recommend trying Sweetwater Brewing’s 420 Extra Pale Ale, which is one of those “I could drink this all day long” sort of beers. Chances are good you’ll find it in whatever bar you happen to visit, even as far away as New Orleans and Houston.
Quite a few good California breweries distribute to the Northwest, but there’s one notable brewery that keeps its beer off our Washington shelves: Russian River Brewing, in Santa Rosa. Before Bell’s Two Hearted Ale took over the top spot in Zymurgy’s ranking of best beers in America, Russian River’s legendary double IPA, Pliny the Elder, held that spot for eight years in a row. Its scarcity is no doubt part of its appeal, but if you manage to have it on draft you’ll understand the hype. Pack a few bottles in your checked luggage and bring me back one, will you?
Okay so maybe you aren’t planning to travel out of the area for the holidays, but instead you’ll be welcoming family and friends from elsewhere. What if they want to experience local beer? Well, there’s so much good beer around here that it’s hard to choose, but if it were my friends, I’d be sure they tried one of Chuckanut Brewery’s lagers (I prefer the Pilsner or the Dunkel, or the Märzen or the Vienna, or the Dortmunder or the Kölsch). I’d probably also introduce them to some Oregon beer, like one of the corked and caged bottles from pFriem in Hood River.
I’ve left out approximately 7,000 breweries, of course, and also the entire beer-loving state of Colorado. But one has to draw the line somewhere. Happy travel drinking, and happy holidays.
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