My Favorite Beer Cities

Another one I never got around to posting because sometimes life gets in the way:

Stephen Beaumont wrote a post a while back on his World of Beer site that “there is no such thing as a “best beer city””, his point being that the enjoyment of beer relies as much upon atmosphere, situation, and history as much as the overall beer and brewery selection in any given city. I kind of agree with him, despite the fact that I called Portland, Oregon America’s best beer city in a previous post. But this is highly subjective, admittedly, and so I thought maybe I’d just list my favorite beer cities, and why I enjoy them as much as I do, without trying to decide which is best, because I like them all for different reasons.

I did not list any cities I haven’t been to, so if a great beer city is not on the list, that would probably be why. So here they are, in no particular order, and special thanks to Stone’s Brewery Reps in each of these towns, because they are the ones that always show me what’s new:

Portland, Oregon: Nowhere I’ve been is craft beer as pervasive as I’ve seen in Portland, OR. I go to Portland about once a year, and every time I go, I get to visit many new craft beer bars or breweries. There is always something new and incredible. And craft beer is literally everywhere, it’s harder to find a restaurant or bar that doesn’t serve craft beer than it is to find one that does. Portland has a great craft brewing tradition, one of the pioneering towns of the modern day craft beer movement, so it is full of 30 year “tradition” and also some groundbreaking innovation. The Craft Brewers Conference will be in Portland in 2015, and I think we’re cooking up some big activities while we are there. Cannot wait for this.

San Diego, CA: Okay, I’m a homie now, after 8+ years of being here. There are currently over 80 craft breweries in San Diego County, and the beer scene is amazingly innovative and vibrant. There’s a beer style for everyone here. If you want a lager, an English Ale, a sour beer, or a west coast IPA, you can find excellent examples of all of these being brewed within miles of each other. I’m proud to be part of the beer community here, I just wish I lived a little closer to San Diego itself and all the great beer bars there, like Hamilton’s, Blind Lady, Small Bar and Toronado just east of downtown, and The Neighborhood and The Local in downtown. I just read that the ~20 mile stretch along Highway 78 from Escondido to Oceanside is home to something like 30 breweries! My favorite place to get a beer and a meal in the San Diego area is URGE Gastropub in Rancho Bernardo, in between San Diego and Escondido.

Cleveland, OH: I’ve traveled for Stone a few times to Cleveland OH, and always have a great time. There is a hard-core craft scene here, while it might not be as big as the scene is in some other cities, it is passionate, down to earth, and intense. There are some great breweries in Cleveland, including Fat Heads, Market Garden, and Great Lakes, and the city’s residents have really embraced Stone, which always makes a visit fun. I love the restaurants in Cleveland also, not only are there several Michael Symon restaurants, there are places like Melt and Winking Lizard that serve lots and lots of craft beer, and have delicious comfort food with generous portion sizes. Lilly’s handmade chocolates is not only a craft beer bottle shop, but they make incredible chocolates, many of them made with beer. The home brewing scene is big also. Plus it’s also home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so it scores double for me.

San Francisco Bay Area: Will always have a spot in my heart. I grew up in the Bay Area, and got my first brewing job here. The brewing scene is widespread here, so like most people, I tend to lump many Northern California breweries together as part of the SF Beer scene. I love the breweries here, the ones I knew in the 80’s when I first started brewing, like Anchor, Triple Rock, Sierra Nevada and Drakes, and the great ones that have come since I left, like 21st Amendment, Faction, Russian River, Bear Republic, and Lagunitas. The Bay Area is home to The Brewing Network, and a bunch of great craft beer bars, and is also home to some of my closest friends in the business. My only gripe about the area is that there are still some craft beer deserts-like the San Jose area and the Diablo Valley, though they are getting better. The East Bay is home to me, but I just wish craft beer would take off in my hometown, Walnut Creek. Ol is a good start, but come on! At least Concord “gets it”, kind of. But like people say when I visit the East Bay and ask where I should go:   “you need to drive through the Caldecott tunnel or take BART to get to a great beer place”.

Denver: I lived in Colorado for 3 years, and absolutely loved it. Denver is a cool town, the LoDo area was just taking off when we lived there. The brewing scene in Colorado is legendary, with breweries like Wynkoop and Breckenridge, and there are exciting new brewers popping up all the time. It’s a fun town to visit, which I get to do just about every year when I go out for the Great American Beer Festival. Falling Rock is the legendary beer bar, and is so packed post GABF sessions that I usually end up going somewhere else. But I love to go there in quieter times. My favorite place in Denver: Euclid Hall, a craft beer centric German-inspired gastropub. But downtown is just loaded with great brewers and great beer bars, all pretty much walking distance from each other. When I lived in Colorado, I was in Ft. Collins, and that town is simply amazing, with brewers like Odell and New Belgium, and several others that have opened since I left.

Seattle: Seattle’s scene is legendary as well, and every time I go there-which is on a pretty regular basis because of its proximity to Yakima (where almost all our hops are grown)- there always seems to be a new brewery that is creating a lot of buzz. I like the old standbys, like Pike and Elysian, and love Brouwer’s Cafe, which always has amazing Belgian beer selections. I’m looking forward to trying Toronado next time I’m there, which will be soon.

Philadelphia: I have to admit, I have a hard time figuring out Philly’s beer scene. Not that it isn’t great, but it is a bit unusual in that it seems to be dominated by beer bars and restaurants as opposed to breweries. There are some great breweries in the area, like Victory, Yards and the Iron Hill pub chain that wins so many awards at the GABF every year, but when I go to Philadelphia, I usually end up in a Belgian beer bar-there are several awesome ones in the town. Monk’s is the “must-visit” place in Philadelphia. But Eulogy Belgian Tavern is also great, and I’ve also enjoyed the times I’ve visited the Belgian Cafe, Tria Cafe, and Jose Pistolas.

Asheville: I went to Asheville twice in 2013, and there aren’t words to describe how cool the brewing scene is there. For a town of 80,000+ people, it certainly has a lot of really good breweries and beer bars, and I can see going there a LOT in my future. Wicked Weed Brewing, The Thirsty Monk, and Jack of The Wood are all great places to hang out. I have told my wife more than once that I want to retire there. It’s beautiful, the people are friendly and kind, and the beer is great. Can’t really beat that, can you?

Boston: I lived in the Boston area for 6 years while working for Anheuser-Busch, and the beer scene at the time was pretty much dominated by Sam Adams and Harpoon. I became friends with many of New England’s craft brewers while I lived there and active in the New England District of the Master Brewers Association. I think New England’s craft beer presence was clouded a bit in the early days by the rampant use of Ringwood yeast, but there are many amazing beers there now. I love New England and would move back in a heartbeat if Stone were to move their headquarters there (yeah, right. Probably not going to happen). If you include Maine and Vermont as part of the overall scene, you get some world-class craft brewers like The Alchemist and Allagash added to the mix.  If I had to name a “best beer state”, Vermont might be at the top of my list.

Burlington VT: Simply one of my favorite towns. It’s beautiful, and has a great vibe, and good beer. Not only are there several world-class breweries within the town limits, it’s also just a short distance away from brewers likeThe Alchemist, Hill Farmstead, Otter Creek, and so many other great Vermont Breweries. I wouldn’t mind retiring here either, if I can still deal with the cold and snow by the time I get to be retirement age.

St. Louis: I lived 5 years in St. Louis, and of course, Budweiser was king there when I lived there. But I went back last year for the first time in about 7 years, and was excited to find a vibrant craft scene, that includes the great Schlafly beer, and also newer brewers like 4 Hands and Urban Chestnut.  The town will always be beer centric, and it’s great to see people embrace craft beer since the sale of Anheuser-Busch to Inbev.

Austin: Like most people, I tend to think of music first when I think of Austin, but the beer scene is really great. I wrote a lot about the town in a previous post, but there are great craft beer bars and restaurants all over town. And yes, 6th Street, where a lot of the music is, is a bit of a craft beer desert, but you can find good beer if you look hard enough, and on the perimeter of 6th street are some great craft beer places, like Easy Tiger and Star Bar

Temecula:  This is my hometown, and I have to admit, I didn’t like it much when I first moved here over 8 years ago. It was chain restaurant hell, but in the past several years it has became home to some great gastropubs, like The Public House and Sorrel, and there are a bunch of breweries that have opened on the west side of town. Black Market opened a few years ago, was really the first brewery here after Vinnie Cilurzo’s Blind Pig Brewery closed, and they brewed a great Hefeweizen and GABF winning Rye IPA when they first opened up. Since Black Market, several breweries have also opened, owned by really super people who are brewing great beer. The list of brewers in Temecula now includes Black Market, Iron Fire, Refuge, Aftershock, Wiens and Garage Brewing. Many of these breweries sell much of their beer out of their tasting rooms, and are within either walking distance from each other or just a short drive, so a safe brewery crawl is always fun and safe to do on a weekend. Riverside County and Los Angeles are no slouches either when it comes to craft brewing-there are some great breweries that have opened up across the region, and some of my favorite beer bars, like 38 Degrees, Blue Palms, Najas, Haven, Lucky Baldwin’s, Congergation Ale House, and Mohawk Bend are located near LA.

London: I’ve been so fortunate to have been able to travel to London about 6 times in the last 5 years. I love the city, and I love the pub scene in England. Some of my favorite stops in London: The Fuller’s Brewery is still amazing after all these years, and some of the newer craft breweries, like The Kernel and Beavertown are brewing really exciting beers. Meantime in Greenwich does a great job brewing both German style beers and historically influenced English Ales. There are some really great craft beer pubs around London too, including The Rake in the Borough market area, The Craft Beer Co. in Clerkenwell, and the Euston Tap, just outside the Euston train station.

Montreal: Fortunately, I got to Montreal twice when I lived in new Hampshire. It’s a great beer town full of Belgian influenced brewers. I have very fond memories of doing an all day walking brewery/pub crawl with several friends from the Brew For or Die homebrew club. And our Unibroue stop was epic. I’ll never forget going into an Irish pub on St. Catherine Street and hearing an Irish band play Metallica.

Brussels: I’ve only been to Brussels once, and for the best reason: to visit Cantillon. Steve Wagner and I stopped there for a night during one of our trips to London. Jean Van Roy was very generous with his time and his sampling when we told him where we were from. And in the town center, there are the world famous beer bars like Delirium Tremens. The Belga Queen was one of the best dinner experiences I have ever had. Boon Gueze on cask–all night.

Grand Rapids, MI: Made my first visit to Grand Rapids for the American Homebrewers Conference in June, and it’s really a very cool beer town. Founders is right there-their beers are fantastic, and their restaurant serves great sandwiches. Walking distance from Founders is Hop Cat and several other great beer spots. And Brewery Vivant was a fun last minute stop-they are killing it. Lots of really great places. And nearby, Kalamazoo (home to Bell’s) and Ann Arbor-Home to Ashley’s and close to Jolly Pumpkin, are no slouches either!

Now that Stone is working on opening up breweries in Berlin and in a location TBD on the East Coast, I am looking forward to expanding my knowledge of the world’s great beer towns.

 

5 thoughts on “My Favorite Beer Cities

  1. Danno

    Next time you’re in London, a couple of railway arches down from The Kernel is Brew by Numbers (BBno), who make some really excellent saisons (Motueka and Lime, Wai-iti and Lemon) amongst other excellent beers.

    1. mitchsteele Post author

      After we visited the Kernel last September, we were walking back to The Rake, and came across Brew By Numbers-they had just opened and had 2 beers pouring I think. Anyway as our large group of Americans walked past, someone said-“hey, that looks like a brewery” so we popped in and had a great time!

  2. Eric Branchaud

    I was initially surprised that the “other” Portland (Maine) wasn’t listed, especially given your history in new England, until I caught the Ringwood comment. I guess I’m not the only one who doesn’t like butter in his pumpkin pie.

  3. Flatulent Fox

    Philly: all the great brewpubs are outside of the city. Tired Hands, Earth Bread + Brewery, Forest and Main, Barren Hill, the Vault. However, some of the best beer bars in the world are in town. And no, I’m not talking about Monk’s — their holier-than-thou schtick gets old, fast, if you’re not a tourist. Much better places to drink around town… even their sister spot, the Belgian Cafe, is worlds more friendly to visit. Stopped giving my money to Monks years ago and never looked back.

    Grand Rapids: Brewery Vivant was a HUGE disappointment. Everything had the same fermentation character, vaguely Belgian-y at best. Neat dining room, though. I had Belgian styles that were a million times better at Storm Cloud on the Lake Michigan coast. Founders hits it out of the park, but of course that’s no surprise. But head a few hours north to Traverse City and you’ll find an incredibly vibrant beer scene (plus tons of great cider too!).

    Burlington: skip Vermont Pub (which pretty much sucks these days) and spend your time @ Zero Gravity instead.

    Portland: my poor, poor liver has never been the same. And Bend is also a must-stop when in OR.

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