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The World's Best Beer Cities
It seems that every respectable beer site should have some top lists, and after recently reading several atrocious ones, I decided it was time we had our own. This list ranks the world's best cities for beer lovers to visit. Before we start, we need to define 2 things:
Based on these criteria, I can already promise you that you won't see places like Mexico City, Hanoi, Melbourne, etc. on this list (Yeah Frommers, you know who you are). Solely from a beer standpoint, these places would be disappointing at best for a true beer lover.
- What is a beer lover? Sure, there are people that drink 24 Budweisers everyday and might claim they love beer. That's not beer, and that's not love. That is an addiction to sadness. The cities we list are for those who, bare minimum, appreciate craft beer. They are most often people that like to try new beers, new styles, and expand their horizons.
- What are the criteria for the cities? Unlike some of these other top city lists, ours won't be based on how many million barrels they produce every year (Sorry Milwaukee and St. Louis), and we won't pick a place for having an exceptional nightlife and a brewery or 2 (Sorry New Orleans and Bangkok). It is based on a combination of the following:
- Number of craft breweries and brewpubs per capita
- Quality and variety of styles produced by local breweries
- Proliferation of bars and restaurants with excellent beer menus
- Availability of local and foreign beers (i.e. specialty beer markets)
- Major beer festivals
- Beer laws
- The homebrewing scene
- My feelings and personal bias
Now that we've defined the list, let's begin!
1. Portland, Oregon, USA
Let's first deal with the elephant in the room; BeerTutor is based in Portland, and many will call us homers for listing this first. Consider for a moment that we might be located here BECAUSE Portland is 1st, and after reading the following facts, it seems difficult to mount an argument against this ranking.
Portland (and to a large degree Oregon) is obsessed with beer. It is a city where its weird to have a conversation without the word being mentioned at some point. It is a city more often referred to by one of its many nicknames; "Beervana", "Munich on the Willamette", or the official nickname enacted by the mayor, "Beertown". It is a place where people are continously finding creative ways to peddle beer such as the homebrewer that accepts donations to drink homebrew in his basement, beer theaters, bike beer delivery services, and beer trucks servicing the food cart pods. But there is so much more...
For starters, there are currently 31 breweries in Portland proper and that is the most of any city in the world. Keep in mind, we aren't just talking per capita, that figure is outright the most. If you take the metropolitan area into account, there are at least 75 breweries and brewpubs. Noteworthy brewers include Widmer Brewing Company, BridgePort, Hair of the Dog, Cascade Brewing Company, and Upright Brewing Company.
Perhaps more important than the above is the general bar and dining scene. There are over a dozen specialty beer bars with massive tap and/or bottle lists, and while some of them focus on local brews, there are Belgian bars, German pubs, English pubs, and other specialty establishments. If you take it a step further and simply count bars and restaurants with 10 or more taps, the list would be uncountable. This is the norm, not the exception. While the availability of beer in bars and restaurants is excellent, the availability in stores is where the city really shines. The convenience stores carry more microbrews than most supermarkets in other cities, while some supermarkets carry hundreds of labels here. On top of that, there are around a dozen bottle shops that carry from a couple hundred to well over a thousand different beers.
What would a great beer city be without festivals? Portland is home to the annual Oregon Brewer's Festival which is one of the oldest and largest beer festivals in the United States attracting 80,000 visitors. Volunteers from the Oregon Brew Crew work the Oregon Brewer's Festival, and it is no coincidence that they are one of the oldest and largest home brewing clubs in the country. There are also several other beer festivals worth attending throughout the year. Yes, Portland has it all.
2. Brussels, Belgium
While Portland is number 1 for obsession, Belgium should be celebrated for perfection, producing some of the finest beers in the world. In addition to having the most breweries per capita in the world, the country is home to 6 of the 7 Trappist breweries utilizing techniques and recipes that have been practiced and perfected for centuries. Of particular note, is Westvleteren 12 which many, including myself, believe to be the finest beer in the world.
At less than 12,000 square miles (about the size of Maryland), Belgium is a small country with its breweries distributed all across the countryside, and you will literally hit one every 5 to 10 miles. Of the country's 213 breweries, Brussels is only home to 4 of them, however, there are 49 within 25 miles, and a whopping 119 within 50 miles. Geographically, Brussels wins the 2nd spot because it is centrally located, and the largest population center in a very small country overflowing with amazing brews. But there is more...
Brussels is home to at least 30 good beer bars including Beer Circus, Chez Moeder Lambic, and Delirium Café. While most of them don't have much in the way of taps, they make up for it with large bottle selections. The grocery stores have a wide selection of popular Belgian staples, but if you are looking for a special treat, head to Beer Planet, Beer Mania, or one of the other many bottle shops in the city. If all else fails, just visit the breweries - the furthest one from Brussels is only 120 miles away.
Don't miss Belgian Beer Weekend held the first weekend in September at the Grote Markt. This beer festival features hundreds of Belgian beers from around the country.
3. Munich, Germany
Without a doubt, Munich gets a huge bump for being home to the world's largest beer festival, Oktoberfest. This festival has been held since 1810, attracts over 5 million people each year, and has led to thousands of "sister" celebrations across the world.
Like Brussels, Munich is only home to a handful of brewers - 6 to be exact. The difference is that they are all larger breweries including Augustiner, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräuhaus, Lowenbrau, and Spaten. Also like Brussels, the surrounding countryside is littered with many more breweries.
One of the things that makes Munich such a special destination are the many beer gardens where you can get a liter (yes, a LITER) of beer and maybe a snack if you are hungry. Many beer gardens will even allow you to bring your own food. These beer gardens started in 1812 and remain an important part of Munich's culture and social scene. When the beer gardens close, there are plenty of bars that stay open all night, and you can even have a beer walking down the street on your way.
Germany, in general, gets an extra bump for finding ways to create delicious beer despite their rigid Reinheitsgebot purity law that only allows the use of water, malts, hops, and yeast.
4. Amsterdam, Netherlands
Much better known for a different form of relaxation, Amsterdam's beer scene would suprise many, but you have to know where to look. If you do, you will find that the Netherlands' geographical location between Belgium and Germany have created a unique beer culture that is comprised of a love for imported Belgian beers as well as locally made, German bock style beers. In fact, the city has 2 annual festivals that celebrate the style - PINT Bokbierfestival and the Meibokfestival.
There are 9 brewers in the city. Although a little out of the way, Brouwerij 't IJ brews some pretty good beer and is located in a windmill. For a history lesson, you might want to check out the Heineken Experience tour and museum.
The bar situation can be tricky, and again, you have to know where to look. If you walk into your average bar or Eetcafe, you will likely find 1 or 2 taps, and they will most likely be Heineken and/or Amstel. Yes, both beers were once brewed here and remain a staple, however, there are plenty of "brown cafes" and other beer bars where you can experience the real beer culture. Must visit bars for Amsterdam include Café Belgique, Gollem, Het Elfde Gebod, and In De Wildeman to name a few. If you want to try the local flavors, don't miss Café `t Arendsnest which features 30 Dutch beers on tap and around 120 in bottles.
Availability of beer outside of the bars is somewhat of a problem in Amsterdam. While grocery and liquor stores carry a decent selection of staples, there are very few bottle shops around town. A good place to start is at BierKoning which is only a couple of blocks away from Dam Square and carries around 1,100 labels. Amsterdam is less zenophobic about beer than many other European countries, and with a little bit of looking, you should be able to find beers from around the world including the U.S..
Make sure you visit during the summer when you will find tons of outdoor seating, or you can hop on a beer bike; a patron powered bicycle bar.
5. Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen doesn't show up on most best beer cities lists, and it is a crime against beer. They don't just make Carlsberg up there. This city would make our list based solely on the quality of beer being brewed there alone, but there is much more beer culture in Copenhagen than good brewers. Let's first address the breweries.
With all of the contract brewing going on in Denmark, it is difficult to figure out exactly how many breweries and brewpubs are located in the Copenhagen area, but I think it is safe to say that the number is over 2 dozen. Beer Here, Xbeeriment, and Nørrebro are all good brewers. Meanwhile, Mikkeller, Amager, Evil Twin, and Ølfabrikken have all become standouts on the world stage. The Danes brew every style of beer imaginable including American styles that most European brewers simply won't touch - and they do them well. The craft beer revolution in Denmark happened quickly, and much of the credit can be assigned to the Danske Ølentusiaster (Danish Beer Enthusiasts) organization that has worked hard to educate people about quality beer and been involved politically to those ends.
The availability of beer is excellent and there are a good number of bars with over 10 taps and/or 50 bottles. There are plenty of restaurants with good beer menus as well. Most grocery stores have a good selection of beer, and there are a number of bottle shops to choose from. The Danes support their local brewers, but also embrace foreign beer and you should have no problem finding options from the U.S., Belgium, Germany, U.K. and other countries.
Copenhagen has beer friendly laws. For the truly efficient beer hunter, public beer consumption is allowed, and many bars stay open until 2 or 3am.
Founded by Mikkeller, there is an annual beer festival called Ølfestivaler in Copenhagen. Another annual event in Denmark is the Tour de Bière whereby cyclists race across the country visiting over 20 breweries in 10 days.
6. San Diego, California, USA
San Diegans should thank us for this ranking after being repeatedly snubbed in other such lists. A lot of people bitch about how their city fares in these types of lists, but they definitely have a legitimate gripe. To add to that, it was a really close call between Copenhagen and San Diego.
San Diego boasts 22 breweries including Alesmith, Pizza Port, Ballast Point, and Green Flash. If you count the metropolitan area, the number escalates to 51 breweries and brewpubs including the well-known Stone Brewery in nearby Escondido. Many of these breweries arose out of San Diego's well-developed homebrewing scene.
It isn't just the beer made here that is impressive, the availability of beer is excellent as well. With dozens of beer bars and approximately 50 good beer stores, the city is a beer hunter's dream destination.
Festivals? Yep, they have those too. There is the San Diego International Beer Festival, The San Diego Festival of Beer, and the San Diego Brew Fest, but the big one is San Diego Beer Week. Most beer festivals last a couple of days, but this city takes 10 days to celebrate the suds.
7. Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Montreal is a beer destination that often flies under the radar. Sure, everybody has heard of Molson, but Montreal brewers export so few of their craft beers leaving people unaware of the goodness that is brewing up there - and what is brewing up north are some delicious Belgian, American, and English style ales. Montreal is impressive in that their craft beer scene is only 10 to 15 years old, yet they have accomplished a lot in that short time. The city is home to 21 breweries and there are 38 in the metro area. Standouts include Unibroue, Dieu du Ciel, and Benelux.
Montreal's bar scene is equally impressive with a number of bars and restaurants featuring excellent tap and bottle lists. Check out Vices et Versa, l’Amère à Boire, Broue Pub Brouhaha, and Bieres et Compagnie for starters. As an added bonus, many bars stay open late.
Good beer selections are easily found in grocery stores or depanneurs (convenience stores), however, Montreal has a relatively large number of bottle shops for those looking for more.
Montreal is home to Canada's largest beer festival, Mondial de la Biere, featuring over 650 beers and 5 days of beer drinking fun. Other festivals include Chambly Bieres et Saveurs Festival and the Winter Warmer Festival.
The city also has a healthy homebrewing community featuring the MontreAlers homebrewing club which sponsors tastings, competitions and other events. There are several homebrew supply stores in the city as well. Yes, Montreal has it all.
8. Edinburgh, United Kingdom
When thinking about Scotland, most people think of scotch which is indeed very popular here. What most people don't know is that the Scots have been brewing beer for over 5,000 years. The city of Edinburgh also has a long history with beer. In fact, during the 18th and 19th centuries, brewing was one of the city's main industries, and during the 1960's the city was home to 40 breweries. Today, there are only 6 breweries which makes it sound like the beer scene here is on the decline. Just because the breweries are gone, doesn't mean the Scots love of beer has waned. And for the record, several new microbreweries have opened in Edinburgh and nearby communities this year.
In some ways, Edinburgh is a lot like Amsterdam and you have to know where to look. Many bars are tied to a particular brand of beer (macro swill), and you have to seek out independent pubs to find good tap and bottle lists. Fortunately, there are a ton of them. Definitely check out The Brauhaus and their amazing bottle list (400+). When you are done there, go to BrewDog's Pub - If you aren't familiar with Brew Dog, they are one of the UK's most creative and irreverant brewers.
Edinburgh hosts the annual Scottish Real Ale Festival and the brand new Edinburgh Independent Beer Festival.
9. Bamberg, Germany
Located in the Franconia region of Germany, this small city of only 70,000 souls has an excellent beer culture and is known as "the town built on beer". It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is home to 8 breweries including Brauerei Spezial, Brauerei Heller, and Mahrs Bräu, however, there are an additional 100+ breweries within 25 miles. In addition to the breweries, Bamberg has 2 large malting facilities (Weyermann Malz and Bamberger Mälzerei), the world’s oldest manufacturer of brewing systems (Kaspar Schulz), and the Franconian Brewery Museum.
Many of the regions of Germany are known for creating and producing specific styles of beer, and in Bamberg it is Rauchbier (smoked beer) which typically has a beechwood malt flavor that ranges from smokey to meaty (like bacon). Brauerei Heller is one of the larger and better producers of the style. It's not for everyone, but don't worry, there is much more on tap here than just Rauchbiers.
Unlike many of the other locations on this list, Bamberg doesn't have many bars with large tap or bottle lists, however, there are a lot of bars to choose from and if you do some pub crawling, you'll be exposed to quite a few labels. You might want to get an earlier start though as most of the bars close by 1am and many of them by 11pm. There are 2 bottle shops in town that each have around 100 bottles to choose from as well.
For over 60 years, Bamberg has hosted an annual beer festival called Sandkerwa that draws up to 250,000 people.
10. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Philadelphia has a storied beer history dating back 300 years, so it should come as no surprise that this is one of the top beer destinations in the world. This is quite an accomplishment for a city with 6 million residents.
We count 22 breweries and brewpubs in the metro area, however, the number of restaurants and bars with excellent beer lists can't be easily be determined due to the sheer number of them.
Philly has festivals in spades. The annual Philly Craft Beer Festival features over 50 breweries and 100+ beers in March. Then May brings the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Beer Festival, followed by the International Great Beer Expo in early June. Philadelphia Beer Week is a massive, citywide 10 day beer celebration in June, and is the largest event of its kind in the country. In July, the Philadelphia Zoo puts on the Summer Ale Festival. August is Phestiv-Ale, and October is time for the Charlie Brown Great Pumpkin Beer Festival. December brings the Valley Forge Beer Festival in the nearby town of Oaks.
Philadelphia gets knocked down the list some due to availability issues caused by some very confusing and ridiculous laws. Most grocery stores and liquor stores don't carry beer. You might find some at independent convenience stores, otherwise, you have to go to a bottle shop (there are a lot of them), or a distributor. To make matters worse, you can only buy 16 beers (192 ounces) per person, and most beer stores are closed on Sunday. Philly could easily climb higher on this list by fixing this horrific distribution problem.
11. Fort Collins, Colorado, USA
Fort Collins doesn't make this list because of Anheuser-Busch's large brewery outside the city, nor for the fact that New Belgium Brewing Company is located here. The city is Colorado's 2nd largest beer producer, but per capita, Fort Collins wins and it isn't even close. In addition to the 10 breweries and brewpubs in the city, there are many, many more within about an hour drive. The existing breweries have been expanding and more are supposedly in the works. Be sure to check out Odell Brewing Company and their excellent beer as well as Funkwerks. Oskar Blues is a solid brewer in Lyons, Colorado, and Left Hand Brewing Company in nearby Longmont is one of the best brewers in the state.
Fort Collins is blessed with some excellent beer bars. The Mayor of Old Town has 100 taps, and Tap and Handle has 74 with 64 bottles. There are a number of other bars in town with 10-40 taps.
The annual Colorado Brewer's Festival is held every June and features over 70 beers from around the state and is attended by about 30,000 people. Fort Collins is only just over an hour away from Denver's Great American Beer Festival where over 3,300 beers are sampled by 50,000 people.
Fort Collins' is home to Liquid Poets home brewing club and there are 2 good supply stores in town.
The one knock on Fort Collins (and anywhere else in Colorado) are their inane beer laws. You can only get 4% ABV beer at grocery and (in)convenience stores. For the good stuff, you have to go to a liquor store, bar or restaurant. Conversely, low alcohol beers cannot be sold anywhere except grocery and convencience stores. In spite of the dumb laws, overall, this is an excellent beer destination worthy of its moniker "Napa Valley of Craft Beer".
12. Prague, Czech Republic
Prague's beer prowess was little known in the rest of the world not too long ago. Our loss, because the Czechs have been brewing beer for over 1,000 years, and drink more of it per capita than any other country in the world. While many brewers, bars, and restaurants in Prague serve a number of German style lagers such as Marzens and Dunkles, the pilsner style is the homegrown creation and favorite. The locally grown Saaz hops set this style apart from others with their grassy flavor.
Prague has 14 breweries and brewpubs including the very large Staropramen which is the equivalent of an American macrobrewer like Coors. Like many other European cities, a lot of the bars only have 1 or 2 beers on tap, but in Prague there is an endless number of these watering holes and they don't all serve the same beers. There are also a number of more touristy specialty beer bars that have large tap and/or bottle lists such as Zlý Casy, Pivovarsky Klub, Zubatý Pes, Kulovy Blesk, and the Prague Beer Museum which is a pub and not at all a museum. Pivní Galerie is a combo bar and bottle shop with 240 beers that can be purchased to go, and there are a few other bottle shops in the city as well. Unfortunately, most of the bars shut down by 11pm.
One of the greatest things about beer drinking in Prague is the price. While many locals have suffered as touristy bars have raised prices, most visitors still aren't complaining. You can get a half liter of beer (about 34 ounces) for about $2.50. The prices will vary depending on how touristy the area is, but regardless, those prices are hard to beat!
The relatively new Ceský Pivní Festival offers 70 local Czech beers to try.
13. Asheville, North Carolina, USA
A smaller city with a population of 83,000, Asheville has a lot of beer going on and has won the Beer Town USA poll 4 years in a row. There are 13 breweries and brewpubs in the metro area. For its size there are quite a few bars and restaurants with over 10 taps and/or extensive bottle lists. There are also several good grocery stores and bottle shops. Bruisin’ Ales and Appalachian Vintner have over 1,000 bottles each.
The city has a home brewing club and 2 homebrew supply stores.
There is the annual Brewgrass Festival that will feature 43 brewers in September, 2012. Asheville also has their own Oktoberfest celebration which only features local beers, and the Winter Warmer Beer Festival in January. In addition, there are a number of beer events, clubs, tours and other beer institutions and culture in the city.
Alcohol cannot be sold between 2:30am and 7am. It cannot be sold until 12pm on Sundays.
14. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Michigan cities almost never make these types of lists despite the fact that the state is one of the best beer destinations in the world based on both quantity and quality. The problem is that the amazing beer scene is very spread out across the state. Grand Rapids on its own is a pretty good spot for beer geeks, but if you allow us to cheat a little and add Kalamazoo (50 miles away), it becomes worthy of this spot.
The area has about 300,000 people and 14 brewers. Founders is one of the best breweries in the country, and Bell's in Kalamazoo deserves equal, if not higher praise. New Holland Brewing Company in the nearby town of Holland is also a very solid brewery.
Beer is sold in grocery and convenience stores, and there are a good number of bottle shops and liquor stores that carry extensive collections. Availability still has room to grow in the restaurant and bar department.
In January, the Kalamazoo Beer Week is a series of events put on by local brewers, restaurants, bars, and other businesses. In February, the brand new Grand Rapids Beer Week occurs. While only about 7,500 people make it to the Winter Beer Festival in late February, they have the pleasure of selecting from over 450 beers. November brings the Grand Rapids International Wine, Beer & Food Festival featuring food, beer, seminars, cooking demonstrations, and other events.
Grand Rapids has a good homebrewing scene with a couple of supply stores and the Primetime Brewers home brewing club.
15. Burlington, Vermont, USA
At this point in the list, it is very difficult to determine which city will make the cut. It was a very tough decision. Burlington makes the list because this small city, in a small state, has accomplished quite a bit and the beer industry continues to expand. Vermont has the most breweries per capita in the U.S., and Burlington is right up there on the per capita list for cities. This college town of 208,000 people (metro) has an impressive 9 breweries including the large Magic Hat Brewery. The Vermont Pub & Brewery is noteworthy in that it was Vermont's first brewpub, and the founder, the late Greg Noonan, is often credited with inventing the black IPA style.
Burlington only has a few bottle shops, however, most grocery stores carry good selections. Convenience stores carry beer as well. There is also a well-stocked home brew supply store.
The Vermont Brewers Festival happens in June and features 75 beers. About half of the breweries are from Vermont and the other half from other U.S. breweries (and a couple from Canada).
- San Francisco - I am still torn on this one. SF is an excellent beer destination with many good breweries, restaurants, and bars. The best explanation I can give is this... Every place on this list takes great pride in their beer industry, and they work very hard to promote it and grow it. In some ways, SF inherited their beer industry because they got a head start on many places, and you don't get the sense that there is a "movement" happening there. It's like it happened a while ago and they are coasting now. The 2nd issue is that other than Philadelphia, most of the places on this list are easy to get around making for more practical pub crawling adventures.
- Boston - Boston is a great beer drinking destination and home to Boston Beer Company, but it just missed the list due to a lack of craft breweries.
- Dublin - Dublin has an excellent drinking culture, however, if you don't like Guinness, this isn't going to be a very fun destination. There just isn't enough variety to make this type of list.