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.