Another year is coming to a close and here at Great Beer Now, I like to reflect back on the previous year and think about all the places I visited, beer I enjoyed, and new friendships I made. A quick check of my beer travel log reveals 52 new breweries visited during the 2017 calendar year, with special trips to places as diverse as California, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, and others. I visited large scale craft breweries brewing well over 100,000 barrels per year as well as small, startup operations with production levels below 1,000 barrels annually. Large or small, each brewery visit was a highly anticipated adventure and I never completely knew what to expect.
Many beer bloggers like to highlight their favorite beers from the past year but since travel and brewery visits are such an important part of life for me, I decided instead to select what I feel are my five favorite breweries of 2017. My ratings are based on much more than the quality of the beer. To me, a great brewery is as much about atmosphere, people, and its ability to reflect the local beer culture as it is about the tastiness of the brew itself. So, taking all of these factors into account, here are my Top Brewery Visits from 2017:
5. SLO Brew
Living in the flat plains of the Texas coast, any opportunity to see and experience rolling terrain is a welcome reprieve and this is part of the reason I anticipated so highly my visit to San Luis Obispo, California. I found much to love about this mountainous college town, and among all of the breweries I visited, SLO Brew ranks at the very top of my list and the reasons go far beyond the beer. SLO Brew is also a restaurant as well as a brewery and it even features its own lodging, the SLO Lofts, right in the heart of downtown. I had the pleasure of staying in the highly retro and extremely cool SLO Lofts during my visit and enjoyed very much the close proximity of freshly brewed beer, which was brewing right underneath my sleeping quarters. SLO Brewing also operates The Rock, another brewing facility, tasting room, and entertainment center, located south of town, close to the airport. With so much to offer, SLO Brew speaks to everyone’s hedonistic side, and easily ranks among the best breweries I visited during the 2017 year.
4. Sierra Nevada, River Mills NC
Everyone is familiar with Sierra Nevada. The Chico, California based brewery has been serving its craft suds since 1979 and is considered one of the most influential breweries in the Unites States, inspiring countless other individuals across America to ditch their day jobs and open breweries of their own. My brewery visit, however, was not to the original location, but rather to Sierra Nevada’s east coast location in River Mills, North Carolina, just a short drive from Asheville. Driving to this brewery and entering the roadway leading to the entrance, you feel like there has to be something special up ahead. And indeed there is, as the Sierra Nevada brewery in River Mills is a huge operation, with an impressive tap room, guided and self- guided tours, educational opportunities, and more. The interior is clean as a whistle and as you walk down the halls, you can’t help but feel a great sense of admiration and respect for American brewing and how far it has come, thanks in large part to Sierra Nevada Brewing and its pioneering spirit. The California facility is very cool as well, but I recommend a stop at this, the eastern Sierra Nevada location, easily one the best breweries I visited n 2017.
3. August Schell
If you love beer and brewing history, then a brewery you must find the time to visit is August Schell, located in New Ulm, Minnesota, about an hour and a half south of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Any visit to August Schell should, and must, include a tour because it is here that you get to learn so much about this historic brewery and its influence. The tour starts in the brewery’s own museum where guests get to learn about the August Schell family and what life was like for a man and his brewery back in the 1800’s. You get to learn about the business climate of the time, relationships with Native Americans, and the challenges of brewing beer during some of the darker chapters of the American past, including of course the era of prohibition. The tour ends with a tasting back in the tasting room, but even after you leave, you cannot stop thinking about August Schell Brewing. Its historical significance remains with you and for these and other reasons, it ranks among my top brewery visits of 2017.
2. Surly Brewing
Breweries appeal to me for different reasons. As I stated in my opening, I like breweries that present a memorable atmosphere and that personify what the local craft beer scene is all about. A perfect example of this is Surly Brewing, located in Minneapolis. I was already familiar with Surly Brewing from tasting its beers at festivals and even though the brewery is worlds apart from my home base in Houston, Texas, I still hear about it regularly, so I already had a good idea what to expect when I paid a visit. Surly Brewing was every bit as incredible as I imagined, with a large tasting area, outdoor space for entertainment, full service restaurant, and a certain level of rebelliousness that is perfectly befitting of this part of the country. I spent nearly three hours at Surly Brewing and would have stayed even longer had it not been for my flight back home, scheduled for the same day, in the early evening. It’s one of the coolest breweries around and easily ranks among my top brewery visits of 2017.
1. Founders Brewing
And which brewery wins the top spot? Well, it is none other than Founders Brewing, a brewery Great Beer Now has often touted as the greatest brewery in the world! Well, the facility is every bit as impressive as the beer, with a large restaurant and tasting area and a brewhouse that is breathtaking in its size and use of modern technology. The tours follow along on a catwalk, above the brewhouse, which is perfect for seeing how immense the place truly is, taking good pictures, and listening to your tour guide. The tour ends in a separate tasting room where you get to enjoy some of that world famous Founders beer, like Centennial Ale, Founders Porter, Backwoods Bastard, and so many more. You may be tempted to stick with the Founders beers you know and love, but I recommend trying any new beers that happen to be on tap. Founders brews them, so you know they are going to be lip- smacking delicious.
2017 has been an unforgettable year for so many reasons. I have already labeled this as the ‘Year of the Highly Improbable’ and I think many people will agree with my assessment, since 2017 brought with it so many unexpected and unwelcome surprises, from massively destructive hurricanes like Harvey and Maria to mass shootings in Las Vegas and elsewhere to devastating wildfires in California. It was a year where the unexpected became the norm, and many people I talk to say they cannot wait to put this hideous piece of history behind them.
As ugly as 2017 may have been, it was an excellent year for craft beer and a memorable year for Great Beer Now. I went on several beer- centric vacations, toured dozens of new breweries, and attended many unforgettable beer festivals. The five breweries spotlighted above are what I feel at the cream of the crop, but there were many others I visited and love that deserve honorable mention, among them Central Coast Brewing in San Luis Obispo, CA; Highland Brewing in Asheville, NC; Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, MI; and Warped Wing Brewing in Dayton, OH, just to name a few.
The new 2018 year is now upon us. Great Beer Now looks forward to many more brewery visits along with the amazing craft beer and equally amazing people who work at them, from the brewmasters to the wait staff to the bartenders and beyond. Cheers to 2018, and may all of your beer wishes come true!