Beer rules. It’s the third most consumed beverage in the world, after water and tea. It’s also our favorite form of alcohol: A Gallup poll last year found that 40% of American drinkers prefer beer to the other possibilities. (Wine came in second, at 30%.) And the variety of beer that’s available to us, both domestic and imported, is immense and growing all the time.
Five years ago, according to the Brewers Association, there were 2,822 breweries in America. Today, there are more than 6,000. About 98% of these are small, independent operations — craft breweries. While they are numerous, their output is tiny compared with that of the major commercial brands, accounting for only about 3% of annual beer sales.
Major commercial breweries may produce 40 or 50 million 31-gallon barrels a year or more. To be considered a craft brewery, according to the Brewers Association, a producer must make fewer than six million barrels annually — and most are far smaller. (The term “microbrewery” applies to those that make fewer than 15,000 barrels, and some brewpubs turn out only 10 or 20.)
That means that craft beers can be hard to find, some of them very much so: Some breweries sell special bottlings only by lottery or make them available only for a single day each year. They’re also often quite expensive, in some instances $50 or $100 a bottle or more, reflecting the high costs of production on such a small scale as well as their rarity.
It’s also worth noting that many craft breweries release successive “vintages” of their specialty beers, with the alcohol content, flavorings, and other factors varying at least slightly from year to year.
Nonetheless, craft beers are what get true beer-lovers most excited. They offer complexity and power and sometimes elegance that put them in a different class altogether from that Budweiser or Heineken you might quaff with pleasure simply to quench your thirst.
A number of specialist publications and organizations rate craft beers regularly, among them the American Homebrewers Association (not to be confused with the Brewers Association), ratebeer.com, and beeradvocate.com. The list that follows is based on their most recent ratings, as well as other compiled lists of what are widely considered the best-tasting beers American breweries have to offer.
Virtually all these beers fall into one of two categories: IPAs or flavored stouts. IPA stands for India Pale Ale, a style of ale with a pronounced flavor of hops. (“India” is a reference to the fact that this style’s ancestors were formulated to withstand the long sea voyage to India and other one-time British colonies.) Stout is a strong dark beer made with roasted malt or barley, to which craft brewers often add other flavorings, like coffee, chocolate, and even chiles. They’re two completely different styles, but between them they add up to the craft beers that the experts consider our country’s finest.