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Roundtable Discussion: Best Brewery in America

Roundtable Discussion: Best Brewery in America
Jason Behler
Tristan– The Daily Meal recently posted a survey asking readers to vote on the Best Brewery in America. They prefaced this, as they should, with the reminder that the term Best Brewery in America could mean a number of different things to each voter, most medals won, most beers sold, etc. Which got us to thinking, “What factors should go into determining the Best Brewery in America?”
For me best brewery would incorporate a number of different factors:

Solid flagship beers.

You can’t be a phenomenal brewery without having great beer up and down your rotation.  This means perfecting your core lineup e.g. IPAs, Stouts, Wheats, Ambers, Pilsners/Kolsch, Porters, Saisons, etc.

Inventive but more importantly, well done experimentals and seasonals.
Many breweries have perfected their traditional style beers. What really sets breweries apart is taking it to the next level with creative and well-brewed small batches, experimental series, one off’s and seasonals. These include, imperial varieties of traditional styles, sours, coffee/chocolate/adjunct stouts, fruit beers, pepper beers, and other creative creations like coffee ipa’s, spruce ale, etc.
It’s about the fans.
When it comes to the beer community it’s about the beer first, but also the people who make up that beer community. The best breweries are the ones who give back to their fans through festivals, loyalty programs like mug clubs, and tap room activities like tastings, movie nights, and beer schools.
It’s also about the beer community as a whole.
As many brand miscues over the last few years have shown, especially in the case of Magic Hat vs West 6th, if you don’t play nice, people will notice. Craft beer is about community, and if you aren’t careful about how you handle tough situations like litigation, it can burn your brand badly.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but as with everything business, marketing, branding, and fan interaction can make or break any company, especially in the beer industry. Brewery names matter, logos matter, and how well a brewery interacts with it’s social follow definitely matters.
Beyond the Beer
These next few factors are what really start separating the top tier breweries from the rest, because while it may not be integral toward being a great brewery, all of these components combined are what make up the elite breweries. Breweries such as New Belgium, Oskar Blues, and Sierra Nevada and many more, have found ways to transcend brewing by going beyond the beer.  With programs that keep communities green, and sustainable, programs that promote the outdoors, support local artists, and build up the local community businesses, these breweries recognize that they can help to create a better world through beer.
Here’s where we might find some contention.  While we’re in the midst of the greatest boom of start up craft breweries this nation has ever seen, others that have survived for a number of years have grown to national or near national distribution.  Meanwhile others, like New Glarus have opted to remain in their own state.  It’s up to you to determine whether the allure of a rare beer trumps the accessibility of one that you can pick up down the street no matter what part of the country you’re located in.  I’ll opt for the latter.
Tap Room/Brewery
Visiting breweries has become akin to taking a pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s the chase for fans to taste tap room only brews, see where the beer is made, and in some cases meet the founders and brewers they adore. Having an informative, interactive and entertaining tour can really affect the impact a brewery has on not only its fans but also the casual beer visitor. Also brewery/tap room amenities such as food, food trucks, games and decor can also make up the entire experience.
I’m neither for nor against awards, but I generally don’t factor awards into my decision on best brewery in the nation. Awards are given to beers that fall into the guidelines set forth by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). This means that the beers that win are stylistically more proficient than the others.  While it’s great to be stylistically on point, sometimes the best beers don’t fall into a specific stylistic category.
Here’s what our staff had to say:

Cory – Port Brewing/Lost Abbey – With the lineup these folks are cranking out and the passion that these folks have for quality product, I would be remiss to say that I am not thoroughly stoked on just about everything they have put out. They have a lot of beer. Having only tried about half of what they brew, and never having a bad beer, this is my choice. My favorites are Board Meeting and Old Viscosity by Port and Cuvee de Tomme and Red Poppy by Lost Abbey. I have not been to the San Marcos location but I know what klout it holds and can’t wait to check it off the ol’ bucket list.

Lauren – Odell Brewing is on the top of my list. Their beers are always solid, plus with the pilot system they are always keeping your palate on its toes with a constant rotation of beers. The taproom can get crowded and loud, but it is where the locals go to see live music on Wednesdays, enjoy a meal from a food truck and good conversations with friends rather than get sucked into a giant tourist trap like their big neighbor. The staff is full of amazing people, from their pilot brewer Brent Cordle who helped me brew my own batch to their outreach coordinator Karla Baise who organizes their Odell Outreach volunteer opportunities, including The House That Beer Built project with Habitat for Humanity, to salesman extraordinaire Nico, and more Keep up the good work Odells!

Phil – Best two breweries (that I have had the pleasure of trying) have to be Russian River and Firestone Walker. These are the only two breweries where I have really liked every beer I’ve had from them. There are a lot of breweries that make good beer that I will drink, but Firestone Walker and Russian River have an entire lineup of exceptional beers. If they come out with a new beer that I’m not familiar with, I will try it regardless.

Vic – Prairie Artisan Ales makes only a small amount of beers in just a couple allowing the brewers to focus on the highest level of quality control. Each batch is artfully crafted to perfection. On first sip, you will immediately understand why this brewery, to quote Wu Tang Clan, “ain’t nuthin’ to fuck wit”…

Jason – Both Dogfish Head and New Belgium would be at the top of my list. These seem like obvious choices, but they are sort of the model for what a brewery should do in terms of growth, sustainability, and quality. I enjoy all of New Belgium’s beers, as they are all quite drinkable, and a few are remarkable. Dogfish Head (as I mentioned in my last review) continually tinker and toy with recipes, ingredients, and brewing processes to make imaginative, interesting, and tasty beers. I may not always like the taste, but that is because of my personal preference, not a lack of care on the part of the brewer.

Mike – If you include the TOTAL PACKAGE, New Belgium Brewery. Without a doubt. They were an early pioneer in the craft brewing industry and helped pave the way for many others. They’ve seen huge success while managing to stay true to a set of progressive values; making them an outstanding example of corporate citizenship. They willingly pay more for their energy to ensure it comes from a clean source, much of which is wind based. They even re-purpose the methane yield from water treatment as an ancillary energy source. Employees are treated exceptionally well and share in an employee ownership program. As far as the beer is concerned, their standard offerings are solid even though they typically don’t stir much dust among the enthusiasts (I still love an ice cold 1554). However, the Lips of Faith series and limited releases regularly produce absolute gems that can stand strong among the craftiest of craft brews. For their ethical business practices, environmental stewardship, trailblazing history, AND great beers, New Belgium Brewery is the best brewery in America.


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