By Jason Notte
How beloved is the local brewpub as an American institution? So much that they're starting to be known as much for their food as their beer.
Brewpubs in this country have taken off in the past few decades since Prohibition largely destroyed brewpubs and taverns. That changed in 1992, when 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 gave early craft brewers a cheat sheet for getting their beer directly to drinkers without going through middlemen such as distributors, bars and liquor stores.
Last year, the number of brewers who made beer in their pub or restaurant grew by 60, to 1,063 nationwide. That's up from 1,020 in 2009 and made our recent look at the Top 10 brewpubs in America a tougher task than we realized. With beer lovers from nearly every state weighing in with stories from their local pubs, we decided to get back on the road and give the brewpub a broader look.
With brewers bringing in beer lovers and tourist dollars across the country, we consulted the wise editors and readers at beer rating sites BeerAdvocate and RateBeer for their take on the best American brewpubs. Using a secret blend of their ratings combined with our own travels, we've come up with a list of the best brewpubs in each state and Washington, D.C. While some states still have some catching up to do, places once known for their conservative beer habits are getting competitive with traditional beer states one beer flight and burger at a time:
While Alabama breweries such as Birmingham's Good People Brewing and Huntsville's Straight To Ale have great taprooms for sampling their wares, the state lacks a true brewpub. The state's Title 28 direct distribution law has a little something to do with that:
No manufacturer licensee shall sell any alcoholic beverages direct to any retailer or for consumption on the premises where sold, nor sell or deliver any such alcoholic beverages in other than original containers approved as to capacity by the board and in accordance with standards of fill prescribed by the U. S. Treasury Department, nor maintain or operate within the state any place or places, other than the place or places covered by the manufacturer license, where alcoholic beverages are sold or where orders are taken.
So long as that paragraph is in place, Alabama may as well be dry country for brewers who want to serve a burger or basket of chicken fingers with their beer.
Midnight Sun Brewing, Anchorage
Alaska loves itself some craft beer and Anchorage is where it showcases some of the best brews the state has to offer. You could spend a weekend pub crawling from Alaskan Brewing to Glacier Brewhouse to Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria to Snowgoose Restaurant and Pub before taking in a stout and a show at Bear Tooth Theatrepub. If you only have time for one brewpub, though, you'd best hit Midnight Sun for some cheddar-ale soup, pretzel sticks, ancho beef dip sandwiches, posoleMexican stew and great brews such as Sockeye Red IPA, Mammoth Extra Stout and its fall-favorite Treat imperial chocolate pumpkin porter.
Four Peaks Brewery, Tempe and Scottsdale
Arizona's developing quite a brewing culture of its own behind joints such as Tuscon mega beer bar and nanobrewery 1702, but Four Peaks Brewery's Kilt Lifter Scottish Ale, Hop Knot IPA and 8th Street Pale Ale still lead the pack. While they're each great draws to the brewpub in Tempe and the grill and tap in Scottsdale, menu items such as the jalapeno-and-cream-cheese-laden Popper Burger; chicken, beef and portabella mushroom sandwiches served on house-made beer bread; and tiramisu made with oatmeal stout would make a formidable brewpub in any state.
Vino's Brewpub, Little Rock
It's tough enough to pick a favorite brewpub in a state that has only four to its credit, but it's even tougher when two are in the same town. Tennesee-based Bosco's Restaurant and Brewing deserves credit for making brews specific to its Little Rock brewpub such as its Flaming Stone German-style steinbier, its hop-heavy Bombay IPA and the subtle Isle of Skye Scottish ale, but Vino's appeal is broader than just beer. While its Pinnacle IPA, Lazyboy Stout, Rainbow Wheat hefeweizen and Razor Bock are all strong selections, the pizza joint/indie rock club vibe helped make it a Little Rock staple.
Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa
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.
Oskar Blues, Longmont and Lyons
There are too many great breweries and brewpubs in Colorado to list, but on visitor experience alone Oskar Blues has them all beat. Back in 2002, Oskar Blues became the first craft brewer to can its beers when it started sealing up its Dale's Pale Ale and Old Chub Scottish ale at its brewery in Lyons. Since then, the operations have expanded to include a 50-acre farm, a brewpub and music venue in Longmont called Oskar Blues Home Made Liquids and Solids (with a giant replica can out front and Tasty Weasel Tap Room with live music, skee ball, small-batch brews and brewery tours). Lyons hasn't been left out, as the Oskar Blues Grill & Brew brewpub and live music venue still calls it home and the Old Chubway quick-serve eatery adds some fast-food flavor to the slow-drinking enjoyment of its beers.
Willimantic Brewing and Main Street Cafe, Willimantic
Long one of Connecticut's best kept secrets, Willimantic Brewing is now taking reservations for servings of its brewers bread bruschetta, beer-battered fish and chips and beer tap beef sandwich. They all rate a very distant second to Willimantic brews such as the heavily grapefruit-flavored V.E.G. IPA, mild 4.7% alcohol by volume Three Cents session ale and the extremely potent Dyvil Hopyard Double IPA. The brewery even makes its own Kombucha, which is great for tea lovers in need of a cleanse but may be the last weird straw for visitors freaked out by the town's boombox parade, local currency and bridges adorned with thread spools and frogs.
Dogfish Head Brewing and Eats, Rehoboth Beach
This isn't much of a contest for a small state with only a handful of brewpubs. Dogfish Head got its start at this brewpub in 1995 and makes house vodka, rum and gin in the state's only legal distillery in a room upstairs. Most visitors come to get their hands on Dogfish favorites such as the Burton Baton English strong ale, Namaste witbier and 120 Minute IPA or brewpub-only batches including the Palo Santo Ahumado London-style porter or Tahkoku nut brown ale. They come back because of surprisingly good menu items such as the onion-ring-topped Indulgence Burger, wood-oven pizzas topped with IPA-poached tomatoes or the pub's showcase appetizer, The Dogpile: a mound of pita wedges topped with spinach-and-artichoke dip, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and onions.
District ChopHouse & Brewery, Washington D.C.
If you're looking to schmooze a senator or dine your way to a defense contract and your only go-to spots for great beer are the Brickskellar and the Dubliner Pub, your beer info could use a few decades' worth of updating. The District ChopHouse combines two business-dinner favorites -- huge cuts of meat and strong drink -- in a venue that's much more steakhouse than brewhouse. Still, if you're going to make a beer great enough to compete with scotch and whiskey, this is the place to do it. The ChopHouse wisely ages some of its best beers in bourbon barrels, which makes its Bourbon Stout, Bourbon Russian Imperial Stout and Bourbon Barley Wine nice complements to a Delmonico or porterhouse.
Peg's Cantina, Gulfport
Some reasons for the greatness of Peg's Cantina: It 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, 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.
The Wrecking Bar, Atlanta
Located in the historic Victor H. Kriegshaber House, the Wrecking Bar was a Victorian home, a Methodist Church, a dance school and antiques shop before Bob and Kristine Sandage turned its basement into arguably the best brewpub in the state. The pub grub such as hefeweizen-steamed mussels, beer-and-cheddar soup, chicken bratwurst with house apple cider kraut and hand-cut fries with dipping sauce are fine, but the beer holds up well on its own. After a quick brewery tour, take some time to sample the "Jemmy Dean" Breakfast Stout, Piper Down 70 Shilling Scottish Ale and the grotesquely named Stifler's Cream Ale.
Kona Brewing, Kailua Kona
Hawaii's built up more than its share of craft breweries and brewpubs, but tourists still have to get away from Oahu to find the best on the islands. Kona Brewing got its start in 1998 and has stuck to the same relatively small town on the west side of the big island. While folks on the mainland have been getting a taste of Kona's Longboard Lager, Pipeline Porter and Wailua Wheat courtesy of the Craft Brewers Alliance and its distribution deal with Anheuser-Busch InBev, brews such as Duke's Blonde Ale, Hula Hefeweizen and Castaway IPA are available only on Kona's taps. While the brewery does have a small pub on Oahu, the 2,000-square-foot outdoor lanai in Kailua Kona is perhaps the best place to enjoy the scenery, a pork sandwich, some fish tacos and a Lava Man Red Ale.
Salmon River Brewery, McCall
Whether you're visiting in the summer or fall for a dip in Payette Lake and a hike around Ponderosa State Park or in winter to hit the slopes, Salmon River should be any beer lover's last stop after a day in McCall. This small, lodge-style spot by the Salmon River gives tourists plenty of live music, happy hour specials and elk burgers to liven up their trip, but bold rotating brews such as the 6.2% ABV Chunder Chocolate Stout, 7.5% ABV Big Double IPA and 9.1% ABV Terra Incognita Barley Wine make them stick around a while -- if only to work them off. Even if none of those are on tap, flagship beers such as the Buzz Buzz Coffee Porter used in the brewpub's chocolate cake are consistent favorites among locals and newcomers alike.
Revolution Brewing, Chicago
A tough call in a city that's also home to Goose Island, Local Option and Haymarket Pub and Brewery and a state that's produced heavy hitters such as Lunar Brewing in Villa Park and Flossmoor Station in Flossmoor, but this Logan Square brewpub is destination dining and drinking. Beer lovers who etch Wrigley Field or Millennium Park onto their Chicago itinerary would do well to also seek out solid selections such as the hoppy Iron Fist American Pale Ale, its even more pungent Anti-Hero IPA and the heavy, smoky 7% ABV Eugene porter. The menu's no slouch, either, with selections ranging from bacon fat popcorn and wild boar meatball appetizers to pork belly and egg sandwiches and pale ale-battered fish and chips.
Three Floyds Brewing & Brewpub, Muenster, Ind.
Though Indianapolis has built a strong brewing culture of its own thanks to brewpubs such as Triton and Sun King, Three Floyds is where the Indiana brewing and brewpub discussion begins and ends. The tattoo-style artwork on the bottles, the creative and potent brews such as its Alpha King American Pale Ale, Gumballhead wheat beer and Robert The Bruce Scottish ale and the absolute frenzy and lines for the release of its Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout each April (on a day more commonly known as Dark Lord Day) give beer pilgrims more than enough reason to visit the brewpub. When the facility is as small and packed as Three Floyds tends to be, though, vittles such as barbecue jerky, beer-and-meat pairings and Moloko milk stout ice cream help quell the madding crowds a bit.
Court Avenue Brewing, Des Moines
Here's the problem with Iowa: Most of its best breweries either don't have a brewpub, brew their pub's beer offsite or are part of the Rock Bottom and Granite City chains. Court Avenue is one of the few exceptions and makes the most of it by turning its spent grain into pretzels, brewing root and ginger beer for nondrinkers and kids and labeling each of its brews with labels used by Iowa brewers beforeProhibition. The brewpub's "Root Down" root beer and Jaegermeister drinks are a bit ominous, but batches such as the 6.7% ABV 21st Amendment American Pale Ale, the citrusy 6.6% ABV Honest Lawyer IPA and malty, mellow brews such as Pointer Brown Ale and Blackhawk Stout flow freely from the gavel-handled taps during happy hour and out of casks on Monday's "Firkin Steak Night."
Free State Brewing, Lawrence
To give you some idea of just how difficult it's been to be a brewer in Kansas, Free State was the only legal brewery in the state when it opened in 1989 and still doesn't have the right to distribute its own beer. Even if it did, it would be reduced to "low-point" 4% ABV beer in supermarkets. Though great breweries such as Manhattan, Kan.-based canned beer kings Tallgrass followed, Free State is still the only brewer around that's run a brewpub successfully for any length of time. Specialties such as peach brie bruschetta, artichoke tomato tortellini and avocado chimichurri make it a pleasant lunch or dinner stop, but house brews such as the Castle Rock Rye and Konza Prairie Kolch and old favorites such as Oatmeal Stout and Wheat State Golden have made regulars out of University of Kansas parents, alumni and fans.
Crescent City Brewhouse, New Orleans
Louisiana doesn't offer a whole lot of breweries beyond Abita, Dixie and Heiner Brau and can count its brewpubs on one hand and still have enough digits left over to pinch a beer bottle. Of the brewpubs it has, Crescent City is the only one that isn't part of a chain. Its founder and brewmaster, Wolfram Kohler, brews its altbier, pilsners, hefeweizen, Black Forest Munich Dunkel Lager and Voodoo Bock in strict accordance with the Reinheitsgebot German beer purity law that allows only water, malt, hops and yeast as ingredients. That's about as serious as this spot gets, though, as its Cajun meatpies, seafood andouille gumbo, shrimp po' boys, crawfish etouffee and jambalaya blend with live jazz into an atmosphere befitting its French Quarter location.
Marshall Wharf Brewing/Three Tides, Belfast
There are a whole lot of breweries clustered around Portland's still-growing beer scene, but Marshall Wharf stands apart in distance and quality. A relatively small brewery that serves as the house brewery for the waterfront restaurant Three Tides, Marshall Wharf has 17 of its homegrown brews on tap at any time and mixes in high-potency experimental brews such as the 11.2% ABV T2-R9 Barleywine and 10% ABV Cant Dog Imperial IPA with sunset sippers such as the Pinchy 3% ABV session ale and 6.1% ABV Pemaquid Oyster Stout -- brewed with 10 dozen live oysters. Three Tides' Pemaquid Oysters, rope-grown mussels and Maine crabmeat quesadillas are serviceable enough, but Marshall Wharf's beers keep regulars coming back once the Vacationland tourists have gone.
The Brewer's Art, Baltimore
This may be the only establishment on this list that could consider the brewpub moniker an insult. Located in a Mount Vernon townhouse, The Brewer's Art has beer in its name but uses it as just one element in its larger culinary experience. Bar bites including sausage platters, crab dip, garlic fries and burgers and chili dogs are kid's table fare compared with the restaurant's pork belly, kung pao sweetbread and ceviche appetizers and Korean-style shortrib, ratatouille polenta and steak frites entrees. That doesn't mean it's skimping on the beers, though. Despite competing with a menu of whiskies, ports and guest beers, brews such as its 7.25% ABV Ozzy Belgian strong ale, 7% Resurrection abbey brown ale and Wit Trash 4% ABV wheat beer are stronger Maryland mainstays than crab cakes and football.
Cape Ann Brewing, Gloucester
This state loves itself a pedantic argument, and a back-and-forth over the best brewpub would contain more sentences beginning with "Actually ..." than any esoteric discussion you'd hear in a Cambridge bar. Think the best brewpubs are the Cambridge Brewing or the Beer Works and John Harvard chains in the Boston area? Actually, the People's Pint in Central Massachusetts has far more local cultural cred with its Irish and Quebecois session music nights. Actually, the Offshore Brewing and Cisco Brewers bars and brewpubs on the islands are more aesthetically pleasant and brew closer to home. Actually ... Cape Ann Brewing beats them by offering a great view of the fishing boats coming in and out of Gloucester harbor from its back windows and deck, local bands and trivia nights and a slate of great brews such as the Fisherman's Ale Kolsch, Fisherman's Navigator Doppel-bock and Fisherman's Pumpkin Stout. Combined with the local flavor of fried haddock, clams, oysters, scallops, shrimp and calamari and a "bomb" sandwich of steak and Portuguese sausage, Cape Ann's beers and view score big points for Bay State authenticity.
Shorts Brewing, Bellaire
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 such as 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.
Fitger's Brewhouse, Duluth
Up on the north shore of Lake Superior, Fitger's has been pouring since 1995 and has held true to its north country roots. Its Elk burgers are made with elk meat from a ranch in nearby Moose Lake. Its Blueberry Manilow wheat ale is infused with 450 pounds of Bayfield blueberries. It still hosts local acts and a Monday open mic on its stage and sponsors its own curling, softball, bike and ski teams as well as a local triathlon. All of those elements have made it beloved in its home state, but they're just perks for visitors taken in by the Hatch chilies, ghost peppers and cherries in its Daughter of Wildfire pale ale or the smooth subtlety of its Witchtree ESB English pale ale on its nitrogen tap.
Keg and Barrel/Southern Prohibition Brewery, Hattiesburg
Back in 2010, the Brewers Association noted that Mississippi had just two breweries for its nearly 3 million residents. That was the largest capita per brewery in the United States, spurred on by strict Mississippi beer laws that prevented not only home brewing, but brewers such as Lazy Magnolia -- Mississippi's only full-scale brewery -- from brewing beers stronger than 6% ABV, producing too much of it or letting people taste it at the brewing site. Though home brewing is still illegal here, Mississippi tweaked its beer laws on July 1 and let its only brewpub, Keg and Barrel, open its taps to stronger brews. With more than 30 taps, all-day breakfast including chicken and waffles, screen time for international soccer matches and a nanobrewery in an adjacent facility that they're looking to expand into a full operation, Keg and Barrel makes a lot of effort despite a distinct lack of competition. The home brews such as the smooth, chocolate Oatmeal Stout and the spicy Chili Beer would be contenders even if there were more than a handful of beer producers in the state.
Urban Chestnut Brewing, St. Louis
Anheuser-Busch's sale to InBev 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 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 such as his refreshing Snickelfritz Hefeweissen are what make this a standout brewpub in a strong beer town.
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