One of Al Dente’s core beliefs is that when you travel to a new place that you should eat what the locals eat. Yes, you can go to any city in America and have a perfectly bland meal at the Olive Garden or Outback (The In-Laws love to do this.), but why not venture out and see what the people who live there eat. There are exceptions to the rule, but for carbon copy steakhouse on the Las Vegas Strip, there is a Firefly. For every random Tex-Mex joint in Dallas, there is Stampede 66.
Beer and food go together quite well in this regard. Yes, you could belly up to the bar at the Hyatt Regency in New Orleans and order a Budweiser. You could even order an Abita Turbodog, but I can get that at home. I want beer from the six other taps that I have never seen before.
The Craft Beer Movement™ has brought with it an explosion of small breweries. The Brewers Association reports that there were more than 3,400 breweries online in 2014, nearly 20 percent more than the previous year. And some of them even make good beer. Market saturation is a real concern for brewers and I still think there is time before the bottom falls out of the market. But, with 3,400 different brewhouses pumping out suds, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to carve out your niche. As with any business in a crowded space, being unique only takes you so far. Your product has to be good too.
As a service to you, dear reader, I have been reviewing beers for about 9 months. I want you to drink well. But, there’s a whole craft beer world out there with ales and lagers not made by Stone, Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head. There are some absolutely great breweries across this country and not all of them distribute to your grocer or bottle shop. Some of them are experiencing demand far greater than supply. And others are just content to be a local or regional label. This list of the Best Breweries You (Probably) Have Never Heard Of is written with my New York/Mid-Atlantic readership in mind, in no particular order, and based on beers that I have actually tasted (so, no Trillium or Alchemist included).
Deep Ellum takes its name from the neighborhood in which it was founded, Dallas’ hip enclave that makes you forget that surrounding you is billions of dollars worth of oil money. Four friends got together to start the brewery in 2011 and it has expanded into one of the state’s preeminent breweries. It’s already the city’s largest and it continues to grow as does demand. Deep Ellum has placed itself at the forefront of the Craft Beer Movement™ in Texas, leading a lawsuit against the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to make legal the sale of six packs at breweries.
Best Known For: Deep Ellum IPA, a big and bold west coast IPA.
Try to Find: Cherry Chocolate Double Brown Stout, a rich, lush beer with explosive flavor.
Look up Roseland, Va. on Wikipedia and you get three facts: it’s an unincorporated community in Nelson County, it was flooded by Hurricane Camille, and it’s home to Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company. The brewery began in the middle of the last decade as part of a planned business development in the area. Of course, 2008 brought us a tanking economy and that business district never really got off the ground. Well, except for Devil’s Backbone, which flourished. It began bottling a few years later and spreading throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
The husband-and-wife team behind Devil’s Backbone were inspired by their first glass of Weihenstephan, while skiing in Italy, and discovering American craft brewers while traveling in California. The result is the marriage of Bavarian and Belgian traditions with West coast brewing innovation.
Best Known For: Vienna Lager, a smooth, creamy amber that you want to drink by the case.
Try to Find: Schwartz Bier, which is loaded with toasted malts and finishes dry and crisp.
I’m biased and partial to this brewery from Long Island. My sister has come to know the owner and brewmaster, who is a Syracuse University graduate and anesthesiologist. When my sister had her tonsils out a few years back, he brought her pumpkin ale popsicles to take the edge off. Anyhow, Great South Bay has emerged as one of the most popular and decorated independent breweries on Long Island and it has expansion on the brain. Plans are in the works to expand statewide, as soon as it can meet the demand for its products in New York City and Long Island and the I-87 corridor Upstate. GSB took home a pair of gold medals at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival, including one for the Pro-Am competition.
Best Known For: Blood Orange Pale Ale, which is as you might guess, a pale ale with blood orange.
Try to Find: Blonde Ambition, a summertime wheat ale with a fruity finish.
Lazy Magnolia came online in 2005, making it the first brewery in the state to do so since the states ratified the 18th Amendment and gave us Prohibition. Officially, Mark and Leslie Henderson began brewing beer in their home before she took classes and did her apprenticeship. Her husband worked the financial angle to shore up investors and a home for their business. Hurricane Katrina halted their plans, destroying their home and pressing the pause button temporarily, but since then Lazy Mag has become one of the South’s best breweries. It celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2015.
Lazy Mag’s 60-barrel brewhouse and 20 fermenting tanks are located in Kiln, Mississippi, about one hour from New Orleans.
Best Known For: Southern Pecan, a brown ale brewed with whole roasted pecans. Malty, sweet and a great nutty finish.
Try to Find: Timber Beast, a rye pale ale packing a subtle 8.9% ABV.
Owner Eric Williams and his brewmaster Ryan Maloney embody what craft beer should be: good people brewing good beer and having fun doing it. I had the chance to spend some time at Mispillion River this summer and really liked what I heard and saw. MRBC just brought on new tanks to fuel its expansion into South Jersey and Philadelphia.
Best Known For: Reach Around IPA, a basic, balanced IPA, and Beach Bum Joe, a Belgian-style wheat.
Try to Find: Praetor, a smooth porter with a rich, warm flavor and mouthfeel.
Moody Tongue brews what it calls “culinary beers,” or beers made with and complementary to foods and spices. Take its lemon saison, for instance. It is full of lemon peel, pepper, and lemongrass. These are not unusual for a lemon beer or a saison, but the beer was planned and thought through from the perspective of a chef. Jared Rouben, owner and brewmaster, once worked in the kitchen at Thomas Keller’s Per Se and moved on to running the brewing operations at Goose Island’s brewpubs before striking out on his own. The same with the Nectarine IPA or the $100 per bottle Black Truffle Pilsener. These are complex beers intended to stimulate the palate like a fine wine.
Best Known For: Steeped Emperor’s Lemon Saison.
Try to Find: The Black Truffle Pilsener, if you can afford it. Otherwise, go for the Caramelized Chocolate Churro Baltic Porter
Myrtle Beach screams generic beach town. It’s home to every franchised restaurant imaginable, more Hooters locations than one city deserves, and far too many tourists content to eat fast food and golf. The idea of Myrtle Beach offends me as a person. But, it is home to one of the south’s better breweries. New South debuted in the late 1990s with its draft-only products. It was not until 2009 that it began canning its beer and selling it throughout the Palmetto State.
Best Known For and Try to Find: White Ale, New South’s popular Belgian-style wit with a robust citrus and herb makeup. This is the beer Blue Moon wants to make.
Orange Blossom started out like most of the breweries on this list; as a basement/garage hobby that exploded into a full-time job. Tom Moench outgrew his garage after a prodigious start in 2007. He contracted the brewing of his one beer — Orange Blossom Pilsener — to South Carolina, but found himself capacity limited as the brewery needed to make its own product. He returned the brewing to Florida in 2014, added a few more beers to the repertoire, and has watched his business expand across a state best known for Cigar City.
Best Known For and Try to Find: Orange Blossom Pilsener, a clean and light beer made with local honey that is fermented and brewed into the beer.
Some beers you drink and, if not for Untappd, would be lost in a drunken haze. Others emerge from the alcohol only to linger in the back of your head until the next time you get within 100 miles of the brewery. I don’t know the next time I will get to Texas, but I must have more Revolver beer.
There is nearly zero information about this brewery online other than it is owned by a father and son, brewing is overseen by them and a certified Cicerone, and they are located in a small town about 90 minutes from Downtown Dallas. Revolver’s beers are exceptional, difficult to find and worth savoring.
Best Known For: Blood & Honey, a 7% ABV ale with blood orange and local honey.
Try to Find: Sidewinder, a pale ale with agave, maize and a ton of Citra hops.
This is kind of unfair because 3 Floyds is in the pantheon of most sought after and highly regarded breweries. It’s on the same tier as Russian River, Deschutes, Hair of the Dog and the Alchemist. Way back before the Craft Beer Movement™ took off in earnest, you could find Alpha King and Gumballhead (I think) in the Northeast. Demand skyrocketed in the mid-2000s and 3 Floyds scaled back. By focusing on smaller batches, 3 Floyds can tightly control the quality of its beer. Of course, the lesser supply means a distribution range that doesn’t stray much past the Ohio River. But, if you get to Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky or Wisconsin, it’s a must find.
Best Known For and Try to Find: Zombie Dust. It is among the highest-rated IPAs on the market and one of the most demanded on Reddit’s /r/beertrade. That said, Alpha King is one heck of a pale ale.