It’s an almost ridiculous premise—choosing the best craft breweries of the year. All those beers to sample. All those tasting room visits to log into the tiny notebooks that we beer journalists carry with us everywhere. That’s where we write things like, “pumpernickel. I’m definitely getting a strong pumpernickel vibe.”
At the end of the year, we look at all of those notes and the catalog of reviews we’ve published and the state of the craft beer world as a whole, and we start to argue with each other about which breweries killed it this year.
Obviously there are more good beers today than any one person (or entire network of journalists) can sample in 12 months. But we’ve remained thirsty since January, and the following breweries impressed us first and foremost with the beers they sent into the world in 2013. Really, really great beers. From there, innovations, goodwill, awards, and just plain creativity all came into consideration, until finally, the arguing at Paste stopped. And we had this: The 20 Best Craft Breweries of 2013.
Did we miss a brewery? Undoubtedly. Did we make mistakes? Maybe. Read the list, argue amongst yourselves, and let us know what breweries are on your personal Best list this year in the comment section below.
20. Smuttynose Brewing, Portsmouth, N.H.
Out of all the beers Paste reviewed in 2013, only nine received a score of 8/10 or better. Smuttynose made three—its Baltic Porter, Gravitation Belgian quadrupel ale, and Farmhouse Ale. A fourth (the Stone-collaboration, Cluster’s Last Stand IPA) earned a 7.9/10. Plus, the brewer had an entry in our IPA challenge (Finestkind IPA) and two of Paste’s Top 10 summer beers (Vunderbar! and Summer Weizen). There’s simply too much good beer coming from Portsmouth these days to discount Smuttynose. Plus, it’s really fun to say “Smuttynose.”
19. The Alchemist, Waterbury, Vt.
You gotta respect a brewery that only brews one beer. Heady Topper is an unfiltered double IPA. It’s one of the most critically acclaimed beers in America, and it’s only sold at beer shops in Vermont (mostly in Burlington and Stowe) and at The Alchemist Cannery. This is pilgrimage beer here. In fact, so many people have made the pilgrimage to the Cannery, that this November, The Alchemist had to close its retail store to the public because the surrounding community couldn’t handle the traffic and crowds anymore. The good news—The Alchemist is already working on a larger retail shop where traffic and crowds won’t be an issue.
18. Green Flash, San Diego, Calif.
Green Flash is known for its big, hoppy beers and this year, they didn’t disappoint. Exhibit A: The Green Bullet, a triple IPA seasonal release that attempts to warm you through the winter with hops…and more hops. Exhibit B: Palate Wrecker, another seasonal that uses six pounds of hops per barrel. This brewery makes other West Coast-style beers look like lagers. And here’s what really has us excited—this year, Green Flash announced they’re building an East Coast brewery in Virginia Beach, Va.
17. Odell Brewing Company, Fort Collins, Colo.
Odell’s Final Four finisher in the Paste IPA Challenge (Odell IPA) may have been this brewer’s second most impressive 2013 accomplishment. With Tree Shaker, Odell managed to make a fruit-beer (peach flavored, no less) we’ll actually seek out (rated 7.2/10). Woodcut 7, a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout, was bold, experimental, and good. The brewery’s Pilot Program done good this year too, with the aforementioned Tree Shaker and wild and fruity Friek as obvious standouts.
16. New Belgium, Fort Collins, Colo.
Ah, New Belgium. Does any brewery walk the line between experimentation and broad appeal better than this juggernaut of an institution? Fat Tire is still a gateway beer for new generations being weaned from macro beer. So welcoming, so comforting. But NB is on this list for its commitment to creativity. The Lips Of Faith Series uses everything from home brew recipes to wild hairs to create bold, often magical limited releases. The brewery has collaborated out the ying-yang this year (creating beers with everyone from Patagonia to Cigar City) and even introduced a new winter IPA. It’s as if the craft brewing behemoth has something to prove. And we like it.
15. Hill Farmstead Brewery, Greensboro Bend, Vt.
Hill Farmstead is producing some of the most critically acclaimed and sought after beer in the country right now. The brewery’s Abner, an Imperial IPA, earned a 100 at ratebeer.com. So did countless other beers coming out of this tiny brewery in Vermont. In fact, Ratebeer went ahead and named Hill Farmstead their Best Brewery in the World for 2013. Here’s the only problem—Hill Farmstead only distributes on draft, and only in Vermont. If you want a bottle, you’ll have to schlep all the way to the brewery in the middle of the Green Mountain State to buy one. The store opens at noon on Wednesday. The line begins to form at 11:30. Seriously.
14. Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma, Calif.
In 2013, Lagunitas brought back the original Brown Shugga, a strong ale that was put on hiatus for two years because the brewery was at capacity and Brown Shugga is an incredibly expensive beer to make. The resurgence of Brown Shugga alone is enough to warrant a place on this list. But there’s more—Lagunitas put Hairy Eyeball in a 22-ounce bomber, this year. The Day Time IPA was a hit (so much so that it’ll be a year-round beer in 2014). And still, the “future’s so bright.” The NorCal favorite is building a massive brewery in Chicago to help infiltrate the thirsty East Coast market. It’s already one of the biggest craft breweries in the country (number six, last time we checked).
13. Russian River, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Two things are working in Russian River’s favor here: buzz and scarcity. Pliny the Elder, Russian River’s flagship, has become a darling of the beer media. Don’t even get us started on the limited Pliny the Younger. We’ll start to blush. And then there’s scarcity: The tiny brewery only distributes in three states (California, Colorado, Oregon). Add buzz and scarcity, and you get a beer that people stand in line for at the beer store. You get a beer that restaurants go on a waiting list to be able to serve. You get a beer that has its own black market on eBay. When Russian River pulled out of its distribution plans for Washington, the state went mad. They still haven’t recovered.
12. Founders Brewing Company, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Beyond having this author’s favorite porter, Founders put out a remarkable fruit-beer (the Raspberry Ale, 8.7/10) and two of the best scotch ales we sampled (Dirty Bastard and Backwoods Bastard, our top scotch ale). Toss in the fact they were working with laid off MillerCoors employees and churned out beers to christen naval ships, and it’s hard to argue Founders’ place on this list.
11. Westbrook Brewing Company, Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
Meet perhaps the best young brewery in the US (only opening in 2011). Even the fortunate folks in Tampa, Fla. recognize something special is building here, with local beer journalists comparing Westbrook to their own Cigar City: “Mexican Cake from South Carolina’s Westbrook Brewery, think Cigar City Hunahpu’s before it was famous.” The seasonal Gose set Paste staff on fire this year. Also in 2013, the brewery started canning the Gose (a practical move) and released three editions of their barrel aged Mexican Cake Imperial Stout (a creative move), which prompted Westbrook enthusiasts to brave the rain and long lines to catch a sip of the first release.
10. Dogfish Head Brewery, Milton, Del.
We’ve come up with a few timely accomplishments to help distinguish this blurb from Dogfish Head’s rightful place on previous Brewery of the Year lists: In 2013, Dogfish Head innovated by announcing a craft beer hotel and brewing with moon dust. They crafted a Grateful Dead tribute beer made from original band member recipes and a core ingredient from 1,500-fan votes (no, not marijuana but organic granola). They maintained the usual, as we’ve-come-to-expect, lineup of stellar beers—including one of Paste’s Top Pumpkin brews, Punkin Ale.
9. Boulevard Brewing, Kansas City, Mo.
The world is about to become a better place. Say what you will about the Midwest’s favorite son partnering up with global power Duvel, but the end result is that more people will get to sip Boulevard Wheat in the summer and stumble on Tank 7 when they’re thirsty for more Boulevard. As for creativity, try to wrap your head around the science and magic behind the outstanding Bourbon Barrel Quad, which is divided into separate barrels for aging at varying lengths, then given cherries, then blended again…
8. Deschutes Brewery, Bend, Ore.
It’s hard to argue against long-time craft favorites Deschutes on any Best Of list. But despite the loving legacy, they just keep producing: two silvers from the Great American Beer Festival, a gold and a silver at the US Open Beer Championships, and six best-in-US categories at the World Beer Awards (with three, including the famous Obsidian Stout, earning best-in-the-world distinctions). We loved the Inversion IPA (a Sweet 16 finisher in the IPA challenge), but it’s The Abyss Imperial Stout that one reviewer (in Seattle no less) called “the beer they’d serve at God’s wedding.”
7. Surly Brewing, Minneapolis, Minn.
Surly had the Cinderella run of our 64-beer IPA Challenge, vanquishing bigger name brewers like New Belgium, Redhook and Great Divide on its route to the Elite 8. The brewery also made waves in 2013 by announcing a destination brewery in Minneapolis (two years after being one of the main proponents behind the law making it legal to sell beer where you brew it in-state). Surly even returned to beer-thirsty Chicago in 2013. The city missed Surly so much after the brewery pulled out of the market in 2010, Time Out compared the brewer to “Bigfoot.” As the occasional lingering keg of Cynic would pop up at area bars after Surly pulled out of Chicago, Surly lovers would rush to snatch a pint, only to find the keg had vanished in the night. Well, Chicago, Bigfoot is back.
6. The Bruery, Placentia, Calif.
The small, boutique Bruery is known for pushing style boundaries by taking traditional Belgians into weird, Left Coast territory. They’re in love with bourbon barrels, and why not? Their barrel-aged program has reached transcendent levels. This year, the brewpub-only Black Tuesday, an aged Imperial Stout, sold out faster than Katy Perry tickets. Their fifth anniversary ale, Bois, didn’t disappoint. The beer world swooned over their Autumn Maple, a fall release that had 17 pounds of yams. Yams! It all just makes you excited to see what’s next.
5. Avery Brewing, Boulder, Colo.
Next to Boulevard’s partnership with Duvel, Avery may have made the most expansion waves in 2013, spreading their distribution to Oklahoma, Arizona, and San Francisco, among other thirsty locales. The brewery’s core lineup remained strong, but Avery nailed it with limited releases like the Maharaja (an Imperial IPA) the super-limited Thensaurum (a rum-barrel aged sour) and Rumpkin (a barrel-aged pumpkin beer).
4. Stone Brewing Company, San Diego, Calif.
One of the best beers we reviewed in 2013 came from the left side of the country. Stone Brewing’s Southern Charred Double Bastard Ale scored 9.2/10 and that’s not even the brew that’s garnering Stone the most attention. All of the Arrogant Bastard Incarnations over the years have become instant cult favorites. And this year, Stone’s Crime and Punishment releases are no different. What you get with Crime and Punishment (two separate beers) is two different Arrogant Bastard barrel-aged beers infused with ridiculously hot chili peppers. Spicy doesn’t come close to describe these beers. And yet, the beer world is so ga-ga, Crime and Punishment practically come with their own round of applause.
3. Bell’s Brewery, Kalamazoo, Mich.
Along with fellow notable brewery Full Sail, Bell’s had us salivating ever since they released the holy grail of beers—a bourbon-barrel aged Imperial Stout called Black Note Stout. After we wiped away the drool, we managed to drink plenty of Two Hearted Ale (an IPA that dominated the toughest path to our IPA Challenge’s final four) and revisit the classic Oberon (a wheat ale that was our second best Summer Beer). Toss in the ability to get many of these in can form soon, and Bell’s somehow continues to up its already sky-high standard.
2. Cigar City Brewing, Tampa, Fla.
There are two yearly beer-snob traditions: find the best IPA, and find good pumpkin beers each fall. Both quests led to Tampa in 2013. Cigar City’s Good Gourd was one of Paste’s Best Pumpkin choices and the second-highest beer we reviewed all year-long (9.1/10). The Jai Alai IPA took second-place in our 64-beer IPA challenge. Neither of those is even the most exciting development at Cigar City, as the brewery expanded to create a unique offering in Puerto Rico (Dry-Hopped on the High Seas) and started on mead and cider production at home. Add in a collaboration with New Belgium—a chili beer aged in Spanish oak—and you’ve got one of the most creative breweries in the country right now.
1. Firestone Walker, Paso Robles, Calif.
By far the most competitive category at this year’s Great American Beer Festival was American-style IPAs (252 beers were submitted, nearly double the second toughest category). And out of all the country’s best, Firestone Walker finished… second. Huh? Hats off to Barley Brown’s Brew Pub in Baker City, Ore. then, because Firestone Walker’s Union Jack IPA was the best thing we tasted in our exhaustive IPA Challenge. At any rate, they took home three other golds at GABF and one at the US Open Beer Championships. Yet the San Francisco beer experts favored the brewery’s XVII best of all—it’s a limited release brown ale and barley wine blend merged by local winemakers to celebrate the brewery’s 10th anniversary. Happy Birthday Firestone…will you hand out six-packs as party favors?