The craft beer scene is the U.S. has exploded over the past decade. We at Backpacking with the Bonds often incorporate visits to local craft breweries whenever we travel, not only because we love craft beer, but because craft breweries offer a great way to support local businesses and ensure you have an impactful travel experience. To put that impact into perspective, the craft brewing industry, which is on the rise, contributed $55.7 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 424,000 jobs in 2014 according to the Brewers Association.
What exactly is a craft brewery? Well, the Colorado-based Brewers Association defines a craft brewery as brewery which distributes no more than 6 million barrels of beer a year, has less than 25% ownership by a non-craft brewery (like Anheuser-Busch InBev), and whose majority output consists of “beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.”
Having visited over 30 craft breweries across the United States, we are often asked, which have been our favorites? So we put together this list of our top five craft breweries, not in any particular order and certainly not complete, of our favorite U.S. craft breweries. We have selected each of the following based on the tasting room, staff, and selection and quality of the beer.
Avondale Brewing Company - Birmingham, AL
The Avondale Brewing Company, located in the Avondale area of Birmingham, is situated in a historic building that has been home to a wide range of businesses including a post office, firehouse, bank, and even a bordello. It happened to be the first brewery we visited during our trip to Alabama. We each had a flight that included six of the twelve beers that they have on tap.
While the flight was one of the priciest I have ever had at $20, it did include 6 beers, while most are only 4. The airy, firehouse set-up certainly adds to the experience. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable about the music scene in Birmingham, a great resource for anyone visiting from out of town. My two favorites are the Mill City White and the Vanillaphant Porter.
Hellbender Brewing Company - Washington, DC
Located in our home district of Washington, DC, Hellbender Brewing Company is one of DC’s smaller breweries, both in terms of the size of their tasting room and in their selection of beers. They have a core selection of 6 beers, which now includes a nitro and they sometimes offer collaboration beers from breweries outside the DC area.
While I will not rave about the aesthetics of the taproom, I do love that all of the seating is communal tables and they have lots of games on offer. Hellbender is located in a quiet neighborhood in upper Northeast Washington, meaning it's often not crowded. My favorite beers are the Red Line Ale and the refreshing Southern Torrent Saison, which can be found in a handful of DC restaurants and bars, like Takoda Restaurant and Beer Garden and Coppi’s Organic in Cleveland Park.
Braxton Brewing Company - Covington, KY
The story of the Braxton Brewing Company, located in the downtown area of Covington, is a familiar one for many craft brewers. It all starts with one person or a group of friends in a basement or a garage pursuing a hobby, doing something they love and care about. What’s unique to Braxton is the fact that it was started by a 16-year-old, Evan Rouse of Union, Kentucky. Through the support of his family, Evan pursued his love of brewing craft beer which eventually gave rise to Braxton Brewing Company.
The brewery and its taproom are set in a large warehouse offering a wide selection of core, seasonal, garage, and heritage craft beers-over 20 different options! The brewery also has a large patio, perfect for a warm summer evening, and lots of communal seating inside! It was busy during my Friday night visit. I enjoyed the coffee-infused stout so much, my second flight consisted of all the remaining dark beers they offer. Other notable beers are the popular Crankshaft IPA and the truly unique Wobble Lavender Saison.
Smith & Lentz - Nashville, TN
Located in East Nashville, Smith & Lentz Brewing Company is part of a craft brewery boom sweeping the city. The brewery, open roughly two years now, is situated in a large warehouse on the main street across from Edley’s and the Filling Station (two other awesome places to check out in Nashville).
The tasting room, located next to the actual brewery is spacious and complete with large communal tables, games like Sorry and Trouble (which we of course played), and, best of all, ping-pong tables! Smith & Lentz offers an excellent selection of beers, but the Mosaic IPA, el Cuatro IPA, and the Saison were among my favorites. Really friendly staff who didn't mind that we shut the place down on a Sunday night.
New Belgium - Fort Collins, CO
Fort Collins has a large selection of craft breweries, but one stands out from the rest: New Belgium. Well known for its Fat Tire Ale, visiting New Belgium offers you the chance to taste a wide selection of seasonal and experimental beers you can’t often find in stores or bars, like the Orange Creamsicle Ale, that was light and of course had a hint of an orange creamsicle and Blackberry Barley Wine, which if you have ever had barley wine has a distinctive hoppiness to it, with a dose of blackberry. Not only is the beer selection great, but the tasting room is large and the bar staff is knowledgeable, engaging, and friendly. New Belgium is entirely employee-owned.
One of the great things about a visit is that for no cost you can mail postcards to friends and family from the brewery telling them how much fun you are having. While they don’t sell food themselves, they do have a food truck outside that has some amazing food If you are interested, tours can be arranged, but must be done well in advance.
All photography by Albert Bond