By Jason Notte
Beer drinkers shouldn't limit craft beer to part of their vacation. With enough planning, those IPAs, Hefeweizens and Russian Imperial Stouts can be their vacation.
There are 2,000 craft breweries in the United States, according to the Brewers Association craft beer interest group. That means there's a great craft brewery waiting in just about every corner of the country. Think Montana's a desolate, dry place? You haven't tried a Big Sky IPA. Concerned about finding quality beer in Alaska? Taste an Alaskan Amber, Glacier BrewHouse Blonde or a Midnight Sun Sockeye Red IPA and fear no more.
There's a whole lot out there to start tasting, but not nearly enough space to fit it all. The following 10 destinations are by no means a definitive list, but they're some great spots for getting started. Let your palate guide you and let someone else do the driving:
Think this state's too small for a big craft beer presence? By the end of 2010, Vermont had 21 breweries for more than 625,000 residents -- the most breweries per capita of any state in the country.
Perhaps the most idyllic and unquestionably vermonty of the bunch is the Bridgewater Corners home of Long Trail Brewing. It sits along the junction of Vermont's routes 4 and 100A between Rutland and Woodstock amid rolling hills and rustic homes, town squares and farmhouses and lets guests sip its Blackberry Wheat, Double Bag strong ale and Belgian White witbier on a deck outside the brewery and brewpub overlooking the Ottauquechee River just behind the brewery.
From there, it's quick right turn onto Interstate 91 South and stop into Harpoon Brewery's Windsor facility for guided tours, a beer garden with outdoor views and live music and tall glasses of Raspberry or White UFO hefeweizen. Darker fare can be found just north on Route 7 in Middlebury during a minimalist tour and tasting at Otter Creek Brewery, where the Copper Ale, Solstice Ale, Stovepipe Porter and Wolaver's IPA and Witbiers steal the show.
If you're looking to limit your stops a bit, Burlington keeps things easy by clustering Magic Hat, Switchback Brewing, Three Needs Taproom and the Vermont Pub and Brewery within a short distance. That collection only gets broader in late July, when some of the state's more far-flung brewers, including Morrisville's Rock Art Brewery, Lyndonville's Trout River Brewing and Bennington's Madison and Northshire breweries descend on Burlington for the annual Vermont Brewers Festival. The real gems require some digging, though, as Hill Farmstead's fantastic Double Citra IPA requires a trek out to a sprawling farm in Greensboro Bend and a can of The Alchemist's brutally bitter Heady Topper Double IPA is best found just a bit down I-89 in Waterbury.
Colorado has fourth-largest collection of craft breweries in America behind Oregon, Washington and California and the fourth-most breweries per capita in the U.S., which makes finding a great one relatively easy.
Fort Collins makes a great base of operations thanks to breweries as bold as the Belgian-inspired Funkwerks and its Saison or the prolific Odell Brewing and its Woodcut oak-aged ales and sublime 90 Shilling Scottish ale. We'd be remiss if we didn't mention New Belgium Brewing, which has been cranking out tasty brews such as its Fat Tire Amber Ale and Ranger IPA for 20 years, but also hosts the Tour de Fat bike festival, Bike-In Cinema summer film series for cyclists and its Urban Assault Ride bicycle scavenger hunts.
It's all south from there, as Left Hand Brewery in Longmont has a tasting room teeming with taps of its signature Milk Stout, BlackJack Porter and Wake Up Dead Stout, while nearby Oskar Blues facilities crank out cans of Dale's Pale Ale and Old Chub Scottish on sites that include include a 50-acre farm, a brewpub and music venue called Oskar Blues Home Made Liquids and Solids and the Tasty Weasel Tap Room with live music, skee ball, small-batch brews and brewery tours.
From Longmont, it's decision time. Do beer lovers head south to Boulder for a one-city circuit of breweries including Asher Brewing, Boulder Beer, Mountain Sun, Upslope and heavy hitter Avery Brewing for its cans of White Rascal Witbier or Joe's American Pilsner? Do they head even farther down Interstate 25 to Denver for a Hercules Double IPA at Great Divide Brewing? Given the gorgeous views in each direction, it's tough to lose.
As we discovered firsthand, the Big 10 rivalry between Michigan and Wisconsin expands well beyond the football field.
The roughly 50-mile stretch between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo and its roughly eight to nine breweries (depending on the geographic leeway given by the person asked) constitute the heart of Michigan craft brewing, as do the two biggest breweries within it: Bell's and Founders.
Kalamazoo-based Bell's has become one of the Top 10 craft brewers in the country by volume, and its Oberon Pale Wheat Ale is a summer staple. Its brewery tour, Eccentric Cafe brewpub and live music venue and sponsorship of events, including the Ore to Shore mountain bike race after-party and Bayview Mackinac sailing race earlier this month, keep a visitor's attention once that first pint is gone.
Bell's has some friendly craft brewing neighbors in Battle Creek's Arcadia Brewing and Kalamazoo's Olde Peninsula Brewpub, but there's a bigger payoff about an hour north on Route 131 in Grand Rapids. Founder's Brewing has become as well known for high-powered concoctions such as its 12% alcohol by volume Devil Dancer Triple IPA and 7.2% ABV Centennial IPA as it has for its hard-to-find breakfast stouts that have a sad habit of disappearing from shelves as soon as they're stocked.
For greater extremes, however, beer lovers have to head to Holland, where New Holland Brewing has been experimenting with beers such as its oak barrel-aged Dragon's Milk strong ale, its barrel-soured Blue Sunday sour beer and its chile- and coffee-concocted El Mole Ocho. A bit east in Dexter and Ann Arbor, Jolly Pumpkin Brewing concocts Belgian-style brews such as the spicy Oro de Calabaza golden ale, Calabaza Blanca witbier, La Roja sour red and Bam Biere farmhouse ale while serving guests vegetable pizzas, thick burgers and pumpkin whoopie pies in the sidewalk seats or roof deck of its Main Street Ann Arbor brew pub.
There's no real tour to speak of and the Dexter outpost is really just a production facility, but a lakefront brewpub and restaurant in Traverse City puts guests close to North Peak Brewing, Right Brain Brewery and Traverse Brewing in Traverse City and the pub, deli and hyperlocal brews such as Pontius Road Pilsner and Bellaire Brown at Short's Brewing in Bellaire.
The Blue Ridge Mountains are a gorgeous destination unto themselves, but the Brew Ridge trail of breweries provides just a little added incentive.
The giant, cabin-style brewery of Nelson County's Devils Backbone Brewing in the middle of a sprawling field with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background is as fine a place as any to start. A gorgeous view of the valley and big stands of Cascade hops for tourist photos are nice and all, but its Gold Leaf Lager, Baltic Coffee brew and Danzig Porter are award-worthy.
Nearby in Crozet, former Charlottesville brewer Starr Hill Brewery found plenty of room to make its Lucy summer ale, its Festie lager and pumpkin porter among the mountains while still sponsoring shows at Charlottesville Pavillion and Jefferson Theater as well as its own FloydFest. The Home of Thomas Jefferson and the Dave Matthews Band still boasts South Street Brewery, and its live music and such laid-back brews as the hoppy Olde 420 Stout. Still, it's tough to compete with an outdoor patio at Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, shaded in arbor, featuring mountain and farm views in almost every direction and sheltering drinkers enjoying its Full Nelson Pale Ale, wee heavy, imperial pumpkin and barrel-aged chocolate cherry bourbon stout.
Washington has more breweries than neighboring Oregon and craft-centric Colorado and trails only California in overall numbers.
That leaves just enough room for everybody. The Craft Brewers Alliance's Red Hook Brewery used to call Seattle home, but sauntered off to Woodinville several years ago to brew more of its ESB, Copperhood and Wit while hosting host trivia nights in its brewpub, movies on its lawn and the occasional band. The other big brewer in town, North American Breweries' Seattle-based Pyramid Breweries, still has an alehouse in the shadow of Safeco Field and soothes suffering Mariners fans with its hefeweizen, apricot ale and Thunderhead IPA.
Tourists down that way who like what they see can head to Seattle's Pike Brewing and swap suds for Starbucks while taking in the sights and sounds of Pike Place Market. Just across the water is Maritime Pacific Brewing -- best known simply as Maritime -- and the dry-hopped Islander Pale Ale, Flagship Red or Black Porter in its Jolly Roger Taproom. That not only puts a beer lover in the middle of Seattle's funky Ballard neighborhood, but in striking distance of the Solstice tangerine flower ale and "Summer Is A State Of Mind" cask ale in the urban beer garden of Freemont Brewing. If the artists, coffee shops and Troll in Freemont leave you thirsting for more, head to the halfway point between Ballard and Freemont for a few pints of Kolsch, Troll Porter or Mongoose IPA at Hale's Ales, which provides side-by-side tastings of its own brews and beers of the same variety from around the world.
That's a lot of footwork, which is why we recommend letting a group such as Road Dogs Seattle Brewery Tour handle the minutiae while you plan ferry rides, hikes up Mount Rainier or orca-watching trips.