Having a hard time crossing off the 10 beers we highlighted in our 10 Bucket List Beers post? Those brews are widely considered some of the best, and most difficult to find, beers on planet. But what’s the fun in fantasizing about some beers that you may never get the opportunity to try? These kinds of lists are no good if you kick the bucket before checking all the boxes.
Here is a list that is both more approachable and more essential. It’s comprised of beers that are the foundation of America’s ever-expanding craft beer industry, innovative products that influenced a developing beer culture, historically significant brands with devoted followings, and singular examples of the brewer’s artistic expressions. And they are beers that you can walk into a store and just buy (mostly). Depending on which breweries distribute where you live, you might have to make special arrangements for a couple of brews on this list, but nothing here will require an arm, a leg, or a first born child. With a little luck, your local bottle shop will have eight or nine of these sitting on the shelf.
Let’s start with an easy one, a beer that you undoubtedly already know well: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It is nearly impossible to over-sell this primogenitor of today’s craft beer industry, and Sierra Nevada’s flagship Pale Ale is deserving of all praise leveled at it. An original that melds a traditional English style with new world ingredients and American ingenuity, it defines the American Pale Ale style. Even as the craft beer industry has evolved, and tastes have shifted towards even bolder, hoppier and more exciting brews, SNPA remains, 35 years after its initial development, one of the world’s best beers. The balance between subtly toasted malt, understated fruity esters, and the distinct citrus and pine punch of Cascade hops makes this Pale Ale as characterful as it is drinkable. If, somehow, you’ve never tasted this singular ale, it should be item number one on your beer bucket list (and frankly, your beer-geek status should be placed on hold until you remedy that delinquency.)
Before Ken Grossman opened Sierra Nevada Brewery, before even Jack McAuliffe opened America’s first modern craft brewery, New Albion Brewing Co. (founded in 1976), appliance magnate Fritz Maytag purchased a struggling San Francisco brewery with roots dating back to California’s gold rush. Maytag resisted the migration to light lager styles that had pushed Anchor to the brink of bankruptcy and continued to produce the flavorful style that Anchor was known for. Light and dry with a clean fermentation and the distinct woody flavors of Northern Brewer hops, Anchor Steam, and Maytag’s dedication to tradition, kept Anchor Brewing afloat. While the brewery has grown and changed in small ways, the flagship California Common that it’s best known for is a history lesson in a glass.
There is perhaps no other beer brand in America with a more fervent fan-base than Yuengling. The Pennsylvania based brewery is the oldest brewery in America and the largest that’s still American-owned. The brewery is so renowned, that the Brewers Association had to alter how a craft brewery was defined to include Yuengling (previously it was disqualified because its flagship beer was brewed with flaked maize). The flagship lager is a time capsule in beer form, harking back to the era when German immigrants came to America and forever changed beer culture here. Officially Yuengling is only available in 18 states, and none west of the Mississippi, but the dedicated Yuengling fans in other areas support a shadowy grey market for the unassuming lager. Have a buddy from Philly? Ask them how they get their fix.
Did you catch Budweiser’s bombastic ad during the Super Bowl that proudly proclaimed that Bud is “not for everyone?” Stone Brewing has been singing that tune for nearly 20 years to sell their once flagship Arrogant Bastard Ale. The American strong ale is brewed bold and bitter, and way back in the early days of craft brewing it was a polarizing beer. These days over-sized flavor profiles are much more common, but the ol’ Bastard is still worth seeking out if you’ve never sipped it. It’s a beer that Stone’s coast-to-coast empire was built on, and it was an early example of the, “if you don’t like it, then you’re missing out” sentiment that is prevalent in craft beer today. There are a few variants to choose from, including a higher ABV Double Bastard, the excellent Bourbon Barrel-Aged Arrogant Bastard. And a few other special release variations, and the base AB Ale is even getting canned by Stone in the near future.
While it’s the West Coast style IPAs, straw-pale and bone-dry, that have fueled the rise of the modern India pale ale as craft brewing’s favorite style, there is more than one way to formulate a deliciously hoppy IPA. Two Hearted features a more substantial malt presence than many of the top-rated IPAs, and instead of using a complex blend of hop varieties to create a veritable fruit-salad of hoppy aromas and flavors, Bell’s uses only a single variety of hops: Centennial. The intense citrus pith and pine resin character of the iconic variety takes the spotlight, and the hop’s character is complex and nuanced enough to star in the one-man show. Two Hearted is a beer that regularly lands near the top of best-of lists, and for good reason. It has a polish and refinement that is all too rare in today’s craft beer offerings, and it’s the rare hop-centered brew that can win-over even those drinkers who think that they don’t like IPAs.
Beer-geek quandaries about supporting Ballast Point in the post-buyout landscape aside, and ignoring for the moment the infamous price-point of this iconic San Diego IPA (regularly over $17 for a six pack, even in Southern California), Sculpin is maybe the best regular-production West Coast-style IPA on the market. A hop head’s dream, Sculpin is brewed with five separate doses of hops so it’s as aromatic as it is bitter, with a lean body and enough alcohol to carry the pungent bite. The beer’s widespread popularity fueled Ballast Point’s fantastic growth, directly leading to the brewery’s acquisition by Constellation Brands (for a billion dollars) late last year. This is literally a billion dollar brew, and as good as the flavored versions are (Grapefruit, Habanero, and now Pineapple) it’s the original Sculpin that’s worth hunting down (and worth bending your “only indie breweries!” rule for).
This bottle might be tougher to track down than the rest of this list, but the bourbon barrel aged tripel from Maine is unique even in today’s craft marketplace. A perfect blend of Belgian flavors and American techniques, the golden ale is dry and bursting with yeasty spice and undercut with the distinctive oaky-boozy character of bourbon barrels. Brewers keep the barrel contact time comparatively brief (just eight weeks) and blend the aged beer into a fresh batch of Tripel resulting in a level of subtlety and balance that isn’t often seen in beers that spent long months in bourbon barrels. One of the early super-premium craft brews, Curieux remains largely unparalleled even as the industry’s obsession with all things barrel aged deepens. While the 750ml cork-and-cage bottles are available in just 16 states, it isn’t terribly difficult to find within the distribution territory.
The Boston Beer Company doesn’t get a lot of love from the beer geek set, but the brewery’s influence on the industry is undeniable. Even if you don’t go for Boston Lager, Rebel IPA, or the myriad of seasonal and special releases, you have to respect what those beers have done to bring flavorful brews to the masses. Utopias is the most special of special releases from BBC, and even calling it beer stretches the definition. An extremely high gravity beer that seen extended aging time in oak barrels (the blend even includes some beer that has spent 19 years in oak), Utopias taste a bit like maple syrup flavored sherry. It is un-carbonated, fiercely flavorful, and over 20% ABV. The brewery only releases the brew kettle-shaped ceramic bottles occasionally, and in small quantities with a price to match that rarity. A bottle will set you back around $200, but there is no other beer like Utopias.
This one isn’t an American craft beer, but it’s safe to say that without Pilsner Urquell there wouldn’t be a craft beer industry as we know it today. The first golden lagers, from which Pilsner Urquell is directly descended, were developed in Bohemia in the mid-19th century, and they changed the brewing world forever. It’s a sad fact that in today’s craft beer culture the humble pilsner gets so little respect. A product of technological advancements in brewing and some of the best ingredients in Europe, the original pilsner was pale and brilliantly clear with a rounded flavor that balanced the bready malt with the unique zip of Saaz hops. Modern Pilsner Urquell is like a time machine in a glass, and the brewery goes to great lengths (perhaps more than any other European brewery) to ensure that their beer arrives in America in the best shape possible.
Another old world beer, St. Bernardus ABT 12 is a Belgian quadrupel that backdoored its way into our first Beer Bucket List post since it is so similar to the renowned, and rare Westvleteren 12. We’re including ABT 12 here as a placeholder for any of the Trappist beers from Belgium, be it a Trippel from Westmalle, a double from Rochefort, a Chimay Grand Cru or the incomparable Orval. These breweries are the spiritual siblings to America’s craft breweries, producing beers that meld innovation with tradition and a focus firmly on flavor. Belgian beers, with their intense yeasty flavors, can be an acquired taste, so don’t make the mistake of dismissing the whole Belgian brewing tradition before you’ve become comfortable with the distinctive qualities of these beers.