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Whether a byproduct of the “eat local” movement or simply an evolution of taste, beer is now fetishized like wine. That’s good news for ale-loving tourists, who have more reasons than ever—2,538 to be exact—to embark on a sudsy vision quest. That’s the total number of American breweries at last count (June 2013), a figure that’s more than doubled in the past 20 years, according to the Brewers Association.
But unlike oenophiles, who have a number of well-established, well-marketed regions to plan a trip around, beer geeks have to create their own itineraries. This is tougher than you’d think. Most big American cities—and many small ones—boast a decent craft beer producer—that is, a small, independent brewery or brewpub that produces fewer than six million barrels per year.
In other words, every region is the best beer region in the U.S. Some places are legends, such as Colorado, where the universally lauded New Belgium Brewery brews its magic; others are relative newcomers to the craft beer scene. The American South, for example, is home to upstarts such as Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina.
The Beer Mapping Project makes things a little easier. The website maps U.S. breweries by city and region, layering in user reviews and a “beer trip planner” that lets you plot your own course. But unless you know what you’re looking for, the site can be daunting.
An easier method to beer travel: Find a critical mass of great beer cities that are within 400-mile swath (or whatever you deem doable), then pinpoint the finest beer concerns in each and hit the road. Industry standard brew review sites BeerAdvocate and RateBeer can help with the latter.
Here’s a sample itinerary that filters this strategy through an adventure travel lens and, admittedly, a personal bias (I love the beer of the Pacific Northwest). Of course, beer journeys are a matter of taste, so graft this somewhat scientific methodology onto any region in the U.S. and get going.
Region: Pacific Northwest
Breweries of Note:
Deschutes Brewery; Bend, Oregon
Brews Mirror Pond Pale Ale and The Abyss, one of the highest-rated beers on BeerAdvocate.
Upright Brewing; Portland, Oregon
RateBeer named its Special Herbs seasonal ale a top release for 2013.
Elysian Brewery; Seattle, Washington
Beloved brewpub chain.
Sound Brewery; Poulsbo, Washington
Maker of top-notch Belgian-style ales.
Where to stay:
Bend: The Oxford Hotel
Portland: The Jupiter Hotel
Seattle: Ace Hotel, Seattle
Poulsbo: Foxbrier Cottage
What to do: Fly-fish in Bend, bike around Portland, hike Discovery Park in Seattle, take the ferry to Poulsbo