There are some things in life that people simply have to experience first hand. Riding a roller coaster. Catching a wild brook trout. Running a mile for time. Dating someone out of your league…this is what life is all about. If you’re a baseball fan, you have to see a game at Wrigley Field. If you eat food, you have to try the spicy fried chicken at Gus’s Fried Chicken in Memphis. You just have to. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced that chicken.
Likewise, if you’re a beer drinker, there are certain beers you have to drink. At least once. We’ve thought long and hard about what those quintessential beers are—the ones that everyone should try—and we’ve come up with a hearty list of 100 that define the American craft beer scene. Some of these beers would be considered the best beers in the country, if not the world. Others can hold their own, but earned a spot on this list because of the role they played in the craft beer movement. Is this a definitive list of beers everyone should try? Dear Lord, no. If you truly love beer, you should try them all. Even the bad ones. At least once. But this list will get you started.
Here’s the first round from the master list—we’ll be counting down all week. We hope you’re thirsty.
100. Dale’s Pale Ale
Brewery: Oskar Blues
City: Lyons, Colo.
Description: Look, this is the beer that started the can-revolution. If it weren’t for Dale’s, we wouldn’t have Bell’s in a can. Or Sweetwater, or…you name it. Someone had to go first, and Oskar Blues was that someone. The fact that this is a really good pale ale (a bit of citrus and bitterness underscored by just enough bready, malt backbone) is just icing on the cake. What we really loved (and still love) was that this was the first good beer you could take on the river.
99. Breckenridge Vanilla Porter
Brewery: Breckenridge Brewery
City: Breckenridge, Colo.
Description: A foundation of chocolate and roasted nuts is enlivened by the addition of vanilla beans in this porter that is so decadent, I’m always amazed it’s a year-round beer. It has such depth of character, you’d expect it to be an annual Christmas present. But nope, you can pick up a sixer of this treat any time you want.
98. Brooklyn Brewery Lager
Brewery: Brooklyn Brewery
City: New York City
Description: Consider this the antithesis to all of the super-hopped IPAs you’ll find on this list. Brooklyn’s Vienna-style lager is mellow, subtle, biscuity but not bland. This has more depth than most American lagers you’ll come across—more malty amber than crisp lawnmower beer.
97. Surly Brewing Darkness
Brewery: Surly Brewing Company
City: Minneapolis, MN.
Description: It’s a good thing this vicious Russian imperial stout only comes around once a year. It’s burly, pushing 10% ABV and 85 IBUs, but decadent with heavy notes of chocolate, raisins and coffee. Clear your schedule in October. This beer demands a commitment.
96. New Belgium Fat Tire
Brewery: New Belgium Brewing
City: Fort Collins, Colo.
Description: It’s easy to gloss over the importance of Fat Tire in today’s dynamic craft beer scene, but youngsters please remember, this was the beer that prompted many an East Coaster to make a pilgrimage across the Mississippi. For many of us, Fat Tire was the gateway brew into the tasty world of craft beer.
95. Gigantic IPA
Brewery: Gigantic Brewing Company
City: Portland, Ore.
Description: Gigantic is a fickle bunch known for only producing one-off beers. Catch them while you can, because once they’re gone, they’re gone. Except for the Gigantic IPA. That one’s always on tap, always citrusy, always hoppy, and yet it shows some restraint compared to other West Coast IPAs, which seem to be battling it out for hoppiest brew.
94. NoDa Hop Drop n Roll
Brewery: NoDa Brewing
City: Charlotte, N.C.
Description: Okay, this is a relatively new beer compared to some others on this list, but let’s talk street cred—Hop, Drop ‘n Roll won gold for American-style IPA at the 2014 World Beer Cup. Boom. If you’re looking for an IPA style model, look no further than this hoppy brew. Plus, it comes in Tall Boy cans. Respect.
93. Sam Adams Boston Lager
Brewery: Boston Beer Company
City: Boston, Mass.
Description: Okay, if there’s one beer on this list that everyone’s probably already tried, it’s Sam Adams Boston Lager. For decades, Boston Lager was essentially your only craft beer option. Picture your standard bar in the ‘80s and early ‘90s with a half dozen taps full of macro crap, then on the end, there’s Sam Adams, offering refuge.
92. Green Flash Palate Wrecker
Brewery: Green Flash Brewing
City: San Diego, Calif.
Description: The bottle of this Imperial IPA says, “aggressive,” and for once, the marketing speak is an understatement. Do not trifle with this 9.5%, hop-charged beer. Green Flash recently changed the recipe of some of their flagship beers to be more like Palate Wrecker, and for good reason: once you have a beer like this Imperial IPA, your standard IPA doesn’t quench your thirst anymore.
91. Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
Brewery: Dogfish Head
City: Milton, Del.
Description: Dogfish Head continuously hops this beer for 90 minutes (thus the name), then throws in some dry hopping to create one beast of an imperial IPA clocking in at 9% and 90 IBUs. But what I truly respect about 90 Minute, is that you can get this beer any time of year, almost all over the country. It’s a big beer, but also an accessible and consistent beer. Not an easy task.
90. Pipeworks Citra
Brewery: Pipeworks Brewing Company
City: Chicago, Ill.
Description: Pine and citrus battle it out inside this big, 22-ounce imperial IPA. It’s nice to see the Middle of America knocking the West Coast style of IPA out of the park. Citra often gets compared to IPA standouts like Heady Topper, so expect something life-changing if this is your first experience.
89. Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen
Brewery: Widmer Brothers
City: Portland, Ore.
Description: Widmer Brothers has been putting out quality beers for 30 years and it’s one of the few American breweries that claims a Hefeweizen as their flagship beer. In other words, this is the American Hefe that all other American Hefe’s are judged by. This is the beer that we put a lemon wedge in first.
88. The Bruery Saison Rue
Brewery: The Bruery
City: Placentia, Calif.
Description: Ah, the Saison—the once-obscure farmhouse style of ale that American craft breweries have breathed new life into. Saison Rue is at least a little bit responsible for that revival thanks to its complex notes of spice, yeast and funk. See the full review here, but be forewarned, Saison Rue might be your “gateway drug into the high-end micro brew scene.” In other words, be prepared to get a second job.
87. Foothills Brewing Sexual Chocolate
Brewery: Foothills Brewing
City: Winston Salem, N.C.
Description: This is one of those much-anticipated annual releases that people line up for the day before it’s released. The fact that this imperial stout has one of the best names in the business is probably reason enough to pick up your first bottle (you should definitely get the t-shirt, too). But you’re almost guaranteed to seek out a second bottle after you sample the silky, cocoa goddess inside.
86. Avery Uncle Jacob’s Stout
Brewery: Avery Brewing Company
City: Boulder, Colo.
Description: Yes, another imperial stout (and we’re only in the mid-80s of this list!), but I haven’t met a beer geek yet who could resist Uncle Jacob, part of Avery’s much-loved annual barrel-aged series. The stout hangs out in bourbon barrels for six months. In a word, it’s robust. And potent. Okay, that’s two words. At over 17%, it’s one of the biggest beers you’ll find in a 12-ounce bottle.
85. The Alchemist Focal Banger
Brewery: The Alchemist
City: Waterbury, Vermont
Description: The Alchemist is famous for brewing Heady Topper (a double IPA you’ll see further down this list), but Focal Banger is Heady Topper’s more restrained little brother. For years, The Alchemist only brewed and canned Heady Topper, but Focal Banger now literally doubles the boutique brewery’s options. It’s new, it’s hot, and now you can find it in cans…if you’re in Vermont and happen to catch one of The Alchemist’s pop-up can sales.
84. Hill Farmstead Abner
Brewery: Hill Farmstead
City: Greensboro, VT.
Description: Another small Vermont brewery here, except instead of a superior IPA, we have a superior double pale ale. Forget the style guidelines, this beer is unfiltered and double dry-hopped. The IBUs are off the charts, so don’t go looking for the balance you’d typically find in a pale ale. Just gear yourself up for an extraordinary hop experience.
83. Westbrook Gose
Brewery: Westbrook Brewing Company
City: Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Description: The Gose is a recently revived German-style of sour wheat beer that incorporates salt and coriander. Our editor in chief went ga-ga for Westbrook’s version, which is in fact “sour, salty, and delicious” as the label suggests. This is a low ABV, summer beer, but nothing like the low ABV summer beers that you’re used to.
82. Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA
Brewery: Firestone Walker
City: Paso Robles, Calif.
Description: This is a true interpretation of the West Coast IPA, with plenty of grapefruit and hop bitterness on the backend, but there’s a real sense of balance here as well. And after drinking some of the double IPAs you’ll find on this list, Union Jack might feel downright understated.
81. Highland Cold Mountain Winter Ale
Brewery: Highland Brewing Company
City: Asheville, N.C.
Description: Can you bottle Christmas? Yeah, Highland can. The recipe changes slightly every year, but you’re guaranteed to find a malty, slightly spicy, incredibly vanilla treat inside each bottle. Sadly, like Santa Claus, Cold Mountain only comes around for briefly every winter. And supplies never last. Get it if you can.