Welcome to Craft Beer & Spirits Week, when we take a look at some of the passionate producers, bars and people helping make our world a more spirited place.
Jess Lebow is a beer expert and home brewer. His second book, The United States of Craft Beer, is a state-by-state exploration of America’s greatest breweries, focusing on the people who make the nation’s best-tasting beers and the innovative brewing methods that help create the perfect batch. Lebow visited all 50 states while reporting the book. Here are some states he found surprising along the way.
I’ve always loved a good road trip. During breaks while we were in college, my friends and I would pile into a campervan, pick a direction and get as far away from home as possible — limited only by how much time off and gas money we had. Of course, beer money was an entirely separate fund.
During the school year, when we couldn’t manage to get away from campus, we found other ways to explore. Okay, mainly we just went to the local home-brew and bottle shop to buy a mixed case of beers from across the country and around the world. We took notes on which beers were our favorites, and we did our best to try all of the 500 different beers the bottle shop claimed to carry.
Then one spring break, we decided to try to blend the two ideas together and dragged out a map and our notes to figure out the plan. We were in Bellingham, Washington, which is basically the most remote northwestern part of the country that’s not in Alaska. There were so many places we wanted to go, but time and money were against us. Eventually we settled on a trip that took us to Montana. It was a very aggressive plan, and we stopped only for gas and restroom breaks, alternating drivers so that we could make it all the way to the brewery (which no longer exists) and be back in time for classes at the end of the break.
When we finally arrived, we had time for only one beer before we had to pile back in the van and head back. It was fun. It was a good story, but when we got back to school, we vowed that one day — when we had the time and the money — we would expand our road trip. Next time, we would do it right.
Exploring the United States through the lens of each state’s best breweries was a college dream realized. The United States of Craft Beer is the final product of that experience. When I undertook this project I had some ideas about what I was going to discover, but there were plenty of surprises as well. The following are what I think were the five biggest surprises I uncovered during the writing of the book.
If there is such a thing as the bulls-eye dead center of America, geographically that has to be Kansas. Historically, it has had some of the strictest alcohol laws in the nation. The state adopted a temperance stance — prohibiting alcohol consumption and sales — in 1881, long before the rest of the nation. Today, however, it is home to the Tallgrass Brewing Company, one of my favorite breweries in the nation and one that I would have to submit into contention for the title of coolest.
Though Arizona seems like a state where you would want to drink a lot of cold beer to combat the hot summer sun, there hasn’t been a big boom in breweries there. In 2004, there were 33 active brewing permits in the state. That number declined year after year until 2011, when it finally starting growing again, reaching 35, then had another spurt in 2012, up to 46. But the biggest surprise in Arizona is the newcomer Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company, which opened in late 2013 and within months was named 2014’s “best new brewery in the world” by RateBeer.
Though Georgia is the eighth most populous state in the nation, it has just over a couple dozen active breweries, putting the state right in the middle of the pack for total number of breweries and toward the bottom in terms of breweries per capita. But the breweries they do have pack a punch! The Terrapin Beer Company has been winning awards across the country and around the world since it opened its doors, brewing a lot of really creative beers. Personally, I’m a sucker for breweries that are pushing the boundaries, whether that is making a line of beers all boasting over 100 IBU or a series of chocolate brownie dessert-style brews. Terrapin does both.
4. South Carolina
I first visited South Carolina for a friend’s wedding in the summer of 2008. It was a whirlwind trip, and my takeaways from the trip were that the Carolinas are difficult to navigate by car if you are not from the area, that they can be very hot and humid and that having a wedding on a church lawn in the summer can lead to some serious insect bites for your guests. My first impressions weren’t good ones, but that changed while I was writing my first beer book, The Beer Devotional. I laid my hands on a couple of bottles of Up the Creek IPA by Thomas Creek Brewery. My girlfriend’s mother had brought over a homemade pecan pie that afternoon, and I accidentally tried the beer paired with the pie (long story). It was one of the best pairings I’ve ever encountered, and though the distribution of this beer is limited and I have a hard time getting much, it always surprises me how good it is whenever I do manage to find a bottle.
5. New York
Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest and having lived most of my adult life on the West Coast, it was actually quite a surprise to me just how many outstanding breweries there are in the state of New York. This is probably not a surprise to anyone living on the East Coast, but it really was to me. With limited space, I had a hard time deciding which ones to include in the book, but eventually led with Southern Tier Brewing Company because of its Blackwater Series. However, Six Point Brewery — and its cans of Resin — was a very close second.
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