Beer

The New Who’s Who of Beer Cool

February 21, 2020

Story: Justin Kennedy

Photo: PUNCH

Beer

The New Who’s Who of Beer Cool

February 21, 2020

Story: Justin Kennedy

Art: PUNCH

The country’s top brewers, beer writers and buyers weigh in on the trending touchstones of 2020.

In 2017, we compiled a list of breweries that had, through innovation and reach, become calling cards among the country’s most notable beer bars. Culled from dozens of menus, the list represented a snapshot in time—the national zeitgeist of the beer world at that current moment.

Nearly three years later, we set out again to take the pulse of the country’s beer elite and what they’re coveting right now. This time around, not content to just crunch data, we decided to solicit expert opinions from top brewers, beer writers and editors, beverage directors and bar owners, to determine the new who’s who of beer cool.

Of course, in doing so, the list that follows omits a large swath of distinguished legacy brewers who would fit on any list of the country’s top producers—outfits like Allagash, Bell’s, Sierra Nevada and Russian River. In their place, a cohort of more esoteric and geeky producers points toward the future of brewing. Most of the brewers included in the survey are part of the vanguard of craft beer, producing updated takes on revered Belgian, German and distinctly American styles, alongside notable custodians of Old World expressions.

So, without further ado, here are the brewers we’re most excited about today.

Green Cheek Beer Co., Orange, California

At first glance, Orange County’s Green Cheek Beer Co. might seem a little quirky, even a bit unserious—its motto is “Drink While Smiling” and its mascot is a cartoonish bright green parakeet, not unlike Froot Loops’ Toucan Sam. But founders Evan Price and Brian Rauso are making some of the most sought-after and admired lagers and IPAs in the country. “Green Cheek might be my favorite brewery,” says Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker Brewing. “Evan executes with laser focus, and the results are frustratingly awesome, especially for a veteran brewer like me.”

Green Cheek has been gaining momentum since Price and Rauso founded the brewery in 2017. They frequently collaborate with some of the top breweries in the country, while opening a second outpost in Costa Mesa just last month. (Last year we named their Oaked Just Right barrel-aged helles as one of the Top 10 Beers of 2019.) Besides lagers, Green Cheek crafts exceptionally balanced and aromatic hoppy ales like West Coast IPA is Dead, a clean, bitter, and hoppy old-school IPA, and Swim Test, a potent but crushable triple IPA. Though the beers aren’t widely distributed—the surest way to try some is to visit the breweries themselves—they command big crowds and admiration among the beer-drinking public and other brewers alike. And despite their carefree persona, they certainly aren’t messing around. “I feel like every time I stop by, they’re doing some kind of sensory analysis,” says Luke Schmuecker, partner at Shacksbury Cider and fellow Southern Californian. “They definitely take their beers seriously.”

Keeping Together, Chicago, Illinois

Averie Swanson is one of the most sought-after minds in the craft beer world. In 2013, she began volunteering to wash kegs and perform other workaday duties at Austin, Texas’ famed farm brewery Jester King. In just three years she rose to the rank of head brewer. Last year, however, Swanson left Austin for Chicago and began consulting with Half Acre Beer Co. on its mixed-fermentation program. It was there she found a home for her new solo project, Keeping Together.

“Averie helped spearhead the new American movement of spontaneous brewing and blending,” says Lee McComb, barrel manager of Half Acre’s Wyld Cove program, where Keeping Together is housed. “When she came to us about starting her own exploratory beer label, it was a no-brainer.” With Keeping Together, Swanson is focused on making elevated, balanced and intricate beers, or “beer for wine geeks,” as she described the project to Forbes last year. Her first release was a delicate 3% ABV table beer called The Art of Holding Space, featuring notes of apricot and lemon with a peppery finish. “Her beer is very clearly an extension of her own self,” says McComb. “It is complex, thoughtful, articulate—but in the end, it’s just damn enjoyable.”

Weaver Hollow Brewery, Andes, NY

Located in an old creamery in the Catskill Mountains, Luke Fuhrman crafts mixed-fermentation ales and ages them slowly in French oak barrels, often on local fruits and botanicals, like black raspberries, Balaton cherries, lemon verbena and elderflower. Abstaining from commercial yeasts entirely, he uses a house mixed culture to craft tart but restrained and balanced beers. Though Fuhrman has been releasing beers on a slow trickle for several years—the earliest Weaver Hollow on Untappd dates back to 2014—it wasn’t until 2019 that he opened his brewery and taproom in Andes, New York. Since then, Weaver Hollow has become one of the most in-demand breweries on New York City taplists, and is featured at bars like As Is, Gold Star Beer Counter, Tørst and Beer Street, where partner Cory Bonfiglio says its quickly become one of his favorites. “This is really, really exceptional stuff,” he says.

Private Landbrauerei Schönram, Bavaria, Germany

Every few years, it seems, beer geeks coalesce around a “new” old brewery that quickly becomes a cult fetish. For the past several years, Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus, from Germany’s Black Forest region, has filled that role. Now, Schönram, a small, traditional Bavarian brewery at the foothills of the German Alps, operated by the same family since the late 18th century, is winning over stateside drinkers with its ultra-clean pilsner and helles. “When I think of breweries I’ll go out of my way to make room for on my lists,” says Greg Engert, beer director of Washington, D.C.’s renowned Churchkey and New York’s The Grand Delancey, “Schönram is at the top.”

Key to Schönram’s success is its head brewer, Eric Toft, who isn’t a native Bavarian fifth-generation brewer, as one might expect, but a fortysomething American expat from Wyoming. “Eric brings a sensory analysis to brewing,” says Engert. “He’s known to adjust hop blends based on vintages and gives the beers ample time to fully mature.” Toft, who has been brewing at Schönram for over 20 years now, studied geophysics at the Colorado School of Mines before moving to Germany, where he fell in love with beer and enrolled in the brewing school at Weihenstephan, near Munich . Currently, Schönram is available in the U.S. via Uplifters Spirits only in California, Colorado and Nevada, with monthly shipments to Engert’s bars on the East Coast.

Wayfinder Beer, Portland, Oregon

Opened in fall 2016 by Charlie Devereux (Hood River’s Double Mountain Brewery) and Kevin Davey (Chuckanut Brewery), Wayfinder initially focused on the lager styles of Franconia and Bohemia in a bid to stand out among the IPA-rich Portland beer scene. “It was a bold plan, and I wasn’t sure it would work,” admits Portland-based author and beer writer Jeff Alworth. “But people come for those lagers, which have quickly gained a reputation for being bang-on examples that are always in great shape.”

Davey, head brewer, excels at hoppy beers too, including innovative subgenres like Relapse Cold IPA (“a lager brewery’s answer to brut IPA,” he says) and Flower in the Kettle, a textbook example of New England–style hazy IPA. Outside of the brewery itself, Wayfinder currently distributes in and around Portland, and up in the Puget Sound region of Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.

Homage Brewing, Pomona, California

“Homage bridges Old World tradition and new-school hype in the best way possible,” says Hop Culture managing editor John Paradiso. Indeed, the nearly four-year-old brewery in east Los Angeles County ticks all the boxes for traditionalists and hazebros alike, with offerings that include ethereal and heady New England–style IPAs, acidic but balanced mixed-fermentation ales, classic pilsners and English-style ales. Husband-and-wife team Matt and Lauren Garcia have created one of the country’s chicest craft beer spaces, with a bright, airy atmosphere more in line with a third-wave coffee shop than a brewery taproom. And Homage is one of a growing cadre of breweries taking cues from natural wine and cider producers, using native yeast for fermentation and producing beers with remarkable acidity and balance. “They’re genuinely excited about fermentation,” says Paradiso.

Suarez Family Brewery, Livingston, New York

Self-described “mom and pop” brewers Taylor and Dan Suarez have forged a beer-soaked jewel of the Hudson Valley and become known for their trifecta of styles: traditional lagers, “country beers” and crispy low-ABV hoppy ales. Dan and assistant brewer Matt Moon painstakingly brew, ferment and blend some of the absolute best lagers and ales in the world, each embodying restraint, balance and delicacy. The brewery’s line of pilsners, including Palatine and Qualify Pils, are based on traditional German and Bohemian recipes recreated with pinpoint precision, while the country beers (nominally, saisons and other Belgian-style mixed-fermentation ales) are complex and intricate with layer upon layer of fruity aromatics and zippy acidity. Seeking to create a sense of place, the brewery often partners with a number of local farms for botanicals, fruits and grains that reflect the regionality of their products.

Old Schoolhouse Brewery, Winthrop, Washington

Old Schoolhouse Brewery has been around for well over a decade in the tiny town of Winthrop, Washington (pop. 394), near North Cascades National Park. But the old-school brewpub got a makeover in 2016 when new owners Jody and Troy Anderson, alongside brothers Nate and Jake Young, took over. “Their IPAs grabbed our attention first,” says Chris Elford, owner of No Anchor beer bar in Seattle. “They make both West Coast and New England styles, but both are balanced and thoughtful.” Elford also notes that the brewery’s less-buzzed-about offerings, like the Old Schoolhouse Brown Ale. “It might seem like a ‘dad beer’ to modern drinkers, but to us, it’s an ace up the sleeve when pairing with grilled foods.”

The Andersons recently upgraded from a seven-barrel system to a 15-barrel production facility in nearby Twisp, Washington, but their releases can still be hard to come by. The surest bet is to head to Winthrop itself or to seek them out in Seattle at Elford’s No Anchor or Navy Strength bars.

Brasserie Artisanale de Rulles, Gaume, Belgium

“When you talk to brewers who love Belgian beers,” says Engert of Churchkey, “they all love Rulles.” Located in the extreme southeast region of Belgium near the revered Trappist abbey of Orval, founder and brewer Grégory Verhelst crafts a small but impressive range of superb Belgian farmhouse ales. Verhelst brews seasonally and conditions his beers in long, shallow, open-fermentation basins for a distinctive house style. (Verhelst uses yeast from Orval for a portion of the fermentation.)

For years, the beers came to the States via B. United, but more recently, Rulles has been imported via C&N International, and can be found at bars like Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn and The Sovereign in Washington, D.C. The beers exude terroir, with a distinctive house yeast character that permeates the brewery’s entire lineup. Look for La Rulles Tripel, a malty, full-bodied beer with notes of ginger and banana, and Houblon Sauvage, brewed with wild hops foraged from the region surrounding the brewery.

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