The craft beer store can be an overwhelming experience to the uneducated beer drinker. Many people ask me how I choose what to buy, and specifically, what brands to target and which limited releases are worth buying.
My recommendation would be to locate stores that allow you to make a mixed six-pack. This allows you the freedom to try many different varieties without the financial constraint of buying an entire sixer of the same thing when you don't know if you'll even like it. This was my philosophy early on. I made it a personal rule not to rebuy anything in my mixed six-packs, and was able to develop a love for certain breweries and styles.
I did not do any prior research on breweries or styles prior to beginning my craft beer journey. I tried things from most breweries at my local store before realizing what the good ones are. This was a good and bad process. Bad, because I could have gone online, read the blogs and quickly realized which ones to try and which to avoid. Good, because I developed tastes that were my own, and not ones that the "professionals" told me I should have.
This is not to say that professional rankings aren't a helpful tool while at the store. Very often if I find a new seasonal or brewery, I will look up the beer on beer advocate. I typically look for items rated 90 and above, though will often buy anything above an 80. The issue with low rated beers can be sometimes there are too few reviews, or a prior year's batch skews the results.
The other website that many people use is ratebeer.com. I personally do not like this website, as I have found many of the reviews are all over the place. Things receiving high marks on BA score in the 50s on RB. Similarly, beers that get mid to low 80s on BA get close to 100. Seems a bit random to me...
So after almost 4 years of sampling, which breweries do I recommend?
Stone is a brewery located in Escondido, CA, and I am proud to say it is my favorite brewery in the country. They have rarely missed in my book, and even the limited releases are usually home runs. I always pick up an Enjoy By, and love their IPA, Ruination, Russian Imperial Stout, Arrogant Bastard, Oaked Arrogant Bastard, Smoked Vanilla Bean Porter and more. The only one that really missed for me was their Porter with Chipotles. I will continue to buy them loyally, and expect to see many more reviews.
Founder's is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They are most well known for their Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS) which is released every April. It is heavier version of their traditional Breakfast Stout, and has hints of coffee and bourbon in it. I went to their launch party this year in NYC, and was very pleased with this year's batch. Other great beers from them include Devil Dancer, All Day IPA, Centennial IPA. Porter, Double Trouble, Imperial Stout, Rubaeus, and more. Definitely check them out, as they have rarely missed for me (like Stone).
Firestone Walker has quickly become one of my favorite breweries. I love their Double Jack, Wookey Jack, Union Jack, Easy Jack, Opal, and many more. I currently have a few of their boxed beers (Parabola and Stickee Monkee) waiting to be consumed. They are another West Coast brewery making cutting edge and world class items. You cannot go wrong with anything they brew.
What would a craft beer blog be without a plug for Dogfishhead? DFH is located in Milton, Delaware, only a few miles away from Rehobeth Beach. They are well known for their IPAs, but have made a niche in pushing the boundaries in what a "traditional" beer is. Their motto is to make "off-centered ales for off-centered people." This has translated into an Ancient Ales program, in which they brew ancient beers from Egypt, Africa, China, and South America. Their Midas Touch beer was created after analyzing jars from King Midas' tomb (2700 years old). Unlike Founders and Stone, DFH has had a few misses for me. Their Tweason Ale (gluten-free) and Aprihop did not do it for me. However, their 60, 61, 75, 90 and 120 Minute IPAs are phenomenal beers. The 120 is almost too heavy, but the process of brewing it is impressive enough to buy it.
Goose Island is located in Chicago, IL, and though it has the backing of a brewing behemoth, still puts out world class ales that the craft beer community goes wild over. Their Bourbon County Brand contains a number of world class rated beers, and they have expanded into a Farmhouse Ale and Sour selection. Goose Island rarely misses on the higher end beers, but selections like the 312 Urban Wheat are nothing spectacular. Definitely check them out if you have not before (and I have written several of their reviews already!)
Other Breweries to Check Out (in no particular order)
- Ballast Point
- Sierra Nevada
- Cigar City
- Russian River
- Great Divide
- The Alchemist
- Jack's Abby
- Maine Brewing Company
- Three Floyds
- The Bruery
- Six Point
- Bear Republic
- Green Flash
- Cambridge Brewing Co
- Clown Shoes
- Any Trappist Brewery
That should be a good start. Come back to me in a few months once you've exhausted the list.