Beer is made from barley, hops, yeast and statute. We tend to forget, but the bearded men with sweaty brows who toil over copper tanks of wort have to appease not only drinkers but the people in wingtips and pantsuits gathered under the statehouse dome.
In Tennessee, you couldn't make Rogue's classic Dead Guy Ale without a distillers' license. In Kansas, no beer with more than 3.2 percent alcohol by volume can be sold in the grocery store, meaning an easy-sippin' barbecue beer like BridgePort Summer Squeeze comes from a shady liquor store with barred windows. In Alabama, home brewing is totally illegal, with an upstart brewer facing a felony for boiling the kinks out of his recipes. And across the country, distribution laws are tilted to protect Big Beer, which is why Apex doesn't pour anything from the acclaimed Three Floyds, and Cowboys fans in Portland can't sip Lone Star while they watch America's Team on Sunday.
Beer is liquid culture, and America's tapestry of wildly varied laws creates very different visions of what's popular or possible.
Trivial issues, you might say, especially with an important election looming. Why write about beer instead of something "important"?
A fair point. Except that beer birthed civilization. If, as many anthropologists believe, early human clans settled into cities to ferment grains, isn't the beer a culture produces a fair benchmark of its peoples' progress? Why even bother with civilization—entering a social contract, punching ballots and paying taxes—if we can't get better beer out of it?
Once every four years, America picks a leader through its only nationwide election. We thought the throes of that campaign would be a perfect time to also find out which state is making the best suds. So, months ago, WW started a project called the President of Beers, putting the flagship craft brew from each of the 50 states through a blind taste test.
In keeping with American tradition, our methods were slightly flawed and the decks stacked in favor of monied elites. We didn't necessarily choose the "best" beer from each state, but a candidate popular among its people which represents them well. We broke a lot of laws to get these bottles. Because its illegal to ship alcohol over many state lines, we had it bootlegged—stuffed inside teddy bears, disguised as tap handles, and labeled as live yeast samples. We called in favors and spent hundreds for a case of bottles stocked at grocery stores in their native land. Intern John Locanthi spent the better part of his summer staring at spreadsheets and calling unfamiliar area codes.
Six-hundred Dixie cups, four hours, three pizzas and 12 beer-soaked ballots later, we had the returns. And we were shocked.
How the Election Worked
Our goal was to get the âflagshipâ beer from all 50 states. Not the âbestâ beer, but a beer that best represents its state. Most candidates are the best-selling local brews in their homeland. Others are nationally known or symbolic. All were obtained during the same month from friends, breweries and retail stores and stored in a cool, dark place until election day.
Our tasting panel was made up of Hilary Berg of Oregon Wine Press, John Chandler of Portland Monthly, Anne Marie DiStefano of the Portland Tribune, legendary beer writer Fred Eckhardt, beer blogger and event organizer Ezra Johnson-Greenough, brewery aficionado John Lovegrove, famed âBeer Goddessâ and author Lisa Morrison, Sarah Pederson of popular beer bar Saraveza and WWâs Martin Cizmar, John Locanthi, Ben Waterhouse and Brian Yaeger.
All 50 beers were tested during a four-hour marathon at the WW office on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Each beer was presented in a 1-ounce sample poured into a Dixie cup. There were no style notes. Each beer was assigned a movie-title code name so it could be discussed without confusion (Sunset Boulevard was our winner; The Lord of the Rings was last place). Voters scored each beer on a scale of 1 to 100, and the final results were tabulated by averaging those scores.
1. North Dakota
Tom Roan and Nancy Bowser, Beaverbear Barleywine
Because the sparsely populated plains state no longer has a craft brewery, WW contributor Brian Yaeger reached out to a home-brew club there. They sent us a bottle of something called "Beaverbear Barleywine" labeled with masking tape. But quality will win a blind taste test, and this humble bottle beat out America's largest and most respected craft breweries—from Alaskan to Yuengling—in a contest judged by a dozen of Portland's top tasters.
Actually, Tom Roan and Nancy Bowser, a couple from Fargo, might not be underdogs. Having home-brewed together since 1996, when they were impressed by the kettles and carboys at Bowser's brother's house in a Thanksgiving visit, the couple have both become national-level competition judges. They make about 20 gallons of beer every month, and have brewed nearly every beer style. Beaverbear Barleywine is built from North Dakota barley and five varieties of hops. The dark, malty brew "represents the hearty character of the state," where "winters are cold, harsh and long."
It blew our tasters away—scoring four points ahead of second place, the largest separation between any of the 50 beers we sampled. So, maybe the couple should open a brewery?
"Why would you take a perfectly good hobby and turn it into a job?" says Roan, who works as a mechanical engineer for John Deere.
With even President Obama drinking home-brew—the White House recipe was a minor Internet sensation in August—Roan's victory here makes a compelling case for making either beer or friends who make beer.
"If we want to make a chocolate stout we can seek out the best Belgian chocolate, which comes in sheets and is not cheap, and we don't hesitate about the expense because we're in it to enjoy it," he says. "Think about what you'd pay for that—like, $14 a bottle—and I'm making out on the deal anyway."
Our congratulations to North Dakota—and home-brewers everywhere.
âœ" = Available in Oregon
2. Delaware ✓
Dogfish Head, 90 Minute IPA
Also home to our nation's No. 2, Joe Biden, Delaware's Dogfish Head is known for its India pale ales, each named for how long the wort is boiled. The entry-level 60 Minute IPA is more common back East, but the West only gets the premium 90- and 120-minute versions. In a field littered with similar brews, this classic's impressive finish shows brewmaster Sam Calagione deserves his golden reputation.
3. South Dakota
Crow Peak, Pile O' Dirt Porter
For possibly the first time ever, the Dakotas team up to dominate a national contest. This brewery, based in the Black Hills town of Spearfish (that's an eight-hour drive from Fargo), makes a porter that's canned velvet—smooth and rich with chocolate and roasted-coffee notes.
4. New Hampshire
Smuttynose, Old Brown Dog Ale
Florida Beer Company, Swamp Ape IPA
Florida is the nation's third-largest beer market, but craft beer sales have long been dismal down in swampland. Don't blame the beer—this imperial IPA from the state's largest brewery was great. It also won our informal "best label" poll.
6. Illinois ✓
Goose Island, Demolition
Home to our flesh-and-blood president, Illinois was represented by Goose Island. Given that Goose Island was bought out by Anheuser-Busch last year, its inclusion might irk some beer geeks, but Demolition's strong finish shows the Chicago brewer is still doing things the right way. Or, it was when this beer was made—it's now discontinued, though still on Oregon shelves.
7. Oregon ✓
Deschutes, Black Butte Porter
The largest independently-owned-in-Oregon brewery's malty flagship, Black Butte, stands apart from the hop bombs of most Portland brews and above the rest of the West Coast. This Bend product is the best-selling porter in the whole country.
Starr Hill, Dark Starr Stout
Dark Starr exists because of the Dave Matthews Band. Coran Capshaw, the magnate who funded this Charlottesville brewery, made his fortune managing the jam act. Brewmaster Mark Thompson became interested in beer while working on his master's degree in biology at Portland State University.
9. Maryland âœ"
Flying Dog, Doggie Style Classic Pale Ale
Known for labels designed by Ralph Steadman, the artist who illustrated Hunter S. Thompson's work, and for moving its entire operation from Colorado to Maryland, Flying Dog also makes a very nice pale ale with a sexually suggestive pun name.
Diamond Bear, Pale Ale
11. Utah âœ"
Uinta, Dubhe Imperial Black IPA
12. Hawaii âœ"
Maui Brewing Co., CoCoNut Porter
That Hawaii produces a coconut beer is not surprising. That this particular beer wowed tasters is a testament to its great balance of sweetness and spice in a roasty porter. Many of the Kona Brewing beers found on the mainland are actually brewed right here in Portland, but this can was floated over from Maui. Read our full write-up here.
Magic Hat, No. 9
Vermont has more breweries per capita than any state. This style-defying ale is hoppy, malty and slightly fruity. The secret? Apricots. Magic Hat also purchased Seattle's apricot-loving Pyramid in 2008, but remains unavailable west of the Rockies outside of a few stores in California. Read our full write-up here.
Three Floyds, Alpha King Pale Ale
Possibly the most lauded brewery in the field, Indiana's Three Floyds also proved the hoppiest. Alpha King Pale Ale, not surprisingly, finished near the top of the heap. It does not distribute in Oregon, but you can find Axes of Evil, the brewery's collaboration with new Portland brewery Gigantic Brewing. Read our full write-up here.
Marshall, Atlas India Pale Ale
A young and highfalutin brewery, Tulsa's Marshall suggests you pair this IPA with oily fish or washed-rind cheeses. Read our full write-up here.
16. Montana ✓
Big Sky, Moose Drool Brown Ale
Big Sky Brewing has been around since the mid-'90s, rapidly becoming the largest brewery in the state with the second-most breweries per capita. The incredibly malty Moose Drool can be found all over Oregon. Read our full write-up here.
Millstream, John's Generations White Ale
John's Grocery—lovingly called "Dirty John's" by Iowa City natives because it once sold Playboy magazine—is 50 years old, but stocks the best selection of beer in the state. Millstream, which has been around since the '80s, named this fruity witbier in its honor. Read our full write-up here.
18. California ✓
Sierra Nevada, Pale Ale
Free State, Ad Astra Ale
What's the matter with Kansas? Well, lots of things, actually. It was the first state to prohibit alcohol, and did not ratify the 21st Amendment. This is the land of Carrie A. Nation and her bar-wrecking hatchet. But cheers to Free State's Ad Astra Ale, a well-hopped amber. Read our full write-up here.
SweetWater, 420 Extra Pale Ale
This is one of several beers with a marijuana-themed name from Atlanta's SweetWater Brewing. Founded in 1997 by a duo of carpetbagging beer enthusiasts from the West Coast, the largest brewery in the Deep South—it's actually larger than Rogue—has helped modernize the backward Southern beer scene. Read our full write-up here.
21. New Jersey
Flying Fish, ESB Amber Ale
The Garden State is currently working out the kinks in its brewery laws, and one of the main proponents of these changes is Flying Fish Brewing. This brewery recently expanded, sadly discontinuing its flagship ESB in the process. Read our full write-up here.
Good People, Brown Ale
When an Alabama legislator proclaimed that Bud "drink purty good" as he argued against raising the state's ban on beers higher than 6 percent ABV, the state became a battleground for beer rights. It's only allowed 22-ounce bottles since August, and home-brewing remains illegal. Read our full write-up here.
Grand Teton, Teton Ale
Grand Teton Brewing actually began in Wyoming before relocating to Idaho. Teton Ale is a relic from the brewery's days in Jackson Hole. It's a medium-bodied amber ale that, sadly, isn't distributed to the neighboring Beaver State. Read our full write-up here.
Kentucky Ale, Bourbon Barrel Ale
Confirming stereotypes, Kentucky proved the toughest state to deal with in this project. Crazy laws, general indolence and unintelligible accents made it extremely difficult to get someone—anyone—inside the Bluegrass State to send us beer. We finally ended up with an ale aged in the white-oak barrels used to make Kentucky's better booze. Read our full write-up here.
25. New Mexico
Santa Fe Brewing Co., Pale Ale
Snake River Brewing, Lager
Lagers fared poorly in this election, but Snake River's Vienna-style brew was an exception. It's maltier, sweeter and altogether more flavorful than the American-style lagers that dominate this country's macrobreweries. Twenty-sixth is not a bad finish for the least populous state in the union, which we can also thank for inventing the glass growler. Read our full write-up here.
27. Rhode Island
Trinity Beer Co., IPA
This IPA from the smallest state, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, actually tasted more like a hoppy West Coast IPA. Trinity also has the distinction of being the only candidate in this election owned by a real politician, Rhode Island state Sen. Joshua Miller. Read our full write-up here.
Thomas Hooker, Liberator Doppelbock
The Liberator Doppelbock was a ringer in this contest, boasting absurdly positive reviews throughout the beerosphere. This hoppy "liquid bread" may not have lived up to its high expectations in the election, but we really enjoyed drinking our second bottle. Read our full write-up here.
29. New York
Matt Brewing Co., Saranac Pale Ale
Matt Brewing Company is the second-oldest family-owned brewery in the country, but it's only been brewing its Saranac line of craft beers since 1985. Saranac Pale Ale—not to be confused with Saranac Pale Pale Ale—is what you'd expect from a mass-produced pale ale from upstate New York. Read our full write-up here.
30. South Carolina
Thomas Creek, River Falls Red Ale
Thomas Creek founder Tom Davis toyed with this recipe for years as a home-brewer. This rust-smelling red ale was finally ready for the public when the Greenville brewpub opened in 1998, and has dominated the country's mobile-home capital ever since. Read our full write-up here.
Four Peaks, Kilt Lifter
Great Lakes, Dortmunder Gold
Dortmunder is a style of lager most people confuse for a Pilsner. In his 1969 classic, A Treatise on Lager Beers, Portlander and tasting-panel member Fred Eckhardt argued Dortmunder deserves to be its own style, and he's prevailed. Named for an industrial city that once boasted Germany's largest brewery, Dortmunder used to be its nation's best-seller. But the Dortmunder Union brewery was shuttered in 1994 and the style has been on a long, steady decline, with occasional stirrings of revival that don't pan out. This Cleveland brewery has a dark sense of humor. Read our full write-up here.
New Glarus, Spotted Cow Ale
New Glarus' owners sold their homes to start the brewery, now the 19th-largest in the country. Spotted Cow has been the most popular beer in the Badger State for five years running, but this Wisconsin-exclusive farmhouse ale earned a shrug from our voters. Read our full write-up here.
Bell's Brewery, Amber Ale
35. Massachusetts ✓
Samuel Adams, Boston Lager
You've seen the commercials and tried the beer. If this is what you've been drinking for the last 30 years, please allow us to make 34 new recommendations. Read our full write-up here.
36. Missouri ✓
Boulevard Brewing Company, Pilsner
Kansas City's Boulevard makes some really great beers. This bottle, a simple Pilsner with a label puckishly designed to look like a European iteration of Budweiser, isn't among them. But considering everything Missouri has done for this nation's beer—the state is home to those Budweiser frogs—we thought it an apt candidate. Read our full write-up here.
Thunderhead, Golden Frau Honey Wheat
A canned wheat beer that's high in alcohol and thick in body, with the flavor of honey-baked bread. Nebraska allows beer to be shipped to Oregon if you'd like to try some for yourself. Read our full write-up here.
Yazoo, Dos Perros
Summit, Extra Pale Ale
Like many of our flagships, this pale ale debuted with its brewery. This old-fashioned brew might've been something exciting back in 1986, but is painfully dull 25 years later. Read our full write-up here.
40. Washington ✓
Mac & Jack's, African Amber
What, not Red Hook or Pyramid? The former was not eligible because it's a subdivision of the Portland-based Craft Brew Alliance, the latter because it was purchased by Vermont's Magic Hat in 2008. Despite distributing only by the keg, Mac & Jack's is one of the 50 largest craft breweries in the country and is ubiquitous north of the Columbia. Read our full write-up here.
Lazy Magnolia, Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale
42. Alaska âœ"
Alaskan Brewing Co., Amber
Alaskan Amber is brewed from a Gold Rush-era recipe from a long-gone Juneau brewery. Two decades ago, this beer won the consumer poll at the Great American Beer Festival. Today, this grocery-store standby is one of the slowest boats in the fleet. Read our full write-up here.
43. Colorado âœ"
New Belgium, Fat Tire Amber Ale
44. North Carolina
Highland, Gaelic Ale
Highland is the largest brewery in Asheville—"Beer City, USA" as determined by Internet ballot-stuffers. The poor finish of this Scottish-style ale, described by one of our tasters as a "benchmark of mediocrity," suggests that online fanbois should spend less time deleting their cookies and more time traveling. Read our full write-up here.
Tenaya Creek, Calico Brown Ale
Quality beer starts with quality water—just ask Olympia. (Ed: On second thought, don't.) So it stands to reason that desert states had a rough go in our contest. Considering how much drinking is done there, Las Vegas is a wasteland for beer lovers, and this brew doesn't represent any oasis. Read our full write-up here.
46. West Virginia
Bridge Brew Works, Belgian-Style Tripel
A Belgian-style tripel is not what one would expect from the hills of this rural Appalachian state. But, when the craft-beer scene is small, you never know what will emerge as the dominant brew. Read our full write-up here.
Spoetzl, Shiner Bock
48. Louisiana ✓
Abita, Purple Haze
The state famous for drive-thru daiquiri shops and the drunken hedonism of Mardi Gras entered an aggressively light, crisp raspberry beer. Abita's Purple Haze is the kind of beer that everybody at a party can enjoy—especially people who don't like beer. Read our full write-up here.
49. Maine ✓
Shipyard, Export Ale
Yuengling, Traditional Lager
The oldest operating brewery in the country—and largest beermaker in this election—finished dead last with a light American-style lager that impressed no one. What does it mean when a blind taste test of experienced beer drinkers ends with a home-brew in first place and the largest American brewery in last place? We report, you decide. Read our full write-up here.