With more than 5,000 breweries, some of which produce dozens of different beers every year, America is home to the largest and most diverse beer culture in the world. But as exciting new beers appear weekly in bars and on specialty shop shelves, we shouldn’t forget their forebears: the brews that spawned, defined and advanced the craft beer movement, made by the influential brewers who brought our country from a low of less than 100 breweries in 1978 to where we are today.
To help better appreciate the history of American craft beer, we reached out to 21 experts from across the American beer scene, including legendary brewers like Ken Grossman and Jim Koch, industry representatives like Julia Herz, and veteran writers like Aaron Goldfarb and Joshua Bernstein.
We asked each voter to nominate five to seven American beers that they consider to be the “most important of all time.” The only stipulations were that the beer must have started production after 1960, and it must have met the generally-accepted definition of “craft beer” at the time it was introduced. Voters were limited to two beers from any one brewery and encouraged to diversify their choices across years, states and styles. In the case of brewers, they were allowed to vote for themselves; however, every single beer on this list received multiple votes, meaning a brewer’s self-endorsement only counted if it was seconded by another voter. The final order was determined strictly by the votes received, with the exception of any ties, at which point we used our editorial judgment to determine ranking.
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The final list, like any list of this type, is sure to spur debate. However, thanks to the collective knowledge and expertise of our 21 voters, we think it’s an exceptionally telling look at the beers that have shaped American craft beer history.—Mike Pomranz
25) Ithaca Flower Power IPA
The modern American IPA evolved on the West Coast, where the vast majority of hops were grown and new varieties were being cultivated. East Coast IPAs rarely showed the same oomph as their West Coast brethren. But in 2004, Ithaca Beer Co.’s Jeff O’Neil changed that with Flower Power. “It was recognized as one of the first West Coast-style IPAs brewed here in the Northeast,” says Gregg Stacy, Ithaca’s director of marketing and sales. “Flower Power captured the true power of the hop flower (the origin of the name) with its clover honey hue, lush floral flavor and robust fruity aroma from numerous hop additions in the kettle, as well as dry-hopping.” After leaving Ithaca years later, O’Neil cemented his legendary status producing award-winning brews for another New York brewery, Peekskill Brewery.
24) Victory HopDevil IPA
In the ‘90s, few East Coast cities embraced the growing modern beer movement like Philadelphia. And when Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet opened Victory Brewing Company in nearby Downingtown, the region got an explosively hoppy beer all its own: HopDevil IPA. “In '96 this beer essentially broke Philadelphia,” says Brendan Hartranft, co-owner of Philly bars Local 44, Strangelove’s and Clarkville. “Victory was the first East Coast brewer to open with a beer as bold as HopDevil as their flagship, and to come out of the gate with a beer that hoppy was incredibly brave.”
23) Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
In 2001, Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery introduced a monster beer, the nine percent alcohol 90-IBU 90 Minute IPA. Dogfish Head had always prided itself on brewing “off-centered” beers by “adding all sorts of weird ingredients and getting kind of crazy,” as the brewery states on its website. With 90 Minute, Dogfish Head innovated not with ingredients but by introducing a new process. By adding hops continually while brewing instead of all at once (a technique the brewery dubbed “continuous hopping”), the Dogfish Head team created a beer with massive, evolving hop flavors cascading over a firm malt backbone. Dogfish Head has continued to introduce unique brews, but 90 Minute IPA may be its most iconic achievement.
22) Geary’s Pale Ale
Being the East Coast’s first microbrewery must be worth something, and for Portland, Maine’s D.L. Geary Brewing Company, that distinction lands its first flagship brew a spot on our list. “Geary’s was an East Coast progenitor, founded in 1986 when there were fewer than 100 breweries in the U.S.,” explains Stephen Hale of St. Louis’s Schlafly Beer. Made with currently-unfashionable ingredients like English malt and the European hop varieties Tettnang and Fuggle, Geary’s Pale Ale may not garner the same acclaim today as other beers on this list. Still, it’s a living piece of brewing history, and brewery founder D.L. Geary stood by his dedication to British-style beer in a 2014 interview: “Nearly 30 years ago I set out to make consistent, quality English-style ales and in perfecting the pale ale, this mission has been accomplished.”
21) Anchor Porter
It’s hard to imagine a time when every notable brewery didn’t offer a dark, smooth, roasty and chocolaty porter. But when Anchor Brewing first introduced its porter in 1972, the style was all but dead. “Anchor Porter was the first post-Prohibition American porter in the U.S.,” explains current Anchor brewmaster Scott Ungermann. “It brought another style of beer to America.” Forty-five years later, beer-rating site Beer Advocate lists more than 5,500 American porters in its database. Perhaps more amazing is that decades later, many believe the San Francisco-based brewery’s version is still one of the best. “It’s still the gold standard of the style in my book,” says Michael Roper, owner of Chicago’s Hopleaf Bar.
20) Nodding Head Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse
Don’t tell the brewers at Nodding Head Brewery about the hot new beer on the block, Berliner Weisse. Though this mildly sour German style has exploded in popularity over the last few years, the Philadelphia brewery first whipped up their Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse way back in 2000—ahead of its time, perhaps. “We had to spoon-feed it to people,” owner Curt Decker said in an interview with City Tap last year. “They didn't get it. They didn't understand it. You had to explain it to every person. People liked it. But sours weren't big back then.” Still, people like Patrick Rue, founder of California brewery The Bruery, whose own Hottenroth Berliner Weisse has become one of the best known American takes on the style, see the importance of Nodding Head’s trailblazing. “The resurgence of historical styles is one of the most important aspects of modern craft beer,” Rue says. “To my knowledge, this was the first Berliner Weisse produced in the U.S. While never bottled, beer geeks flocked to the Philly brewpub to try the only American Berliner Weisse at the time.”
19) Widmer Hefeweizen
Though IPA has become craft brewing’s signature style, back in the ‘90s everyone seemed adamant about making hefeweizen. Because it was approachable in flavor and of German origin (as Americans felt beer should be), hefeweizen made a good gateway beer in a market dominated by macrobrewed lagers. The trend began in 1986, when Oregon’s Widmer Brothers Brewing started serving their weizenbier unfiltered and the “first American-style hefeweizen” was born, according to the brewery. Granted, some may say that Widmer’s take wasn’t a true expression of what the Germans intended, but calling it “American-style” is an important qualifier: Widmer’s Hefe could be seen as establishing the broader, now abundant style of American wheats.
18) Pizza Port/Lost Abbey Cuvee de Tomme
The year is 1999. For two years, Tomme Arthur, the brewmaster at Pizza Port in Solana Beach, California, has been building a reputation for making amazing Belgian-style beers, but is apparently still searching for a brew worthy of stamping with his own name. Enter Cuvee de Tomme, a beer that defies convention even by modern standards: A huge, sour brown ale made with candi sugar, raisins and sour cherries that undergoes a secondary fermentation in bourbon barrels with wild Brettanomyces yeast. Cuvee de Tomme wasn’t the first American sour and the brewery didn’t invent bourbon barrel-aging, but Arthur’s groundbreaking accomplishment was daring to apply so many different techniques to one delicious, award-winning brew. When Arthur moved from Pizza Port to The Lost Abbey, he took his namesake beer with him.
17) Anchor Christmas Ale
Spoiler alert: With four beers on this list, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing appears more than anyone else. Of course, as the oldest brewery listed—founded in 1896 before completely re-inventing itself in the 1960s and 1970s—Anchor had a jump on the competition. Another reason for the brewery’s success has been its ability to innovate, as it did in 1975 when it introduced Christmas Ale. Anchor has since released the beer annually without once repeating the recipe (or label, for that matter), a serious risk in an industry that rewards consistency.
“They made beer collectible,” says Gregory Hall, the former Goose Island brewmaster who created the lauded Bourbon County Brand Stout. “I probably had 18 years’ worth in my basement when I moved.” For the past 42 years, Anchor Christmas Ale has been an annual present to its dedicated followers.
16) Allagash Coolship Resurgam
About ten years ago, American beer lovers started to become interested in tart, Belgian-style lambics and Gueuzes. Because they require aging (sometimes three years or more) and specialized equipment, brewing these beers involves significant risk and upfront costs. Because these beers were just beginning to catch on in the States, it was a bold move when, in 2007, Allagash Brewing Company built America’s first commercial coolship—a vessel that allows brewers control over unpredictable, wild-yeast fermentations that are necessary to brew these types of beer.
The brewery’s signature take on a Gueuze, Coolship Resurgam, wasn’t released to the public until 2012. By then, whether the results were worth the effort (they were!) was somewhat beside the point: Allagash had brought one of Belgium’s most unique pieces of brewing equipment to American shores.
15) Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale
Not all innovation happens in the brewing process. In 2002, Colorado’s Oskar Blues did something with a solid, but otherwise unassuming pale ale that changed craft beer forever: They put it into cans, becoming the first craft brewery to do so independently. Dale’s Pale Ale launched a movement (currently 2,162 beers strong, according to CraftCans.com) and this once-lowly container now holds some of the world’s most coveted beers.
14) Celis White
The tale of Celis White, deemed by many to be America’s seminal Belgian-style wheat beer, could be seen as a true craft beer tragedy. “Pierre Celis brought Belgian Wit beer to America in 1992 when his Austin, Texas brewery began production. The beer was sensational and inspired many imitators,” explains Michael Roper, owner of Chicago’s Hopleaf Bar. One of those imitators was Coors, which in 1995 released what has become the best-selling wit in the U.S., Blue Moon. That same year, Celis sold his brand to Miller Brewing Company. In 2000 it was shuttered, “breaking Pierre's heart and sending him back to Belgium,” Roper says. (For the record, a 2001 piece in the Austin American-Statesman declared that, after returning home to do what he loved, the brewer had once again become “a happy man.”)
Brewers have revived the Celis brand multiple times over the years, but sadly the beer is still a shell of its former self. “I wouldn't currently drink a Celis White if you paid me,” laments Philadelphia bar owner Brendan "Hartranft,“but when Pierre Celis opened up his brewery in Austin by way of Belgium, the beer landscape was forever changed.”
13) New Belgium La Folie
In the past decade, sour beer has gone from esoteric to essential in any serious beer bar’s lineup. So it’s amazing to think that way back in 1997, New Belgium Brewing Company turned to an expert from old Belgium to make a true sour foeder beer right here in the States. That year, with the help of former Rodenbach Brewery brewer Peter Bouckaert, the Colorado brewery introduced La Folie, a Flemish-style brown sour aged in big oak barrels (aka foeders). “Some in Belgium said that these beers could never be made anywhere else,” says Michael Roper of Chicago’s Hopleaf Bar. “La Folie proved them wrong.”
12) Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale isn’t the oldest surviving IPA, but it’s probably the oldest that tastes as bold today as it did when it was first released. Originally brewed in 1981, it still bursts with the 65-IBU intensity of Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops. Celebration has always been sold as a seasonal winter holidays release, and not just because no one knew what to do with an IPA back in the ‘80s. The beer is brewed in fall because that’s when the first fresh hops are picked, meaning when Celebration hits the shelves in October, it’s ready to unleash its intense aromas and flavors in the lead-up to Christmas. “Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, for me, is the finest ‘big’ IPA in the world,” says Philadelphia bar owner Brendan Hartranft.
11) Anchor Steam
Many beer scholars hold that the modern American craft beer movement began in 1965. That was the year Fritz Maytag bought a majority stake in Anchor Brewing, saving the San Francisco brewery, founded in 1896, from bankruptcy. Upon his purchase, Maytag rethought everything about the company including its flagship Anchor Steam beer, which was notable for a unique brewing process that uses lager yeast at warmer temperatures in open-air fermenters. Though Maytag maintained the traditional production technique, he improved the equipment and the quality of the brewing process before reintroducing the beer in 1971. “It’s a classic beyond classic,” explains Stephen Hale of St. Louis’s Schlafly Beer. “We all know this story.” Indeed, the folklore that describes Maytag’s success with Anchor is a seminal modern beer tale that’s provided inspiration for aspiring brewers ever since.
10) New Albion Ale
This legendary brew was, sadly, unappreciated in its time. We’ll let craft beer legend Jim Koch, who founded Samuel Adams, tell the story: “In the late 1970s, a homebrewer named Jack McAuliffe built his own small-scale brewing equipment and opened a brewery in Sonoma, California, where he brewed New Albion Ale—a full-flavored pale ale made with the now-popular Cascade hops and a two-row pale malt blend.” Koch says. “At the time, it was the only beer of its kind, and is recognized by beer experts as the original American craft beer.”
The New Albion Brewing Company opened in 1976; by 1982, it was defunct. But the folklore surrounding McAuliffe’s brew refuses to die. “In my opinion, Jack started the most important failed brewery,” Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, said in 2012. “He demonstrated that the new brewing model could work and despite the fact that it didn’t last long and failed spectacularly, his influence played a significant role for the first successful batch of microbrewers.”
New Albion Ale has been reissued twice in recent years, once in 2013 by Koch’s Boston Beer Co., and again the following year by Platform Brewing Co. in Cleveland.
9) Victory Prima Pils
The American craft brewing renaissance was, in part, a rejection of fizzy yellow lagers, a market-dominating style derived from traditional German pilsners. So in 1996, when Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing Company released Victory Prima Pils, the beer was an absolute revelation: a pilsner bursting with herbal hop flavors that resolved into piney, tongue-tickling bitterness. While other breweries were competing with pale lagers from the flanks with IPAs and stouts, Victory took the style head on—and wound up giving the craft beer movement its signature pils.
8) 3 Floyds Dark Lord
It used to be that the only time you’d line up for a beer was at halftime during a football game, but 3 Floyds Brewing Co. helped change that with Dark Lord, a massive, 15 percent alcohol Russian Imperial Stout brewed with coffee, Mexican vanilla and Indian sugar. Each year, on Dark Lord Day, the Indiana brewery sells this coveted beer to eager crowds who line up down the block. “It’s not just a beer, it’s an event, a ritual,” says Gregory Hall, who, inspired by 3 Floyds, famously gave Bourbon County Brand Stout its own day while brewmaster at Goose Island. This sort of thing is now somewhat commonplace, but writer Aaron Goldfarb credits 3 Floyds with its invention.
7) Russian River Pliny the Elder
Few beers are as legendary as Pliny the Elder—a delicious double IPA from Vinnie Cilurzo, the brewer credited with inventing the style. Cilurzo says his first attempt was in 1995, when he whipped up a beer called Inaugural Ale to celebrate the first anniversary of his own Blind Pig Brewing. “It was like licking the rust off a tin can,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015. “So bitter, so astringent.” By the time Cilurzo got to Russian River Brewing Company a few years later, he’d worked out the technique, and in 2000, Pliny the Elder was born—a hop bomb that illuminated the hops’ depth of flavor instead of just their bitterness.
Though double IPAs are now commonplace (perhaps excessively so), Pliny continues to excite even stodgy beer geeks. “This beer still holds up very well for the style,” says Patrick Rue, founder of California’s The Bruery, “and it has seen a lot of new entrants in the past 10 years.”
6) Anchor Liberty Ale
Anchor Brewing may be most famous for Anchor Steam, but Liberty Ale has made a more direct impact on America’s brews. “This could be considered the first American IPA or APA,” says Hopleaf Bar owner Michael Roper, a man who’s seen beer history unfold while working in bars for more than forty years. “Introduced in 1975, when no other American beer approached its 47-IBU level of bitterness, it acquainted American drinkers to whole Cascade hops and to the almost-forgotten dry-hopping method. This beer turned a lot of heads around and inspired many young brewers to follow a new road,” he says. Scott Ungermann, Anchor’s current brewmaster, seconds the importance of those two major innovations. “America’s first dry-hopped pale ale, Liberty, also introduced the Cascade hop,” says Ungermann, speaking of the now ubiquitous intense West Coast hop varietal, “and spurred the craft beer revolution.”
5) The Alchemist Heady Topper
Beers had garnered hype before, but in 2011, when a small brewery in Vermont started canning small amounts of its acclaimed signature, a distinctly East Coast-style double IPA called Heady Topper, the notion of a beer’s reputation preceding itself reached unexpected heights. “Heady Topper, like Pliny the Elder, is emblematic of an age of elevated beer geekdom, bottle trades (or cans, as it may be), and the importance of ratings via RateBeer, BeerAdvocate, Untappd, and the like,” says Geoff Deman, head brewer at Kansas’s Free State Brewing Company. “Heady Topper has been called ‘the Best Beer in the World.’ Is it? For me, it’s not even the best beer that The Alchemist makes, but it certainly is the most influential and it ushered in a newfound respect for a region of the country that had long been overshadowed by the West Coast.” The Alchemist still only distributes within a 25-mile radius of the brewery, and yet the name Heady Topper resonates around the globe in any conversation about must-try, hard-to-find beers.
4) Allagash White
America’s beer tastes didn’t just jump from lagers to the latest bizarre style du jour, like gose, overnight. Along the way, drinkers’ palates had to take steps, and Allagash White—a beautiful Belgian-style wheat beer the Maine brewery introduced back in 1995—was the kind of true craft beer that helped open people’s minds. “My intent, when I first brewed White, wasn’t to do a lot of volume or to find a business niche. I wanted to give people a unique experience with beer,” explains Allagash’s founder and brewer Rob Tod. “It helps that White wasn’t just a different beer—in terms of what you could get at the time. It was also approachable. And because of its balance, there are all these subtle flavors where even after you’ve been drinking it for years—like I have—you can discover something new,” says Tod. Samuel Adams’s Jim Koch echoes this importance. “At the time in the 1990s, drinkers were just beginning to learn more about craft beer and were pretty unfamiliar with Belgian styles,” says Koch. “Allagash White paved the way for Belgian beers existing in the U.S. today.”
Adding to White’s already significant reputation is that, unlike the fabled Celis White (see no. 14 on this list), Allagash has maintained the quality of its flagship all these years later. The brew even landed a gold medal for Belgian-Style Witbier at the Great American Beer Festival as recently as 2015. “Honestly, the biggest thing I was worried about when I started was that I wouldn’t like the beer I was brewing… because I can't sell anything that I don't believe in,” Tod admitted while discussing White. “Luckily, I loved it then and I love it even more now.”
3) Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout
Today, it seems like every brewery displays a stack of wooden barrels in its taproom, showing off forthcoming barrel-aged creations. But back in the ‘90s, it was unusual to barrel-age beer. “The first time Goose Island brought Bourbon County Brand Stout to the Great American Beer Festival, we entered as an Imperial Stout, as there were few categories in 1995,” explains Gregory Hall—the former Goose Island brewmaster who created what’s considered to be the first whiskey barrel-aged beer and currently the man behind Virtue Cider, an equally forward-thinking Michigan cider brand. “The beer was a hit, but it was DQ'd for being too strong, with notes of barrel and bourbon. Balderdash, I can't win because it's too good,” he says. But Hall took a larger lesson from BCBS’s unfortunate first appearance at GABF. “I argued that making a great beer should be the point, rather than following style rules better than the rest,” he says. “Innovation is what makes American craft beer the best in the world. It's true in every other industry in America.”
Today, barrel-aging is so popular that brewers struggle to get their hands on their first choice of bourbon barrels. But despite all the imitators, Hall embraces his legacy. “I'm so glad to see innovation continue, and be celebrated, not only in craft beer, but in cider and in spirits as well,” he says. “Today is the most exciting day in history to be an American drinker, and tomorrow will only get better.”
2) Sam Adams Boston Lager
The big breweries “spill more beer than I make all year,” Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company, famously espoused in early ads for his brand, Samuel Adams. For many drinkers in the 1990s, that imagery of spilled beer was their first occasion to consider the idea of craft brewing, then warmly referred to as microbrewing. But in an ironic twist, it was Samuel Adams’s massive growth that made the brand so important to small brewers everywhere. As the company’s flagship Boston Lager went on to become one of the first independently-made brews to be ubiquitous on beer lists, Samuel Adams put craft beer in front of more non-craft beer drinkers than ever before.
“I’m honored to still be brewing my great-great-great grandfather Louis Koch’s lager recipe today,” says Koch, describing the beer he first brewed in 1984. “During a time when most beer was pale, yellow and fizzy, my goal was to pursue a better beer, one made with high-quality, flavorful ingredients using traditional brewing techniques. Quitting a stable job to brew this beer has changed my life. And, it’s been my lifelong companion over the past thirty years as the craft beer industry has grown and flourished.” Today, the Boston Beer Company is America’s largest modern craft brewery.
1) Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a remarkable beer: Groundbreaking upon its release and still a critical and commercial darling all these years later, the beer’s focus on American hops has established it as the country’s signature pale ale. (Last year, Statista ranked it as the 19th best-selling beer in the U.S.) “When we first brewed our pale ale in 1980, we knew it was a departure from what was available, but as serious home brewers, it was what we and our friends loved to drink,” explains Ken Grossman, founder and owner of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., about his humble homebrewing roots that have resulted in a brand worth an estimated $1 billion. “We honestly had no idea it would have such staying power or such an impact. We’ve continued to brew to our original recipe—using lots of whole-cone Cascade hops and 100 percent two-row malt—and still embrace natural bottle conditioning. We started out with a strong vision for what we wanted pale ale to be, flavor-wise, and stuck to the highest standards without ever compromising on bitterness or hop flavor. I think that even after 35 years, our clear focus still shines through in the beer.”
Former Goose Island brewmaster Gregory Hall agrees with Grossman’s assessment. “More than 35 years in, it's still a great beer,” he says. “Innovation is great and all, but I admire the discipline Ken Grossman has to keep the flagship the same.” Even on this list, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is an unbridled success: It was the only beer to appear on over half of voters’ lists. It’s truly a deserving champion.
Panel of voters:
Joshua Bernstein, Author, Complete IPA, The Complete Beer Course and Brewed Awakening
Sam Calagione, Founder, Dogfish Head Brewery
Jimmy Carbone, Owner, Jimmy’s No. 43 (New York City); Founder, Beer Sessions Radio
Geoff Deman, Head Brewer, Free State Brewing Company
Greg Engert, Beer Director & Partner, Neighborhood Restaurant Group (Washington, DC)
Ethan Fixell, Freelance Beer, Wine & Spirits Writer; Beverage Educator
Aaron Goldfarb, Novelist & Beer Writer
Ken Grossman, Founder/Owner, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Stephen Hale, Ambassador Brewer, Schlafly Beer
Gregory Hall, Founder, Virtue Cider; Former Brewmaster, Goose Island Beer Co.
Brendan Hartranft, Co-owner, Local 44, Strangelove’s and Clarkville (Philadelphia)
Julia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director & Publisher, CraftBeer.com
Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, Founder, Evil Twin Brewing; Owner, Tørst (Brooklyn)
Noah Kaufman, Digital Editor, Food & Wine
Justin Kennedy, Freelance Beer Writer; Producer Steal This Beer podcast and Beer Sessions Radio
Jim Koch, Founder, Samuel Adams
Jason Perkins, Brewmaster, Allagash Brewing Company
Michael Roper, Owner, The Hopleaf Bar (Chicago)
Patrick Rue, Founder/CEO, The Bruery
Scott Ungermann, Brewmaster, Anchor Brewers and Distillers
John Verive, Contributor, L.A. Times Food; Founder, Beer of Tomorrow