In a time when seemingly every American destination is claiming to be one of the hottest craft beer cities, we do need to thank our lucky stars that we have come this far. There are now more breweries in the small state of New Hampshire than there were in the whole country in 1983.
Back then the six largest brewers controlled a depressing 92% of the market. Those brewers weren’t exactly putting out medal-winning beers either. The big three then and now that are part of international conglomerates were joined by Stroh’s, Heileman, and Pabst.
Some of the original craft beer pioneers that launched soon after are still around: Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam, and Saranac to name a few. Over the past 35 years though, some clear hubs have emerged where you don’t have to go very far to get a beer from a tap in the place where it was made. As of last year, there were a staggering 7,450 brewers in the states according to the American Brewers Association and only 104 were considered “non-craft.” Here are ten top craft beer cities in the USA that hit the mark for both quantity and quality.
The land of Coors was an early leader when the craft beer scene took off in America and by most accounts the 19th largest city in the USA by population is still the leader. It fights with Portland for breweries per capita and with Chicago for the most breweries of any kind overall, but they’ve been doing it right for a very long time here. There’s a good reason that Denver is home to the Great American Beer Festival. There are around 400 craft brewers in Colorado alone, with around 158 of those in Denver.
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Washington state has the third-highest number of total breweries in the country, at 394. Around 170 of those are in the Seattle region, making it the #1 or #2 city depending on how you draw the metro area lines. While there’s some perpetual Portland envy in the northwest, Seattle does have a good mix of large brewers (Georgetown, maker of Manny’s) and small. Maybe they’ve been a little too successful: RedHook and Elysian got swallowed up by the conglomerate that makes Bud.
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While this mid-sized city doesn’t lead by any volume stats, it does get the crown for per-capita production among the cities of more than half a million people. It has around 67 breweries in the city itself (and around 130 in the whole metro area), but for a population under 700,000. Many beer lovers put it at the top of the quality scale as well. With so much competition in a relatively small area, you have to have the goods to survive. Since Portland also punches well above its weight class for food and coffee too, build in plenty of indulgence time when you visit and join the locals on a bike to work it off. Or combine both with a Brewcycle tour.
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The Chicago brewing scene was quite robust in the days before Prohibition, with the German immigrants opening up lots of breweries in their neighborhoods, some becoming major brands. It took a while to roar back in the modern age, but now this city is back on top of the craft beer cities list for the total number of breweries, beating out Seattle and Denver last year with 173.
Even if they stopped at Ballast Point, Stone Brewing, and Green Flash, San Diego would be known as a great beer city. It doesn’t come close to stopping there though because there are now 150 breweries in the metro area, moving well beyond the signature double IPA style the city’s brewers started. You can hit many of San Diego’s breweries along the “Hops Highway” of California State Route 78.
California has more brewers than any other state in the nation. The second-largest city in the USA by population is a spread-out mess and beer loses out to wine and cocktails here by consumption. Los Angeles is no slouch when it comes to breweries though, with nearly 150 of them in the extensive metro area. They’re not household names with national distribution, but you will find plenty to like without having to go very far in the notorious traffic.
First there was Brooklyn Lager, which I used to throw back when I moved to the area in 1990. Now there are more than 140 breweries. This city has always had great water piped down from the mountains up north, but high rents made brewpubs a risky bet. After the tide finally turned, the USA’s most populated and wealthiest city made up for lost time. Most of the breweries here aren’t as large as the ones in upstate New York, where land is abundant, but there are plenty of medal winners to sample in every borough. Since New York has the country’s most extensive subway and it’s easy to find a taxi, you never have to worry about drinking and driving either.
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As with Chicago, this was once a brewing powerhouse city in the 1800s, but took quite a while to find its mojo again after the dark days. Dock Street was founded in 1985 though and quite a few local brewers launched in the ’90s. Philly now has more than 100 breweries and brewpubs in its metro area.
Nobody would have predicted Tampa Bay would be a craft beer hotspot two decades ago, when the laws were idiotic and one failed brewer said nobody would drink craft beer in Florida because the weather was too hot. Depending on how you draw the Tampa Bay boundaries now, there are somewhere between 62 and 70 breweries in the area. There are 10 within walking distance of each other in downtown St. Petersburg and six within a few blocks in tiny Dunedin, near Clearwater Beach. Some are major players with statewide distribution, like Cigar City, Coppertail, and Big Storm, while others are brewpubs with food for the neighborhood. Get a Pub Pass if you’ll be in town for a while or hop on the Brew Bus to take a tour.
If we went by metro area, the breweries of Washington, DC would be next on this list of the top craft beer cities. But it doesn’t seem fair since that statistical area includes a city and big chunks of two neighboring states. Much smaller Minneapolis/St. Paul has 34 breweries in a less spread-out area where it wouldn’t require putting 10,000 miles on your car to visit them all. Most of the beers brewed here are not nationally known, but in a city where you have to spend a lot of the months indoors, it’s good to have plenty of nice brewpubs for gathering.
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Other big cities with a robust scene on par with Minneapolis include Pittsburg, Boston, Detroit, Austin, Milwaukee, and St. Louis.
Which small cities have the most breweries per capita? According to this report, those would be Portland, Maine; Asheville, NC, Bend, OR; Boulder, CO, and Kalamazoo, Michigan. Some real surprises that rank high are Greenville, SC; Pensacola, FL; and Missoula, MT.
The state of Montana actually has the second-highest number of breweries per capita, at 11.4 breweries for every 100,000 adults aged 21+. Vermont is first, at 13.5 breweries per 100,000. Pennsylvania has the highest beer production overall. See how your state ranks here.
Article by Tim Leffel, editor at Perceptive Travel and the Cheapest Destinations Blog.