Raising a toast to the nation’s best beer destinations
What’s brewing in tourism trends? For die-hard hopheads, the answer is obvious: beer. From bigger cities to small communities, America is producing more beer in more varieties than ever before (in fact, in 2016, the United States was second only to China in worldwide beer production), and travelers are setting their sights on tasting the best of the best. With that in mind, we went out in search of places where the scene is exciting and innovative, the beers are delicious and award-winning, and the buzz is coming from more than high ABVs (aka lots of word-of-mouth praise). When it comes to creative brewing, these places have proved the sky’s the limit, so we didn’t limit ourselves, either. Instead of only cities and towns, we widened our scope to whole counties, where the beer brewing bug has spread beyond borders to the delight of regional residents and tourists alike.
These counties are proving their beer knowledge runs deep, producing some of the most exciting brews and blends to grace the United States. From sours to wheats to IPAs, the beers of these counties are made with passion, skill, innovation, and love. Travelers and beer lovers, set your sights on these regions because they are our picks for the best beer counties in the nation.
Larimer County, Colorado
Colorado has the second-most breweries in the nation, and the towns of Larimer County have made defining strides in earning the whole state serious beer cred.
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With more than 20 breweries in town, Fort Collins is a mecca for casual tipplers and steadfast aficionados alike. Five of these boast 2017 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) awards: Jessup Farm Barrel House, Funkwerks, CooperSmith’s Pub & Brewing, Black Bottle Brewery, and Odell Brewing Co. The city also plays host to incredible beer-centric events, such as Colorado Brewers Festival in June and the Fall Harvest Brewfest come September, but don’t worry, any time is right to sample the golden goods of Fort Collins.
Eight: the number of craft breweries. Two: the number of 2017 GABF awards. Endless: the number of pours you’ll want to try in Loveland. Start with a 5th Anniversary Tequila Sour (yes, it’s a beer) at Loveland Aleworks, grab a Winter Fire for the second course at Crow Hop Brewing, and cap it off with a little Red Cap at Grimm Brothers Brewhouse. For an all-out beer-steeped experience, come for Loveland Oktoberfest or the Gnarly Barley Brew Festival.
City Star Brewing and Berthoud Brewing Company are putting out big flavors, smooth finishes, and every kind of delectable concoction from this quaint locale. Enjoy the brick buildings and small-town charm of Main Street, spend a relaxing afternoon at Boyd Lake State Park just north of town, and don’t leave without a few bottles or cans of favorites from your visit. We’d go for BBC’s RailBender Scottish and City Star’s Night Watchman, but to each their own.
You might end up in town on a trek to explore the Rockies, but you’d be remiss to miss out on the tasty suds in town, at Rock Cut Brewing Company and Estes Park Brewery. Nothing accentuates the pleasure of mountain backdrops better than a cool, foamy beverage and some time to chill and take it all in. At Rock Cut try a Tyndall Porter for darker notes, or lighten things up with an Enos Pils. Estes Park Brewery will serve you up a refreshing Longs Peak Raspberry Wheat or a silky Samson Stout to get things started.
Ada County, Idaho
Between 2011-2016, Idaho’s barrel production grew by 229 percent, and it boasts the 10th-highest number of breweries per capita.
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As one of the fastest-growing cities in the state, Meridian is drinking its fair share of Idaho’s 30.4 gallons consumed each year. But who wouldn’t want to do their part when Slanted Rock Brewing Company is putting out delicious creations like Initial Point IPA, with its home-grown name and bitter, citrus, and caramel notes. RAM Restaurant & Brewery has GABF medals in every color stretching back to 1996, and The Growler Guys pour the best in the West—from Colorado to California to Hawaii.
Boise loves beer and it cannot lie. Dozens of breweries are delighting palates of every persuasion, and people are flocking to town to sample the award-winning goods. Odelay Vienna Style Lager from Edge Brewing Company, Sockeye Maibock and Power House Porter from Sockeye Brewing, and P2P from 10 Barrel Brewing, all won golds from the North American Brewers Association in 2016, and the city’s list of accolades is a mile long from beer publications to brewers’ organizations. Payette Brewing Company receives consistently high praise, and recently won multiple awards at the San Diego International Beer Competition (and as you’ll see later on this list, San Diego is very serious about beer). From Woodland Empire Ale Craft to Highlands Hollow Brewhouse (and let’s not forget the aptly named Boise Brewing), this city is filled to the brim with beverages so tasty, you’ll be planning your next trip here from the first sip. With many events and things to do in Boise, plan to come for one of Idaho Brewers United’s events, like Destination: Beer and The Idaho Beer Summit, or the state’s largest hop beer festival, Hoptober Freshtival.
Some of the best things in life exist on the fringes, and Garden City breweries prove it. Thriving in this city on the outskirts of Boise, creators such as Powderhaus, County Line, Bella, and Barbarian brewing companies are producing crisp sours, deeply flavored barrel-aged beer, enticing seasonals, and fine-crafted classics. This area has craft brewing in its veins, and the community has been planting strong (and tasty) roots that are only getting finer with age.
Deschutes County, Oregon
Oregon is the second-largest grower of hops in the country, and with 230 state breweries (36 in Central Oregon alone), support for the local crop is abundant.
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Perhaps nothing pairs better with a cold brew than the great outdoors, and Bend happens to excel at both. (Coincidence? We think not.) The Brewers Association named Deschutes the No. 8 brewery in the country, and Zymurgy Magazine awarded it No. 7, while many other Bend beers dominate favorites lists across media. An especially hot brand is Boneyard Brewery; their ace-in-the-hole being the perfectly named Notorious Triple IPA, but you can’t take a wrong turn on their hop-happy menu. This city also loves to throw a good party, and beer events dot the calendar all year, from the High Gravity Extravaganza Brewfest in January to Bend Brewfest in August. The Bend-hosted Best of Craft Beer Awards is gaining steam every year, solidifying Central Oregon’s claim to fame in the ever-popular beer game.
No second-sibling insecurities here, Sisters is producing high quality craft brews that stand out from the crowd. Take Three Creeks Brewing Company for instance, which bucks trends and blazes trails with the likes of potent FivePine Chocolate Porter and “beefy” Stampede Strong Ale. Does their secret lie in the crystal local waters trickling from the Cascade Mountains, the famed Pacific Northwest hops, or the precision and technique poured into every batch? We’d say all three and then some, but you be your own judge. Compare Oregon favorites at the Sisters Fresh Hop Festival in late September, and toast to the good stuff.
Where Cascade Lakes Brewing Company paved the way in Redmond, several stellar breweries have followed in its footsteps, each with unique flair and flavors. Wild Ride Brewing Company, Smith Rock Brewing Company, and Kobold Brewing are making waves with out-there options like Kobalos Imperial CDA (Black IPA), Big Booty Golden Ale, and 8AM Pale Ale—we agree with the premise that there’s no wrong time of day to crack open a cold one. Drink up (and responsibly), friends!
Sunriver isn’t all sparkling waterfronts, mountain backdrops, and welcoming vacation rentals, it’s also home to some delicious distillations. Sunriver Brewing Company was crowned Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival, and once you taste their GABF 2016 silver medalist, Rippin Northwest Ale, you’ll pledge “wherever you’re going, I’m going your way.” Forget Henry Mancini, you’ll be singing “Sunriver and me…” forever more.
Kalamazoo County, Michigan
Bell’s Brewery, Michigan’s oldest craft brewery, hasn’t gone six months without an expansion since 2003, and the state’s three biggest craft brewers (Founders, Bell’s, and Atwater Brewing Co.) distribute to 38, 31, and 24 states respectively.
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Bell’s Brewery’s original location is in Kalamazoo, but we prefer the tour at the Comstock Brewery. Learn all about the history and heart of the company and its Michigan roots, and taste amazing beer along the way. The Two Hearted Ale was named the best beer in the country by the American Home Brewers Association (Zymurgy Magazine) in 2017, and their Hopslam Ale was voted No. 5. Need any more incentive?
It’s no surprise that the city for which the county takes its name is the epicenter of area brewing culture. And the Michigan beer scene is on a mission to create more than beautiful beverages. At Arcadia Ales, not only is their beer delicious, their hearts are in the right place, too. They engage in multiple charitable activities, including creating a special beer called Art Hops to benefit the Kalamazoo Art Hop and Hops Against Hunger to benefit the local food bank. For envelope-pushing flavors, head to One Well Brewing and taste the Sweet Water Street with its coffee and donut flavors or sip on the Root Beer Float Stout and let the hints of sarsaparilla and sassafras tickle your tongue. If you want to experience a lot at once, come for one of the celebrations of all things ale: Kalamazoo Beer Week kicks off mid-January, August brings late summer vibes to the Donut & Beer Festival, and Kalamazoo Craft Beer Festival brings beer from all over for a perfect November day.
If you’ve never tried an award-winning beer, Latitude 42 Brewing Company is as decorated as they come. They’ve earned golds at the World Beer Expo for their Powerline Porter, Tinder Bock, and Poppin’ Pils, and have medals at every level, including platinum, from competitions across the globe. To taste exclusive handcrafted beer, go to Bravo! Restaurant & Café, the only location where you can get their small batch brews like Sweet Bravo! Brown and Sour Pour Berliner Weisse.
San Diego County, California
San Diego County International Beer Festival is one of the many things to do in San Diego being the largest of its kind on the West Coast, and more than 200 breweries join in the judging, tastings, classes, and parties every June. San Diego Beer Week is a massive celebration spanning 10 days with over 500 events in early November. Other must-attend events include San Diego Beer Festival in July, the San Diego Festival of Beer in September, and the Strong Ale Festival in December.
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San Diego breweries have become a force to be reckoned with, and the city is often referred to as the Craft Beer Capital of America. Not bad for a community that saw zero local breweries for 36 years post-prohibition. Diverse and sprawling, San Diego County comprises many wonderful places to visit, from beach communities to inland desert scenes, and almost every spot has a stake in the game. The Miramar/Mira Mesa area is home to some of SD’s most famous, including AleSmith and Ballast Point, both of which consistently win awards, and took home GABF medals in 2017. Smaller, but no less mighty are Pure Project and Mike Hess, with different approaches that yield delightful results.
Now synonymous with San Diego, Stone Brewing is one of the county’s most recognizable (and beloved) exports. Rated the No. 5 brewery in Zymurgy Magazine, Stone appears on and tops bests lists every year, and has earned titles such as All-Time Top Brewery on Planet Earth, which help account for its wide growth and international distribution success. Don’t leave Escondido without sampling some newer establishments, too, such as Jacked Up Brewery and Plan 9 Alehouse.
At the northern reaches of the county, lies beachy Oceanside with its slew of excellent breweries. Oceanside Brewing Company, for one, is tapping new flavors weekly, from barley wines to IPAs. Bagby Beer Company is a can’t-miss for winners like the Baltic-style Herd of Turtles or the Struggle Bus American Extra Pale Ale. They also host the super-fun Brewbies Fest, which doubles as a fundraiser for Keep a Breast programs. Black Plague Brewing is a fresh and nonconformist face on the scene, with creations such as habanero-infused IPA and honeycomb-hinted Kölsch. Escape colder climates in late January, and come for the Oceanside Craft Beer & Food Festival to taste Southern California flavors in their element.
Keeping it coastal, this crunchy beach community is vying to become San Diego’s new beer-sipping hot spot, beads and bongo drums optional. Very pedestrian-friendly, OB is perfect for a walking tour, with world-class options all within reach: OB Brewing Company, Culture Brewing Co, Belching Beaver OB, Helm’s Brewing Company, Pizza Port OB, Kilowatt Brewing, and Mike Hess Brewing will all treat you to the best in the area.
We could go on and on about SD County (Coronado, home of San Diego Brewers Guild and some awesome breweries; North Park, the urban neighborhood well worth exploring for spots like Eppig Brewing; Vista with its local history-honoring Aztec Brewing Company; or El Cajon for its attention-grabbing Burning Beard; and so many more), but our last feature is aptly named Alpine Beer Company and its glorious, game-changing IPAs among other killer concoctions. Not only is the atmosphere woodsy, the faces are friendly, and the flavors heavenly.
Chittenden County, Vermont
Vermont has the highest number of craft breweries per capita (10.8 per 100,000 people of drinking age), some of which are the highest-rated in the country in polls like RateBeer.
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As local as it gets, Chittenden County native Joe Lemnah founded Burlington Beer Company in 2014 to high ratings and praise. Here you’ll find everything from pale ales to triple IPAs, as well as fruit beers, tarts, and myriad stouts. You know they’ve got their priorities in order at Goodwater Brewery, where, if their name is any indication, they understand that quality matters at every stage and ingredient.
The riches of Burlington would send any hophead into blow-away bliss. Winter BrewFest and Vermont Brewers Festival bring revelry and reverence, as local brewers serve up their impressive best. Don’t miss the goods at magic-makers like Foam Brewers. Try their Built to Spill Imperial IPA, which has an Outstanding rating from Beer Advocate, and holds notes of pineapple and citrus. Queen City Brewery brings a global perspective, and the revolving menu offers winning styles from Germany to Scotland to various American regionals. Switchback’s unfiltered beers are as unique as they get, and the employee-owned operation hosts events like Stretch & Sip Yoga and Music Fridays. Hold on to your hat at Zero Gravity Craft Brewery, which has two Burlington locations serving up “mountains of hops” in their Madonna IIPA. The brewery also encourages visitors to scale the local peak for which the beer is named, so bring your hiking boots. Game on.
Worthy brewers have popped up all around the county, and it would behoove wise beer lovers to take time to explore the scene. South Burlington has Magic Hat Brewing Company, with more than one delightful trick up its sleeve. Take its #9 Not Quite Pale Ale, with enigmatic ingredients they keep under wraps, it’s described as having a “mysterious and unusual palate.” They also offer tours of the Artifactory. We’re intrigued. Move on to Winooski’s Four Quarters, where the beers are closely tied to the cycles of the earth and moon, and are made from hand-foraged ingredients. Will their Space Face land you an other-worldly experience? There’s one way to find out. Other stand-outs include 1st Republic Brewing Co in Essex Junction, Hinesburg’s Frost Beer Works, and Fiddlehead Brewing in Shelburne.
Sonoma County, California
Nicknamed California’s Beer Country, Sonoma was home to what is widely considered the first modern craft brewery, New Albion Brewing Company, and the number of breweries has grown from 18 in 2013 to over 30 today.
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Not just for wine lovers, Sonoma County has become Northern California’s beer capital, and Russian River Brewing Company has done its fair share to put it on the map. Their Pliny the Elder has been voted the best beer in the country eight consecutive years per Zymurgy Magazine and holds a prestigious World-Class rating from Beer Advocate. It’s also Food & Wine magazines No. 10 most important craft beers ever made. Make your Santa Rosa sojourn a full beer tour with stops at Seismic Brewing Co., Fogbelt Brewing Company, Moonlight Brewing Company, and HenHouse Brewing Company. Festival-lovers should come for the NorCal Brew Fest, which features a competition for breweries around the country and tastings of over 50 beers and ciders; Battle of the Brews, which includes the coveted People’s Choice award; or Beer Fest-The Good One, which has been running for over 25 years, giving visitors and locals the chance to find their favorite new flavors.
Farm-style ales are front and center at Woodfour Brewing Company. Come Monday through Friday for happy hour, where you can sample Anduin Tripel, Morning Selfie Black Lager, or Bohemian Nectar Saison, among others, for $4 a pint. Crooked Goat Brewing started small, but is steadily gaining attention. Stop into their inviting tap room where you’ll find excellent food, great people, and an ever-changing tap list with must-haves like Nitro Silver Lining, First Crush raspberry wheat ale, or Mountain Goat IPA. Hang out at HopMonk Tavern’s beer garden for live music and sips of Napa Smith Amber or Moonlight Death and Taxes lager.
Guerneville is home to Stumptown Brewery. Specializing in small-batches, it hosts the annual Russian River Beer Revival and BBQ Cook Off. Food, music, beer, and sunshine: the makings of a perfect day. Hailing from Cloverdale, Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA has outstripped much of the competition in number of awards won, and the brewery has earned titles like Small Brewing Company and Brewmaster of the Year and honors from the Great American Beer Festival, the World Beer Cup, Good Food Awards, and the California State Fair. Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma needs no introduction, having moved to the big leagues when Heineken acquired them. Expert brews like their flagship IPA, Lagunitas NightTime, and DogTown Pale Ale helped them become one of the fastest growing breweries in recent history. Sonoma Springs Brewing Co. and Carneros Brewing Company in Sonoma offer proper tap rooms and beer gardens with countryside views. Cover as much ground as possible on a group or private tour with local experts On Tap Beer Tours.
Missoula County, Montana
Montana has the second-highest number of craft breweries per capita (8.96/100,000), and Montana beers are sold in 24 states and over 5,000 retailers.
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Great Northern Brewing Company has been producing high-quality beverages since 1995 in the gravity-flow tradition. The Wheatfish Ale, Good Medicine Strong Red Ale flagships, and seasonals like Alpenglow Belgian Tripel or Guy on a Buffalo Stout impress even the harshest critics, so keep an eye on this Montana treasure. Flying slightly under the radar, Bonsai Brewing Project is a small, welcoming brewery featuring trappists, blondes, IPAs, and nitro. Their dog-friendly patio is the perfect place to hang on a sunny day or warm evening.
Arguably the beer capital of Montana, Missoula is producing impressive suds at popular places such as Big Sky Brewing Company and KettleHouse Brewing Company. BeerAdvocate rated Big Sky’s Ivan the Terrible Imperial Stout the No. 1 beer in Montana, and they’ve got the perfect brew to ease you through any season. Let Powder Hound Winter Ale shelter you from the snowy storms, while Summer Honey can refresh sun-weary spirits. KettleHouse Brewing Company, which started as a home brewing enterprise in Colorado, is now a Missoula-based brewery that is the first modern Montana brewery to produce in cans. The impetus being that cans are easier to take on outdoor adventures. The newly opened KettleHouse Amphitheater is set to host live music and shows, so the reasons to visit just keep getting better.
Helena (Lewis and Clark County)
Montana sneaks in a caveat county, because Helena boasts some epically good breweries and is the headquarters of the Montana Brewers Association. Head to Blackfoot River Brewing Company’s tap room, where a daily lineup features favorites like the OPA (organic pale ale), Cream Ale, and Tartanic Scottish Ale. Lewis & Clark Brewing Company’s Miner’s Gold Hefeweizen won a 2017 GABF silver medal, and live music and events fill the tap room with good vibes and fun times throughout the year.
Where are your favorite American beers made?
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