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Before Prohibition there were more than 4,000 breweries in the United States—every town, every neighborhood had its own brewery. The 18th Amendment kneecapped the brewing industry, and it wouldn’t be until 2015 that the number of breweries in the country would surpass that 4,000 number again. The success and significance of brewing in American is not just measured in quantity. The early 2000s also brought a renaissance for the relatively young industry.
“In terms of what sets brewers in the US apart, I think of two things: The adaptive and experimental nature of the brewers here. While the style guidelines are set, there are so many fantastic takes on a style or use of a newer or different brewing method to make beers stand apart,” says Allo Gilinsky, e-commerce and events specialist at Craft Beer Cellar. “Brewers also enjoy collaborating with each other, which only enhances how new techniques and style-bending beers come to light.”
This collaborative and experimental way of thinking has led to distinctively American beers and brewing trends. The variety and abundance of IPAs that fill beer store shelves are largely due to American brewers' commitment to the style. Meanwhile, brewers are looking back—paying tribute to traditional brewing techniques like spontaneous fermentation and using native ingredients—as much as they are looking forward to continuing to define American brewing. This year, these were some of the beers that stood as stalwarts of the industry. Here is a list of the best American beers to drink right now.
Best Overall: Alchemist Heady Topper
Region: Vermont | ABV: 8% | Tasting Notes: grapefruit, pine, bitter hops
The lore surrounding Alchemist’s Heady Topper could fill a book. The main takeaways are that it is the beer that helped launch the IPA craze, especially when it comes to putting such a beer in a can instead of a bottle. This was in 2011, but today the beer still stands as the epitome of double IPA greatness, with its signature grapefruit and pine flavors that finish with a mouthful of hoppy bitterness.
Best IPA: Brouwerij West Picnic Lightning IPA
Region: California | ABV: 6.8% | Tasting Notes: hops, peach, sweet malt
The last few years have given us a flood of hazy IPA. Due to the nature of the style—its creamy and cloudy body with plenty of tropical fruit flavors—it’s easy to hide potential flaws in the beer, leaving a lot of room for error. When looking for a consistently delicious IPA, homebrewer Sarah Flora recommends California’s Brouwerij West. “This is a thick velvety IPA packed with hop flavor,” she says about Picnic Lightning. “It’s fruity but you also pick up the malt sweetness. The texture is almost pillowy with the use of oats and spelt. It starts sweet but the hops bite you on the finish, exactly what I want in a hazy IPA.”
Related: The Best IPAs
Best Pale Ale: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Region: California | ABV: 5.6% | Tasting Notes: citrus, pine, bitter hops
Sierra Nevada is one of those breweries that can’t seem to do wrong, whether it’s making thirst-quenching beers or donating millions of dollars to wildfire relief efforts. When it comes to the former, its pale ale has become a timeless offering during the brewery’s 30 years in operation. “The classic benchmark for the style,” says Chris Powers, the co-owner of Trophy Brewing Company and State of Beer. “The pale ale you can't ever get tired of.”
Best Stout: Bell's Expedition Stout
Region: Michigan | ABV: 10.5% | Tasting Notes: malt, chocolate, dark fruit
The stout is a now-or-later beer—a beer that you can throw into the fridge and drink for dessert or one that you can sit on for a while and let it age to perfection. Bell’s Expedition Stout is “crafted specifically with aging in mind,” according to the brewery. “[It’s] dark, roasty with an incredibly creamy aftertaste brewed by the fine folks in Kalamazoo,” Powers says about the brew.
Best Porter: Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald
Region: Ohio | ABV: 5.8% | Tasting Notes: chocolate, coffee, tobacco
As far as beer names go, few can hold a candle to the origin story of Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald. The Ohio brewery named the porter after the famous freighter, which mysteriously sank to the bottom of Lake Superior in 1975. It has inspired songs, poems, and a beer brewed with roasted barley. The beer has won over a dozen awards, including golds at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Championship.
Related: The Best Craft Beers
Best Brown Ale: Cigar City Maduro Brown Ale
Region: Florida | ABV: 5.5% | Tasting Notes: chocolate, espresso, toffee
The brown ale is one of those often overlooked styles that rarely finds a home in a brewery’s regular rotation. Florida’s Cigar City is not one of those breweries. Named after a type of cigar popularized in Tampa’s Ybor City, Maduro Brown Ale is designed to exhibit some of the same flavors of said stogie: chocolate and espresso balanced with a bit of toggee and hops.
Best Cream Ale: Genesee Cream Ale
Region: New York | ABV: 5.1% | Tasting Notes: malt, corn, vanilla
When exploring the American beer canon, it’s not surprising that most beer styles originated elsewhere. Beer is an old beverage that has been brewed to perfection by a young country, after all. The exception to that is the cream ale, a distinctly American style that began as a pre-Prohibition competitor to the German lager. Gennesee brought the style to the modern masses in the 1960s. “Genny Cream Ale is a shift drink favorite,” Powers says. “Hailing from my hometown of Rochester, New York, this beer makes me think of stealing sips from my dad.”
Best Lager: Notch Session Pils Czech Pale Lager
Region: Massachusetts | ABV: 4% | Tasting Notes: cracker, herbs, hops
“Notch Brewing has been making amazing low-alcohol Bavarian and Czech lagers for a while now and are consistently putting out new products that focus on classic styles but keeping innovative and relevant at the same time,” Gilinsky says. Its Session Pils Czech Pale Lager is an easy-drinking brew that may skimp on the ABV, but not on the flavor, with plenty of citrus flavor with a bit of floral hops.
Related: The Best Light Beers
Best Pilsner: Allagash Truepenny Pilsner
Region: Maine | ABV: 5.5% | Tasting Notes: orange peel, lemon, grass
Whether it's its spontaneously fermented coolship series or the timeless Allagash White, Allagash is always pushing the boundaries to make beers that transcend style. Truepenny Pilsner is no different.
“This beauty is a crisp pilsner with a bit of a twist. In true Allagash form, they weave a thread of their wild ale into the beer seamlessly. This gives the pilsner an Old World flavor that sends the drinker on a trip to lagering caves in Eastern Europe,” Powers says.
Best Wheat: Lost Coast Great White
Region: California | ABV: 4.8% | Tasting Notes: floral, coriander, pepper
“This is a hazy light beer that has the fruity phenols you expect in a wheat beer,” Flora says about Lost Coast’s Great White. “One thing I love is their use of coriander. It gives a floral, peppery aroma that I always try to replicate when I make a wheat beer. The pepper compliments the sweetness of beer perfectly.”
Best Saison: Boulevard Tank 7 American Saison
Region: Missouri | ABV: 8% | Tasting Notes: grapefruit, hops, pepper
The saison, or farmhouse ale, is one of those beer styles that has been given a truly American interpretation. Boulevard’s Tank 7 takes the Belgian brew and gives it a Kansas City twist, with a heavy dose of grapefruit-like hops alongside the more traditional flavors of coriander and lemon peel. “When you want something citrusy and bright on a hot day, this is the answer,” Powers says.
Best Wild: Russian River Consecration Ale
Region: California | ABV: 10% | Tasting Notes: chocolate, spice, currants
Russian River’s proximity to Sonoma’s vineyards and wineries give the brewery plenty of access to spent wine barrels. Consecration is the embodiment of that proximity as well as the relationships the brewery has developed with local vintners over the past two decades. “[It] is a classic wild ale aged in local cabernet sauvignon barrels and aged with brettanomyces and other wild yeast strains,” Gilinsky says.
Related: The Best Beers
Best Barleywine: Anchor Old Foghorn Barleywine
Region: California | ABV: 8.8% | Tasting Notes: bread, caramel, plum
“Anchor Old Foghorn is definitely one of the first barleywines we tried when North Carolina ‘popped the cap’ and craft beer started booming here,” Powers says. “Rich toffee notes and piney resinous hops make this beer almost dessert-like, [while] bottle conditioning makes the carbonation tight and keeps sweetness from lingering.”
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Sarah Freeman is a food and beverage writer based out of Chicago. She has been writing about, as well as frequenting, restaurants and bars for the past decade—from learning about what makes a perfect piece of cocktail ice to the exploring art of beer label design. At the moment, she doesn’t have enough room for food in her refrigerator, because it’s filled with cans of beer and bottles of wine.