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October 3rd, 2012 MARTIN CIZMAR, JOHN LOCANTHI, BRIAN YAEGER | Cover Story
 

The President of Beers

We bootlegged beer from all 50 states for the ultimate American taste-off.

The Winner

1. North Dakota

Tom Roan and Nancy Bowser, Beaverbear Barleywine

The last state without a single craft brewery in its territory, North Dakota entered our competition as an underdog.

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.

Besides, Roan and Bowser, a CPA, have seen other North Dakota breweries flounder. In the mid-1990s beer boom, two brewpubs opened in Fargo. One aimed to crush kegs for the college crowd, the other, in a restored historic train depot, was aimed at a more upscale clientele. Both failed.

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.


The Candidates

✓ = 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

Aside from hosting the first presidential primary, New Hampshire is usually outshined by its New England neighbors. Not today. Smuttynose has been making Old Brown Dog—a hoppier take on similar British brown ales—since 1988.


5. Florida

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.


8. Virginia

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 

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.


10. Arkansas

Diamond Bear, Pale Ale

Little Rock’s Diamond Bear was the first brewery in Arkansas, luckily opening its doors mere months before native son Bill Clinton left the White House and the economy went to shit.


11. Utah 

Uinta, Dubhe Imperial Black IPA

Are Mormonfolk pleased or embarrassed by the success of this Salt Lake City brewery? We’re curious how the Cutthroat Pale Ale, brewed specifically to clear the state’s 4-percent-ABV restriction for grocery stores and many restaurants, would’ve fared, but it’s only available in Utah. At 9.4 percent, the Dubhe imperial black IPA doubles the legal limit. It also uses hemp seeds. We’d humbly suggest Mr. Romney take the edge off with one of these on Nov. 6. Read our full write-up here.


12. Hawaii 

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.


13. Vermont

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.


14. Indiana

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.


15. Oklahoma

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.


17. Iowa

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 

As the top-selling craft beer in the country, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale could make a case for being America’s flagship beer. Read our full write-up here.


19. Kansas

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.


20. Georgia

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.


22. Alabama

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.


23. Idaho

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.


24. Kentucky

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

Founded in 1988, New Mexico’s oldest brewery makes a pale ale described by as our experts as uniformly “decent.” As our friends at The Santa Fe Reporter called it, “not too strong, not too light, not too dark, not too light.” Read our full write-up here.


26. Wyoming

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.


28. Connecticut

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.


31. Arizona

Four Peaks, Kilt Lifter

Located in an old dairy just steps from the campus of the nation’s largest university, Tempe’s Four Peaks Brewing managed to become one of the nation’s 50 largest without distributing a single drop across state lines. This reddish-brown Scottish ale has unexpected heft considering it’s intended primarily for consumption inside the fiery Valley of the Sun. Read our full write-up here.


32. Ohio

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.


33. Wisconsin

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.


34. Michigan

Bell’s Brewery, Amber Ale

The oldest craft brewery east of Colorado, Larry Bell’s company was founded as a home-brew supply shop and now produces an array of well-regarded beers. Oberon, a summer wheat beer, actually manages to outsell this stuff in just one season on shelves. Read our full write-up here.


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.


37. Nebraska

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.


38. Tennessee

Yazoo, Dos Perros

This Mexican-style ale was created to obey Tennessee’s strict limits on alcohol content in malt beverages. The very sweet Dos Perros comes with a paltry 3.5 percent ABV and uses corn to lighten its body. Yazoo recently started a distillery to skirt the strict ABV limits, and promises more potent beer in the future. Read our full write-up here.


39. Minnesota

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.


41. Mississippi

Lazy Magnolia, Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale

Mississippi is one of several Southern states whose brewing industry has been held back by arcane laws. Two of our tasters said Lazy Magnolia’s Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale, which tastes exactly like the name suggests, is normally very good, with our bottle coming from a bad batch. Read our full write-up here.


42. Alaska 

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 

New Belgium, Fat Tire Amber Ale

Colorado is one of country’s great beer states. But Colorado’s largest brewery and its signature beer, named in honor of the brewmaster’s life-shaping journey through Belgium by mountain bike, didn’t impress anyone in a blind taste-off. Read our full write-up here.


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.


45. Nevada

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.


47. Texas

Spoetzl, Shiner Bock

Shiner Bock—actually a dark lager, not a bock—accounts for three-quarters of Texas’ largest brewery’s sales. It’s unavoidable in the Lone Star State but got a shrug in Oregon and was pulled from our shelves. Look for it around Seattle, where there’s a different standard. Read our full write-up here.


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 

This is the top-selling brew from the Other Portland, though Shipyard’s poor results suggest the largest brewery in Maine isn’t up to our standards. Read our full write-up here.


50. Pennsylvania

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.


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