THE BEST BREWERIES BY REGION

Choosing the best breweries in America has been an on-going debate of the Aleheads for years. The real answer to “which brewery is the best” is, of course, “the one that made the beer I’m drinking right now”. The problem is that all breweries have their great, average, and lousy beers and it’s impossible to compare line-ups. For example, which would you rather drink for the rest of your life, the offerings from Rochefort, the offerings from Allagash, or the offerings from Harpoon? You’d probably immediately select Rochefort (I know it’s Belgian…this is just a hypothetical, you ass). It’s a world-class brewery and all of its offerings are considered sublime. But Rochefort only makes three beers. They may be excellent, but what if you want some variety? Maybe you pick Harpoon instead…they make close to 30 brews, try all sorts of styles, and have some funky seasonal offerings. But really, Harpoon only makes a handful of transcendent beers. Most of their stuff is fairly workmanlike…good, not great. For my money, Allagash would be the pick. It has substantially more variety than Rochefort (about 15 brews), but their beers are consistently better than Harpoon’s offerings. Sure, Rochefort’s best (the 10) destroys anything in Allagash’s line-up…and if I wanted a mixed 12-pack to split with friends on a summer night, Harpoon would be more fun. But Allagash has that perfect balance of variety and quality that I look for in a brewery.

So what’s my point? I don’t really have one…just trying to show how subjective the whole debate is. One way to make it easier is to impose some completely arbitrary conditions on the selection process, so that’s what I’m doing here. Based on my Allagash Corollary above (Variety + Quality = Winner), I’m picking the best breweries by region. The rest of the Aleheads will immediately find fault with all of my selections…which is exactly what I’d do if they tried the same exercise. Of course, as soon as they mention another brewery, I will clearly slap myself in the head as I realize how truly, truly wrong I am. I am rarely, if ever, right about anything…my wife likes to remind me of this daily. On to the picks:

1. The Northeast: Allagash
No surprise here since I just talked them up so much. If all you have had by this rock-solid brewery is their White, you’re missing out on a ridiculous line-up. When the Aleheads and I tried arguably the most gimmicky beer they make (the Four), we were completely blown away. It was universally agreed upon to be the best beer we sampled at the Hopleaf in Chicago (one of the best beer bars in the country, by the way). If they can make something that poorly conceived taste that good, they’ve got to be tops on the list. With apologies to Boston Beer, Brooklyn, Victory, Ommegang, and Dogfish Head.

2. The Southeast: Terrapin
I live in the Southeast now and let me assure you, Terrapin is head and shoulders above the rest of the Ale Factories down here. They make kick-ass stouts (the Depth Charge is impossibly good), incredible extreme-hopped beers (try the Rye Squared or Hopsecutioner), and some world-class session beers (like their flagship Rye or India Style Brown Ale). With apologies to Sweetwater, Yazoo, and Highlands.

3. The Midwest: Founders
A very tough call…von Brue is going to chew me out for not selecting Three Floyds and honestly, I’m still not sure. Founders has always been consistently better in my humble opinion…their Breakfast Stout is amazing and their Dirty Bastard is a true session beer. Granted, I’ve never had the pleasure of sampling Three Floyds Dark Lord…I imagine that could sway my opinion. With apologies to New Glarus, Bells, Goose Island, and Surly.

4. The Southcentral: Avery
I have no idea what to call this region…I’m kind of lumping the Rocky Mountain states with Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, et al. Anyway, I was all set to type Great Divide in here until I started really thinking about it. The Divide makes some otherworldly beers…you really can’t argue with any of their Yetis and I love the Claymore. But they also have some clunkers (the Samurai and Wild Raspberry to name a couple). Avery meanwhile churns out solid offering after solid offering and they’ve hit the big time with a couple session ales (the 14’er ESB and Ellie’s Brown) and some more extreme offerings (try the Beast and Mephistopheles…delicious). So…I’m going with the underdog. With apologies to Oskar Blues and New Belgium (aka Fat Tire).

5. The Northwest: Deschutes
A lay-up. Anyone who argues with Deschutes should be de-shot. Still don’t believe me? I’ll send Mr. Black Butte and Mr. Abyss over to convince you otherwise. With apologies to Hair of the Dog and Ninkasi.

6. The Southwest: North Coast
Easily the toughest decision on the board. You’ve got the two heavyweights…Sierra Nevada and Anchor. You’ve got the renowned middleweights…Russian River and Anderson Valley. And you’ve got the much-heralded, upstart bantamweights…Port/Lost Abbey and AleSmith. Really, any of those breweries could have taken the prize and I wouldn’t argue. For me, North Coast passes the Allagash test…they offer enough variety and indisputable consistency. And man do I love the Brother Thelonius. With apologies to all of the other breweries I listed.

Let the vitriol spew forth.

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5 comments

  1. Ripped Van Drinkale · · Reply

    I’ll just comment on one of your selections. For the Southwest, I would have to go with Sierra Nevada as the best brewery in the region. This is completely opinion driven and I’m literally picking Sierra for the exact same reason you picked North Coast.

    My criteria for “Best Brewer” status is very similar to the variety+quality corollary that was developed by NASA just before the flag was planted on the moon. I look for just two additional attributes – What’s more likely to be in my fridge at any given time and would I buy any new offering the second I see it on the shelf. Something from Sierra is generally always in my fridge, and if it’s not, it must have just departed. Check one. If Sierra brewed a Gruit Ale, probably my least favorite style on Earth, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick it up. Check two. I won’t even comment on the variety and quality because those things are just a given with Sierra.

    The one thing that North Coast has over Sierra is in the – “This new beer will blow you away” category. Sierra has come out with some awesome beers in the last few years, but they’re all beers that you’d grab in a 6-pack (Not necessarily a bad thing). North Coast definitely holds the wow factor here, just look at Thelonious. I always like when a brewery comes out with a large format bottling of something that you’ll only have one of. Sierra seems to be heading in this direction though, so we’ll just have to see what the future holds.

    Out of any region in the country, the Southwest is the only place that you’ll see me picking a more main stream selection. It’s not a sexy pick, as even Bud drinkers could probably pick a Sierra Pale Ale out of a lineup, but it fits my criterion to a T.

  2. Sudsy von Brüe · · Reply

    In the immortal words of Michael Corleone, Barley: You broke my heart. Three Floyds v. Founders? Not even close.

    Founders is a great brewery, granted, and their Kentucky Breakfast Stout is as solid a libation as any stout on the market. In fact, all of their stouts are great. Canadian Breakfast, Barrel Aged Imperial, and surely a half dozen others I’ve never come across. They’re one hell of a stout brewery. But that’s where it ends by and large. Dirty Bastard and Red Rye are solid session beers, sure, but where’s the love? Where’s the fire? Where’s the humble brewer raging against the dying of the light? Munster, Indiana. You’re damn right.

    Three Floyds brews Dark Lord, whose annual release has become a veritable Woodstock for the HopHead community. Lots of skinny dipping, brown acid, and, naturally, terrific beer. The result? The undisputed Holy Grail of American Craft Brewing (Kate the Great notwithstanding). Does Founders host an annual release festival, good sir? I think not.

    Dark Lord, however, is simply the tip of the proverbial golden iceberg. Admiral Lord Nelson, Fantabulous Resplendence, Moloko Milk Stout, Dreadnaught, OatGoop, Robert the Bruce, Black Sun… these are the beers we stay alive for. Oh me, oh life. Alpha King is as great a session beer as any. Crisp, delicious, and imminently drinkable. And tell me you don’t crack that winning smile of yours wide open when you see the unbelievable label art on a bottle of Blackheart or Apocalypse Cow. You do. You love it. You love it because it loves you. You love it because it will never let you down. You love it because Three Floyds is the best Midwestern brewery in the US of A.

  3. You have a very well-reasoned argument here. Sierra is a classic and they probably have the best “flagship” beer (the Pale Ale) of any big brewer. They’re also more responsible for introducing bold, but balanced hop profiles to the masses and deserve huge props for that.

    The reason I picked North Coast over Sierra is because Sierra doesn’t tend to experiment too much. They do everything well, but their offerings are pretty standard. Although, there’s something to be said for a brewery that knows what they do well and doesn’t stray from that.

    I gave North Coast the edge because I think the Thelonius and the Old Rasputin are better than anything Sierra produces. But Sierra gets points for a brilliant barleywine (the Bigfoot) and the best mainstream beer on the market (the Pale Ale). There’s no right answer, but I think your argument is obviously valid.

    1. I knew Von Brue would disagree, but as I said, I’ve never had Three Floyds most famous offering (the Dark Lord) so I couldn’t give them the edge. There’s also a part of me that finds the whole “Dark Lord Day” thing a little fishy. I mean, if you supposedly brew one of the finest beers in the world, why not make it readily available to an adoring public rather than limiting it to a couple thousand bottles one day a year? It just seems odd to me that two of the top rated beers in the world (Westy and Dark Lord) also happen to be two of the hardest beers to get. To me it smacks of inflating the worth of a beer through a marketing gimmick and by the need for Aleheads to pretend that “rare” offerings somehow have more inherent worth than those that are easier to get your hands on. I hope I get to eat (or drink) those words some day, but until I get a taste of the Lord, Founders gets the edge for me.

      But again, even without trying Dark Lord, it was an incredibly tough decision and I’m not that comfortable with it. Ultimately. I like the Breakfast Stout better than anything made by Three Floyds (for now) and that’s what tipped the scales. I bow to Sudsy’s opinion however, as his stint in Chicago gives his opinion on midwestern brews much more weight than mine.

  4. […] (like pimento cheese), the ubiquity of craft brews in the region is sorely lacking. The other brewing regions of the country (as poorly defined by me) all have their strong points. The Northeast has a dizzying variety of […]

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