If recent accolades are any indication, American craft beer has reached, and in some cases even surpassed, the ranks of beer produced in such notorious hop-loving countries as Germany and Belgium. With more than 1,700 craft breweries (the small, artisanal operations, not the behemoths pumping out Budweiser or Miller) and with a stronghold on eight of the top 10 beers in the world, according to RateBeer’s 2011 rankings, America is shedding its reputation for producing flavourless, watered-down swill.
The northeastern United States is the perfect place for a beer-centric road trip, with geographically small states that are filled with microbreweries. Vermont alone is home to more breweries per capita than any other state in the country. While some of these producers are infamous for making great beer, others are hidden gems, beloved by locals and waiting to be discovered by visitors.
For a craft beer tour of the region, begin in Pennsylvania and head north to Maine. Set aside several days to sip your way up the coast -- leaving plenty of time to avoid drinking and driving, and to soak in the culture of each town you visit.
Pennsylvania is home to America’s oldest operating brewery, Yuengling, which may have helped pave the way for the plentiful microbreweries in the state today.
In Downingtown (west of Philadelphia), the Victory Brewing Company is a lovely place to grab a casual, locally sourced lunch while tasting a few German-style beers. The Prima Pils – herbal, citrusy and heavy on the hops – and the Hopdevil Ale – another hop-filled selection with hints of grapefruit and a bitter finish – are refreshing brews that should pair nicely with a local cheese and sausage plate.
From Downington, head west about 70 miles to Harrisburg, the state capital, where the Appalachian Brewing Company hosts free brewery tours every Saturday at 1 pm. As you walk through the Appalachian’s three-storey historic building, be sure to sample the brewery’s delicious craft root beer and the Trail Blaze Organic Brown Ale, a nutty brew that smells of roasted caramel.
Also in Harrisburg, Troegs consistently makes incredibly satisfying beer. Our favourites are the Troegenator Double Bock – rich, malty, silky smooth and complex, but not too heavy – and the Nugget Nectar – delightfully hoppy with hints of honey. There are free brewery tours on Saturdays.
About 50 miles north of Harrisburg is Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, home to Selin’s Grove, a local treasure of a pub where the beer is world-class. Sip a well-balanced IPA, an organic aged porter, or a semi-sweet cider while listening to some live local music. If you like what you taste, pick up one of the brewery’s gorgeous growlers on your way out.
Heading east, Weyerbacher Brewing Company in Easton really does its experimental and limited edition beers right. The brewery just won the gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in the “Specialty Honey Beer Category” for its beer Sixteen, named after Weyerbacher’s 16th anniversary. Sixteen is a dark “braggot”, a style that is actually a kind of mead since it is brewed with 18.5 ounces of honey per gallon of beer – and the honey is all local, produced by Pennsylvania beekeepers.
While you are in Pennsylvania, consider taking a class at the Philly Beer School. Beer and Brewing 101, just $40, provides a lesson on how beer is made and where it came from in the first place.
Like Pennsylvania, New York has a rich brewing history. From the 1600s to the 1800s, immigrants from Germany and Ireland set up breweries all over the state. With a lack of easily accessible healthy drinking water, beer was often the favoured beverage at the time.
A trip through New York state could be spent entirely in the Big Apple, where craft beer events can be found almost every day (check Beer Menus’s calendar of events). New York City is also the home of Brooklyn Brewery, one of America’s best-known beer producers. The brewery offers free tours on Saturdays starting at noon and $8 “small batch” tours on weeknights starting at 5 pm. On Fridays, the tasting room hosts one of the most delicious happy hour events in town. Purchase beer tokens for $4 each (or $20 for 6) from 6 pm to 11 pm. Each token gets you a full cup of beer. Turn drinks into dinner by bringing your own food or ordering in (both are allowed). Must-try beers include the year-round standbys Brooklyn Brown Ale – malty with hints of coffee and toffee – and Brooklyner Weisse – a cloudy, spiced, wheat beer with a slight aroma of clove. If available, never turn down an opportunity to try one of Brooklyn’s Brewmasters Reserve beers, creative blends that are all highly flavourful.
About two hours east of the city, on New York’s Long Island, the Southampton Publick House is a charming microbrewery and restaurant just minutes from the beach. Check out the brewery’s “beer cellar”, a selection of unique limited release brews.
If you would rather skip New York City, you can head from Pennsylvania to upstate New York, home to a multitude of brewpubs and breweries.
In Lakewood, the geniuses at Southern Tier Brewing Company gave birth to the best pumpkin beer you will ever taste. If you visit the brewery this autumn, be sure to try Pumking, a smooth mix of savoury, sweet and subtle spice that disguises its alcoholic strength (8.6% ABV). This is more of a roasted pumpkin kind of beer than a pumpkin pie kind of beer. Southern Tier’s brewery tours start at 3 pm and 5 pm on Saturday afternoons. In the spring, tours are also available on Sundays.
About three hours east, Ithaca is another great beer town. At Ithaca Beer Company, try the Excelsior Line brews, specialty beers made with natural and often local ingredients. The award-winning Brute, a golden sour ale brewed with local hops, is a must-try. For something unique, the AlpHalpHa, made with local alfalfa honey and local hops, was released this autumn.
In Syracuse, the Empire Brewing Company, about an hour-and-a-half north of Ithaca, is also focused on local ingredients. The brewery has an impressive garden for growing hops, herbs and vegetables that can be used in its beers. Empire also prides itself on being the first business in central New York to be run entirely on New York State produced renewable energy.
Americans have been brewing beer in Massachusetts since the pilgrims first arrived on the Mayflower. There is even a brewery in Plymouth, Massachusetts named the Mayflower Brewing Company. Here are a few other breweries worth visiting.
What we love most about Boston’s Harpoon Brewery is its commitment to creativity and experimentation. Its 100 Barrel Series gives its brewers the artistic license to invent and test out new recipes every few months for limited supply batches. Currently in rotation is the Dočesná, a Czech-style hop harvest ale. The Boston brewery offers tours starting at 10:30 am on Saturdays and 11:30 am on Sundays, plus free tastings Monday through Friday from 2 pm to 4 pm.
Across the Charles River Basin, just 10 minutes away, the Cambridge Brewing Company is a great brewpub to relax over a pint and a meal. On Tuesdays, the brewery releases special edition cask conditioned beers – that is, unfiltered, unpasteurized beers with live yeast.
While you are in Massachusetts, drive through the town of Natick (just 30 minutes outside Boston) to visit Barleycorn’s Craft Brew, a facility that walks you through the process of making your own batch of beer. The whole thing costs about $150 (give or take, depending on your style), and you end up with six cases of homebrewed craft beer – personalized labels and all.
Portsmouth is New Hampshire’s brewing capital, where both of our picks for this state can be found.
Smuttynose Brewing Company was named after Sumuttynose Island, one of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire. At the brewery, free tours and tastings start at 3 pm on Fridays and 11 am on Saturdays. Be sure to try the Old Brown Dog Ale, an award-winning brown ale that is a tad bit chocolatey.
Smuttynose’s sister brewery, Portsmouth Brewery, can be found just 10 minutes away, right on the coast. The brewery’s downstairs Jimmy LaPanza Lounge is always mixing things up with creative specials. Our favourite? Thursdays are “Parking Violation Nights”. If you are unlucky enough to get a parking ticket while in town, bring it with you to the bar along with your check book, and the folks at Portsmouth will drop your paid ticket in the mail for you and pour you a free pint of frothy cold beer. We suggest the Black Cat Stout (currently on draught) or the upcoming Oatmeal Stout, both of which should warm you up with smooth, chocolatey goodness as the New England winter approaches.
With one craft brewery for every 30,000 people, Vermont boasts more breweries per capita than any other state in the US, according to the Brewers Association. In this snowy state, brewing and drinking good beer is the best way we can think of to stay warm.
In Middlebury, the “fine organic ales” at Wolaver’s/Otter Creek Brewing, are just that: well-crafted and sustainably produced. The seasonal pumpkin ale, for instance, is made from local, organic pumpkins from Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham, Vermont. Otter Creek offers self-guided tours.
Self-guided or guided tours can be taken at Burlington’s Magic Hat Brewing Company on every day of the week except Monday. Whether you take the tour or visit the “growler bar”, opt to try the latest seasonal beer, Howl, a black lager so good (it is roasty and malty yet quite light) that they made this awesome animation just for it.
Thirty minutes east of Magic Hat, the Alchemist Pub and Brewery serves up some of the best beer nationwide. Try the Heady Topper, a double IPA that should go nicely with the pub’s three-cheese pizzetta, featuring Vermont chevre.
Hill Farmstead Brewery is another brewery that thrives on experimentation. It claims to rarely produce the same beer more than once or twice a year. Try one of the brewery’s collaborations – anything oak-aged should be delicious – or one of its Single Hop Series beers.
Maine’s natural resources make it a fantastic place to make beer. The blueberries make for a fragrant fruit ale, the oysters for a luscious oyster stout and the honey for pretty much any flavourful style.
Allagash Brewing Company in Portland makes some of the best Belgian-style beers in the country. Free tours and tastings (which are generous in portion) are offered every day except Sunday. Must-try styles include the tripel and the quadruple, called Four. Both are rich in flavour, the former tasting more of honey and the latter more of malty raisins with a hint of a wine flavour.
Ten minutes away, Shipyard Brewing Co offers a free “full brewery” tour every Tuesday night starting at 5:30 pm, but reservations are necessary. For the impromptu beer lover, walk in for a “video tour” and a free tasting.
About two hours north of Portland, the coastal town of Belfast offers fantastic seafood and fantastic beer. Every autumn, Belfast’s Marshall Wharf Brewing Company throws 120 local oysters into a boil to make its seasonal Permaquid Oyster Stout. Whether you are in the camp that finds oyster stout gimmicky or you are eager to try this experimental brew, one thing to note is that oysters do not actually bring their briny flavour to the beer. Instead, their protein gives this smooth stout an even silkier, more luxurious texture.