NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- The toughest part of selling craft beer is getting a drinker to try it, which is how flipping burgers and rolling burritos became as essential for craft brewers as dry hopping and lagering.
The beer industry ballooned to nearly 2,000 breweries by the end of last year, according to the Brewers Association craft beer industry group. That growing community also includes 1,063 brewpubs nationwide, which is up from 1,020 in 2009 and includes nearly 60 brewpubs added last year alone.
That's not too shabby for a tool brewers began using only 30 years ago. Prohibition knocked out American brewpubs and brewing taverns that dated back to the Colonial era, but early craft brewers saw them as a means of getting their beer directly to the drinker without going through middlemen such as distributors, bars and liquor stores. In 1992, Scottish import Bert Grant opened Grant's Brewery Pub in a train depot in Yakima, Wash., to brew and promote his pale ale, IPA and Scottish Ale. Though it closed in 2005, Grant's brewpub left a business model and legacy that's become as synonymous with craft beer as high alcohol volume and mounds of hops.
With brewers in every corner of America wooing beer lovers into their brewpubs and American cities pointing tourists directly to those pubs to show off their local flavor, finding the best brewpub for your buck can be a tough task. The editors and readers at beer rating site RateBeer have weighed in on all America's brewpubs and have ranked them by beer selection, food, service, value and ambience. We looked at their list, eliminated redundancies from certain states and came up with the Top 10 brewpubs America has to offer. RateBeer was as thorough as possible, but feel free to hit the comments field if your favorite is missing:
The weird little town seemingly built on Shiner Bock empties knows its beer. The Draught House soaks the city's broad beer palate with 75 taps, including a handful of house brews such as the sessionable 3.9% ABV Guy Smiley mild ale and citrusy Sunburst pale ale. The other dozen or so handles are a who's who of Texas, Midwest and West Coast brews with a smattering of Northeast and Euro beers thrown in for good measure. The five-item menu of pizza, calzones, nachos, quesadillas and chips and salsa aren't exactly overwhelming, but they're more than adequate when paired with weekly specials such as $2.75 themed pints and free bratwurst.
9. American Flatbread Burlington Hearth
RateBeer ranked Vermont brewer The Alchemist's brewpub ahead of this Burlington favorite, but Hurricane Irene destroyed that spot last year by flooding Alchemist's unfortunately named home of Waterbury, Vt., with tap-high water. American Flatbread is a worthy, if far-flung, substitute that offers 22 taps including two casks and more than a dozen homebrews. Combine those with a two-page menu of namesake flatbread pizzas loaded with locally produced and organically grown toppings and you have the brewpub embodiment of Burlington's laid-back, hyperlocal culture.
What happens when you take a couple of workers from the New Belgium brewery in Colorado and drop them in Central Pennsylvania? You suddenly have some of the best beer on the East Coast in a location usually frequented only by Susquehana University students and alums. Selin's Grove's 12 taps are all reserved for home-grown brews including an IPA that can hang with any of its Colorado competitors. The pub menu's small, but locally produced bread, soft pretzels, salsa and cheeses are great complements to the palate-tickling Wee Heavy Scottish Ale, River Rat Tripel and Shade Mountain Oatmeal Stout.
No website, no fancypants online menu, no worries. In the state that birthed brewpubs and has plenty within its borders, this joint on the Columbia River is beloved by river walkers, Multnomah Falls hikers and other ecotourists in Washington and Oregon alike. The pub's pulled pork nachos, Cuban sandwiches and pizza sit perfectly after hiking the Columbia River Gorge, but steelhead salmon tacos and salads shouldn't be missed if you're serious about your Pacific Northwest tourism. The brewpub's IPA and various American pale ales are worthy choices from the 10-tap rotation, but the big draws are the hop-packed Homo Erectus imperial IPA and the Black Cherry Stout. At 9% and 7.2% ABV, respectively, they're perhaps best enjoyed as part of a sampler.
St. Louis, Mo.
Anheuser-Busch's sale to
a few years back was a big blow for St. Louis. How the city and its brewers responded helped make St. Louis a burgeoning craft beer powerhouse. Urban Chestnut's brewmaster Florian Kuplent built his resume by apprenticing at Bavarian breweries, brewing throughout Germany, England and Belgium, hooking on with New England craft brewers and eventually creating a line of craft-style beers for A-B's Michelob brand. When he finished at A-B, he started Urban Chestnut to meld the traditional beers he'd studied with the envelope-pushing beers he'd helped craft. His brewpub's brats, pretzel rolls, sausages and cheeses are lovely and all, but 15 taps of "Revolution Series" beers such as Kuplent's hoppy STLIPA double IPA and "Reverence Series" beers including his refreshing Snickelfritz Hefeweissen are what make this a standout brewpub in a strong beer town.
It's hard to pick any of Oregon's myriad brewpubs and say definitively it's better than all the others. RateBeer's long-form list put Cascade up front, but also included Cascade's Portland neighbor
Deschutes Brewery & Public House
and Pacific City's
. What sets Cascade apart? Sour and barrel-aged beers, and lots of them. Cascade's Elderberry, Strawberry and The Vine grape sours sips like wine, while barrel-aged fruit beers and bourbon-barrel-held "bourbonic" blueberry and cherry beers turn up the heat. The rotating cheese, charcuterie, fruit compote, tapenade and soup selections and full lines of more standard IPAs, saisons, porters and other beers round out the experience, but it's the barrels that keep adventurous beer lovers coming back.
Don't doubt the pull of Ohio's brewpubs.
in Zanesville and
in Strongsville all made RateBeer's list, but Buckeye Beer Engine's 28 taps bested them all. Unlike its upmarket competitors, however, Buckeye isn't afraid to mix high-minded cask ales such as its Aquarius Imperial IPA with a Belgian Strong Ale called Nighty Night, a half-pound burger and pretzel-wrapped hot dog special or an Ohio State game. They'll even knock two bucks off the price of your burger on Mondays if you bike in.
In a notoriously tough beer state packed with favorites such as Founders, Dark Horse, Jolly Pumpkin, Bells and Kuhnhenn, the 20 taps at Shorts more than hold their own. All the way up near the top of the mitten in Bellaire, Shorts goes big on beers including the puckeringly bitter Huma Lupa IPA and bourbon-barrel-aged Black Cherry Porter. In true Michigan fashion, Shorts pairs these crafted gems not with burgers and burritos from the grill, but with turkey, ham, bacon, roast beef or pastrami sandwiches from its deli. Catch all of that on a night when there's live music and it's as perfect a Michigan brewpub experience as you'll find.
Santa Rosa, Calif.
There's almost no way to get the California brewpub call right, especially when Russian River, Stone, Alpine and Pizza Port are all within state lines. Russian River breaks this tie pretty easily by giving the beer geeks what they want: Some of the best, most sought-after beers on the planet. Its Pliny The Elder double IPA and Supplication and Consecration sour beers are hoarded by beer lovers and used as pawns in multistate trades. Pliny The Elder is regularly considered one of the best beers in the world. At Russian River, they're what's on tap as guest devour chicken wings, meatball sandwiches, pizza and calzones and watch local bands. It's like finding a 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild at
Buffalo Wild Wings
: Jarring, but welcome.
This is the part where the haters come out of the woodwork and hurl empty Oskar Blues cans at their screens, demanding to know how a craft beer dilettante state such as Florida beats out California, Colorado, Michigan and the Pacific Northwest for best brewpub. Well, No. 1, it's in Florida and has outdoor seating on porches and under trees out front that can be used for most of the year. No. 2, its Mexican/Gulf Coast hybrid menu featuring lump blue crab quesadillas, shrimp burritos and tuna tacos is one of the most fun and imaginative of any of its buttoned-up brewpub counterparts. No. 3 (and perhaps the most compelling reason of all), brewer Doug Dozark is also brew manager at Tampa's powerhouse Cigar City Brewing and keeps Peg's nine taps flowing with gems such as his rare, whiskey-barrel-aged Doug's Original Stout. With owners committed to using native plants, fair-trade ingredients and so little plastic that they shun credit cards and a brewer who was already making the best craft beer in Florida, Peg's Cantina would be a prize in any state. In Florida, it's a bonus.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.