It wasn't long ago that the American beer market was dominated by a handful of factory-produced brews that bore only a passing resemblance to what those in other climes called 'beer.’ Thankfully, those days of choking down foul-tasting swill are long gone, with an explosion of microbreweries in recent years. The Brewers Association’s most recent count of over 7,000 is triple the number of American microbreweries that existed in 2012. Here's a short list of some of our favorite producers, many of which can be found in discerning beer shops nationwide.
Oskar Blues Brewery
If you’ve stashed a canned craft beer into your hiking pack, you’ve got Oskar Blues to thank. The Colorado-based brewery led the industry into this more recyclable (and lighter) packaging, which was previously considered suitable for macro brews only. But that’s not all Oskar Blues is about. Visit the Longmont location for live music Friday to Monday and its popular beers any time the doors are open. Dale’s Pale Ale is classic, but Death by Coconut has our hearts. At 6.5 percent ABV, the semi-sweet porter goes down easy no matter the occasion. Like so many booming breweries, you can also find Oskar Blues in its taprooms and breweries across the country, including Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; and Brevard, North Carolina.
Founders Brewing Co
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Casual beer fans may think of California, Colorado or Seattle when suds come to mind. But Michigan ranks fourth for the number of breweries, and Grand Rapids is a can’t miss stop. Founders Brewing Co is a big part of the reason for that: since opening in 1997, Founders has claimed accolades a plenty, including several beers in BeerAdvocate’s top 100. Try its All Day IPA for a session-friendly beer that will neither knock you out nor leave you bored, thanks to its 4.7 percent ABV and hop mix. Or go big with the Barrel Aged series, including the unforgettable Backwoods Bastard bourbon scotch ale. The brewery has a second location in Detroit, so if your travels carry you to this beer mecca but not all the way to Grand Rapids, Founders is still accessible.
Goose Island Brewery
Goose Island produces an excellent variety of seasonal brews, with around 20 on draft each day. It has two local locations: the original location in Lincoln Park celebrated 30 years in 2018. Try the famous Stilton burger (pepper-crusted burger with roasted garlic cloves and slathered with the deliciously fragrant cheese). Goose Island takes its beers seriously: the Pere Jacques is a Belgian-style abbey ale with caramel notes. You can also book a tour of the West Fulton production facility, or drop by its taproom for a taste. Not in Chicago but craving the beer? Goose Island now has taprooms in Philadelphia as well as five international cities. Its beer is also distributed widely, and you can track it down with the beer finder on the site.
Sierra Nevada Brewery
When road-tripping through Northern California, this little town is well worth a visit for a look at one of America's most sustainable breweries. Sierra Nevada prides itself on its earth-friendly ethos (with solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells drastically diminishing its carbon footprint) and also produces first-rate quaffs. There are a variety of ways to tour the high-tech facility, whether that’s on your own or with a guide who will note areas of interest. (Into ingredients? Hops? A full-blown beer geek? There’s a tour for that.) Regardless of the tour you choose, you’ll sample beers made on site.
Pull up a stool in the taproom and get to eating: The restaurant is also tip-top, serving vegetarian dishes that highlight the season's best produce and choice aged beef from locally raised cattle (fed a special diet that includes brewer's yeast with beer and nutritious spent grains taken from the brewery). Nearby is a massive and much-loved municipal park that makes a great spot for hiking, swimming and biking, with trails that grow wilder as you head into the Sierra Nevada foothills. You can also take in all of this – minus the Sierra Nevada foothills – at the brewery’s North Carolina location.
Austin has a lot going for it, from its scintillating music scene and multi-cultural festivals to its great barbecue joints. Its beer scene is no less celebrated. Draught House is a festive and feel-good spot that serves up a changing array of their own inspired seasonal brews, as well as scores of great microbrews on draught from across the country. It's a sprawling place to while away an afternoon, with an outdoor patio, food-truck grub and a seemingly infinite beer selection.
Magic Hat Brewery
Vermonters have a soft spot for beer. How else to explain the frothy abundance – there are more craft breweries per capita here than in any other state. Whether you've come for leaf-peeping (watching the dramatic fall foliage flare up across the state), hiking the rugged Long Trail (which indeed runs the length of the state) or simply taking in a bit of backroads rambling in lovely rural countryside, Burlington makes a fine stop. Magic Hat is probably the state's most famous brewery, with free tours (and free samples) showcasing the goods. The brewery’s most famous beer is the No 9, with its hint of apricot, though purists might prefer the Circus Boy, a refreshing unfiltered hefeweizen.
Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery
Boulder's favorite brewery is a great spot for kicking back after a day of mountain biking, hiking or rock climbing in America's most outdoorsy little town. Mountain Sun boasts a fun, free-spirited vibe that draws in all types, and the menu features satisfying pub grub. Of course, the beer is the star attraction: There’s a variety on tap, including rich creamy porters, golden ales and unusual combinations like blackberry wheat. Catch live music – bluegrass, folk and the like – beginning at 9:30 or 10pm on Sundays and Mondays. The Mountain Sun family also includes brewpubs and eateries in Denver, Longmont and elsewhere in Boulder.
In the ocean-loving town of Rehoboth, Delaware, Dogfish Head serves delectably innovative brews – 'Off-centered ales for off-centered people' as they describe it – using unusual ingredients in daring combinations, often with winning results. Try the Raison d'Etre (a Belgian-style brown ale brewed with beet sugar and raisins), or perhaps the oak-aged Burton Baton, a surprising blend of English-style old ale and imperial IPA. After basking on the beaches a short stroll away, their brews (and beer-battered pub fare) make a fine cap to the day.
Boston Beer Company
Created in 1984, the Boston Beer Company (better known as Samuel Adams brewery) launched to international stardom on the merits of its beautifully balanced Boston Lager – which made other American beers at the time taste like poorly filtered water. Come for the free tour (and free beer), plus a free lift (by trolley) that takes you to Doyle's Cafe, a historic 1882 watering hole that serves up great pizza and even better clam chowder, plus yet more Samuel Adams choices. Go deeper still with a variety of additional tour options that range from $10 to $50. Not a company to rest on its laurels, SA is constantly coming up with new selections – more than two dozen seasonal as well as artisan brews (the Brewmasters Collection).
Just across the turgid East River from Manhattan, this brewery is yet another reason why Brooklyners are feeling so smug these days. Brooklyn Brewery makes finely crafted pilsner, pale ale and other classic brews as well as fine seasonal libations like the summer ale, perfect for warm days watching the Yankees – or better yet the Cyclones (Brooklyn's minor league baseball team) – at the bat. You can head over for a free tour on the weekend or just pop over for a beer. Want to explore the brewery with a smaller group? Book a time during the week for an $18 small batch tour. There isn't much ambiance, but you need only take a short stroll to find a vertiginous array of shops, bars, restaurants and other amusements in this hipster-loving enclave in north Brooklyn.
This article was originally published in 2012. Updated June 2019.