Road warriors beset by the stresses of traveling should not overlook one dividend of the peripatetic lifestyle: the opportunity to sample some extraordinary American beers. Wherever your business takes you, you can count on finding thriving regional microbreweries and local brewpubs that offer high-quality, inventive takes on classic brewing styles.
These are not the gimmicky or cough-syrupy concoctions that discredited much of the craft-beer industry in the mid-1990s. Today's offerings adhere to brewing science yet can be deliciously unconventional. No surprise, then, that brands go out into the world under names such as Raspberry Leghumper (from Thirsty Dog Brewing in Canton, Ohio), Slam Dunkel (Great Basin Brewing, Sparks, Nev.), and Shark Bite Red (Pizza Port, Carlsbad, Calif.)--and win medals at prestigious gatherings such as the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. (The 21st annual installment of beer heaven returns this year Oct. 3-5; for details, go to beertown.org/GABF/index.htm.)
This new golden age of craft brewing is a throwback to nearly a century ago, before the lion's share of the U.S. beer market consolidated around a handful of bland national lagers. "In any part of the country, there used to be dozens of regional, independent breweries, because beer could travel only so far," says Tom Dalldorf, publisher of Celebrator Beer News, a "brewspaper" based in San Leandro, Calif. "Now we're back to an exciting time when flavor and character and diversity of style are available all over the country." But with few craft brewers willing to go national, you usually have to get close to the source to sample those brews.
For newbies, where to begin? For easily gulpable descriptions of beer styles, from abbey to zwickelbier (table), check out the Web site of beer missionary Michael Jackson, beerhunter.com/beerstyles.html. For the most up-to-date guide to what's available at your destination, grab the local brewspaper. You'll usually find a stack at the first good beer haven you hit, under names such as Ale Street News (East Coast and Southeast) and Yankee Brew News (New England).
Most of all, keep an open mind: Cloudy hefeweizen beers with comet tails of swirling yeast or pitch-black Russian imperial porters sure don't look like Bud or Miller Lite, but they almost always taste a whole lot better. Most brewpubs offer sampler trays, with 4- or 5-ounce servings of each of the pub's beers. It's a great way to learn about different styles and decide where your preferences lie.
Beer geeks, of course, are always happy to share their obsessions, and this one is no exception. My favorites? Quite a few are available in the nation's craft-beer mecca, the Pacific Northwest. Near the top of my list is Juneau-based Alaskan Brewing, whose biggest market is Seattle. Its Alaskan Amber is a perennial award-winner, but my favorite is Smoked Porter, with a distinctive character that comes from having a regional salmon smoker treat some of the malt with smoke from alder-wood fires.
Then there's Mac and Jack's African Amber, launched in 1995 by Malcolm Rankin and Jack Schropp, who brewed in a garage at night and delivered out of an ancient Chevy truck by day. It's noteworthy for a spicy aroma that comes from "dry-hopping" the beer in the keg--essentially giving it an extra dose of beer's key bittering agent. (In case you're wondering, the name African Amber was a brainchild of patrons of a Seattle tavern located near the Woodland Park Zoo.) Deschutes Brewing of Bend, Ore., stakes its claim to distinction on an uncommonly smooth Black Butte Porter, a dark, rich brew named for the baggage handlers who quaffed it in 18th century England. Deschutes also offers tawny-colored Mirror Pond Pale Ale, brewed with bushels of the region's Cascade hops.
While Seattle, Portland, Denver, Northern California, and Boston all support a high-profile beer culture, the Midwest, building on its rich German brewing heritage, has more than its share of spectacular offerings. A bunch of my favorites hail from there. Boulevard Brewing, of Kansas City, Mo., makes a tasty Pale Ale, brewed with caramel malt, and a cool, citrus-like Unfiltered Wheat Beer made from Missouri-grown grain. Another standout brewer is diminutive New Glarus Brewing, from a Wisconsin town of that name. It's most admired for delicious cherry and raspberry-infused fruit beers. But I also love its Spotted Cow, a "cask-conditioned" ale in which the flavor is enhanced by allowing the yeast to keep working in the bottle, and Uff-da, a mahogany-colored bock with yummy chocolatey overtones. (The name, a Norwegian expletive, was meant as a good-natured stick in the eye to the town's Swiss heritage.)
My hometown, New York? Sadly, the Big Apple has not proved to be an epicenter of brewing innovation. But Brooklyn Brewing is an exception, with its hearty Brooklyn Lager, hoppy East India Pale Ale, and mild Pennant Pale Ale (heralding the 1955 World Series championship brought home by the Brooklyn Dodgers). In the New York area, it's also easy to find exquisite Belgian-style ales brewed by Brewery Ommegang, in upstate Cooperstown, once the nation's prime hop-growing region. There, a husband-and-wife team of importers, Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield, with financial help from their Belgian suppliers, have constructed an architecturally striking farmstead brewery. It produces an abbey ale called Ommegang (named after a summer pageant in Brussels), the golden, effervescent Hennepin Ale, and the full-bodied, copper-colored Rare Vos (Flemish for "Sly Fox").
Even this country's southern tier, once considered a no-man's-land for beers with character, has been redeeming itself. The hot climate fosters a preference for lighter, fizzier styles, as embodied in Saint Arnold Fancy Lawnmower Beer from Houston. Complete with the patron saint of brewers duly posed on the label with two lawnmowers, this is a world-class German-style Kulsch with a malty body and a subtle aroma that comes from multiple additions of imported Hallertauer hops. For Texans seeking more robust styles, Saint Arnold is happy to oblige with fine entries such as a malty Brown Ale.
Frequent travelers usually need go no farther than the closest airport pub to indulge in a locally made brew. If you're a beer lover, it may even be worth mapping out your itinerary along the path of the most enticing brands. By Gerry Khermouch