I remember the exact day I realized my favorite beer was no longer cool. I’d carelessly let my wife’s friend choose the bar for the evening. She’d picked one of those mediocre “plastic paddy” Irish pubs that excel in offering weekly trivia nights, SportsCenter on every TV and dirty tap lines. I figured I’d be drinking a few fingers of Jameson at best. But as I entered, I noticed a massive promotional poster, declaring, “We have Bourbon County Stout!” Indeed they did have the bourbon barrel-aged beauty from Goose Island that had held my affection for more than a decade. I ordered one for just five bucks, receiving the imperial stout in a frosty pint glass that may as well have been branded with a logo that read: “passé.”
That’s the thing: Simply tasting great doesn’t necessarily translate to getting tapped into the national zeitgeist. So, what does? Rarity, of course, continues to rule the day among beer geeks. But to really be representative of the current zeitgeist in any meaningful, and quantifiable way, a brewery’s beers have to be available beyond their taproom. Hence, for this exercise in identifying the beers that have become calling cards among the country’s top beer buyers, arbiters of beer cool, like Treehouse or Toppling Goliath, were simply not eligible.
I looked, instead, through dozens of bottle lists at top beer bars and restaurants. Since tap lists change so frequently—almost daily, in fact—bottle lists are the only way to determine what’s being represented with the greatest frequency. I examined places like Gold Star Beer Counter in Brooklyn and Monk’s Café in Philadelphia, Mikkeller Bar in San Francisco and Los Angeles and Brouwer’s Cafe in Seattle, and plenty of spots in between. I also solicited help from Gage Siegel of BeerMenus.com, who was able to examine his company’s internal data to see which breweries were consistently appearing at all the top spots in the major cities.
The breweries that dominate today are typically those from two beer importers and distributors—Shelton Brothers and 12 Percent Imports—which have become like the Michael Ovitz and Jeffrey Katzenberg of the beer world, able to make a brewery’s career by simply having them sign on the dotted line. The list is, unsurprisingly, full of American breweries, specifically those who are pushing the boundaries of flavor and tradition, alongside a few notable foreign entries that have elevated local traditions that have gone a bit stale. Below are the ten breweries that rule today’s beer lists.
The oft-named “World’s Best Brewery” used to only distribute in-state, as brewmaster Shaun Hill is a stickler for freshness. But in the past couple of years he has started sending select beer to notable spots in the New York, Philadelphia and Boston areas. Unlike the rest of the “who’s who,” Hill only allows kegs into distribution, but the presence of his beers was simply too pervasive to ignore. Still, seeing a Hill Farmstead offering on-tap, like the double IPA Society & Solitude #4, still feels like an event. Hill’s beers aren’t equipped with bells and whistles; they are about execution—capable of elevating styles as humdrum as blonde or brown ale into something special, while showing his true brilliance with hoppy beers and farmhouse ales. “The beers are that great,” explains Jon Myerow, co-owner of Tria Taproom, “[but] the demand vastly exceeds the supply.”
Whenever I see Brasserie Fantôme on a bottle list, I immediately know I’m at a great spot. The brainchild of Dany Prignon, a mop-topped madman who, it is said, doesn’t even drink beer, Fantôme breaks all the rules of farmhouse ale—and then breaks some more. While their flagship Fantôme Saison is world-class, it’s their odder offerings that keep getting this Wallonian brewery invited to the prom. Beers like Magic Ghost, brewed with green tea, and the dandelion-infused Pissenlit (literally, “pee in bed”) make their way onto top beer lists, whether that’s Adobe Blues in Staten Island or Washington’s top-notch Brasserie Beck.
“I can say that 90 percent of the best craft beer bars carry beer from these breweries at any given time,” Siegel tells me before presenting BeerMenus’ findings, adding, “but it’s not likely it’ll be the same beer from any given brewery at any given time.” This is why it’s remarkable that Evil Twin’s Imperial Biscotti Break appears on 383 different bottle lists, by far the most of any other well-regarded offering. Owner Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, who also has his own bar Tørst, in Brooklyn, makes the kinds of ingredient-packed, barrel-aged booze bombs that define geeky imperial stout today. (Jarnit-Bjergsø’s “good twin” Mikkel Borg Bjergsø likewise finds his brewery, Mikkeller, on most top bar menus courtesy of his Beer Geek Breakfast stout.)
Even if their lambics have become increasingly rare in the states, the coolest bars and beer stores still manage to occasionally snag a case of Cantillon every now and again. In fact, when Greg Engert opened The Sovereign in early 2016, one of its biggest draws was the good half-dozen Cantillon bottlings on the opening menu, like Fou’ Foune and Lou Pepe Kriek. The Brussels brewery is so cool it even has its own worldwide event, Zwanze Day, where several dozen of the top beer bars pour the exact same Cantillon beer at the exact same time.
This little Tulsa brewery almost immediately garnered worldwide acclaim. Initially famed for founder Chase Healey’s Brett-backed farmhouse ales, their coffee, cacao nib, vanilla bean and ancho chili pepper-packed Prairie BOMB! was BeerMenus’ 2nd-most logged beer at top bars, appearing on 283 lists. Still, as Siegel notes, “It’s ironic to see Prairie top the list(s) because Chase is… a real Red, White & Blue kind of guy; he’s known to take collaborators out fishing or into the wilderness—a contrast to the marble bar tops and cramped spaces where his beer is typically consumed.”
Omnipollo’s ethos almost sounds like a comedy sketch. The Swedish brewery was started in a bold attempt to combine beer with the world of high art. Karl Grandin’s avant-garde labels (check out Potlatch or Gone) have hung in galleries and museums, while partner Henok Fentie’s recipes are likewise cutting edge, often utilizing weird adjuncts like oats, caramel sauce and even aromatic oils to make his stouts and hoppy ales. In fact, you can trace the “milkshake” craze back to Omnipollo, alongside Tired Hands. Beers like their imperial IPA, Fatamorgana, and the intentionally controversial peanut butter biscuit stout, Yellow Belly, appear frequently on hip beer lists.
More often seen as a country for reliably good wristwatches, chocolates and tennis players, Switzerland has also managed to produce one of the world’s hottest breweries. “[Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes] looks to transcend style boundaries to create graceful, complex liquids,” explains George Flickinger, a division manager for BFM’s importer, B. United. “This is best encapsulated in their Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien—a blended, wine-yeast fermented, barrel-aged beer with a beguiling acid signature and flavor profile that it picks up from a plethora of wine and spirits barrels.” B. United has also created the Zymatore Project, which allows them to further age beers from their portfolio in a variety of wine, spirits, mead and sake barrels—which is just another check for the cool box.
“Pliny the Elder is the original Double IPA, and the standard to which other DIPAs are compared,” notes Tom Peters of Monk’s Café. “Monk’s sell at least one keg per day.” Meanwhile, once-a-year tappings of Pliny the Younger still draw eager crowds. But even more significant are brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo’s world-class wine barrel-aged sours. For any bar within Russian River’s limited distribution area—the Bay area, Oregon, Colorado, Philadelphia—to not have Supplication (a pinot noir barrel-aged brown ale) or Consecration (a cabernet sauvignon barrel-aged Belgian dark ale) on their bottle list would be considered a major oversight. Chris Peters of Teresa’s Next Door notes: “[Russian River] will remain cool over time because of Vinnie’s dedication to quality and his desire to discover something different and interesting.”
Heavy metal has always had a strange, symbiotic relationship with many craft breweries (see: 3 Floyds and Surly). Mike Murphy and Colin Lenfesty of Holy Mountain are likewise inspired by the dark arts, but you wouldn’t know from their stark white, minimally-designed bottles with simple names like The Goat or The Seer. These beers and others now dominate high-end bottle lists in places like New York and their hometown of Seattle. Like many “of-the-moment” breweries, they have no flagship beers, instead they focus on a variety of mixed-fermentation saisons and wild ales, many brewed using local microflora.
“Off Color is craft beer postmodernism,” says Siegel, noting that they can do a collaboration with a brewery as corporate as MillerCoors and not only does it not hurt their cred—it somehow makes them seem even cooler. (That beer, Eeek!, was a wild yeast-fermented take on Miller High Life.) John Laffler—formerly of Goose Island—specializes in offbeat takes on less-than-sought-after styles like braggot (barley-brewed mead), sahti (a yeasty, juniper berry ale) and gotlandsdricka (smoked rye beer), but he’s also not afraid to make a geek-friendly s’mores stout. Adds Siegel: “Consider it an education to always order whatever you see from them.”
Other Notable Mentions:
Almanac, Anchorage, Cascade, Crooked Stave, Oxbow, Perennial, De Dolle, Jester King, Jolly Pumpkin, The Lost Abbey.