Ask a Cicerone: Your Best Local Brewery

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[Photograph: Courtesy Penrose Brewing Company]

A lot of beer fanatics have bucket lists: beers they'd trek a thousand (or more) miles for, beer releases that merit camping out overnight, beers they wrap in newspaper and bubble wrap to trade with other beer obsessives. And yeah, those are good beers. But many brews are best fresh, and the freshest beer you're gonna find is the one your local brewery is making.

We asked our crew of beer experts about their favorite nearby breweries, and the best beers those breweries make. Here's what they had to say.

"In the Chicago area, I'd have to go with Penrose Brewing Company. The brewery was founded by two Goose Island alums, Eric Hobbs and Tom Korder, and their experience shows. While still relatively new to the Chicago scene, Penrose is cranking out a variety of well-made, low to moderate strength Belgian-style beers. Take their Belgian single, Proto Gradus—citrusy, spicy, and only 4% ABV, this beer was my go-to this summer whenever I was looking for something refreshing. They're just getting their barrel program off the ground, and their taproom is a work of art. If you're in Chicago, you owe it to yourself to check these guys out."—Pat Fahey (The Cicerone Certification Program)

"Portland—and the West Coast in general—has gotten pretty hop-heavy over the years, and both The Commons and Cascade Brewing subvert that by focusing on saisons/farmhouse ales and sours, respectively. They do them right. (Try The Commons Urban Farmhouse and Flemish Kiss, and seek out Cascade's Sang Noir or Vlad the Imp Aler.)"—Adam Sivits (13 Virtues Brewing)

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Barrels at Funk Factory Geuzeria. [Photograph: Alexander Kos]

"Let me tell you about Levi Funk and the Funk Factory Geuzeria. Funk is making traditional and, in some cases, not so traditional wild ales here in Wisconsin. He's been obsessed with brettanomyces since, I assume, birth; there's even a brett strain guide on his website. He's strictly a blender, and has been keeping his barrels at O'so Brewing company, a great regional brewery in their own right, but just signed a lease on a barrel warehouse in downtown Madison, which should be open by December. He also teamed up with Leidel's Cider from Minnesota for a couple of small batches of brett-fermented ciders. The man knows what he's doing: his Scarlet Letter is like cranberry-lemon yogurt with flecks of brie rind. Dweller on the Threshold, a sour blend aged in wine barrels, is funky, grassy, and bone-dry. Sikaru, a 12% ABV wild-fermented barleywine-type ale with dates, should not work, but does. He's also got a variety of fruited lambics in the works featuring Door County tart cherries, red raspberries, purple raspberries, and grapes."—Josh Ruffin (Brasserie V)

"I can't speak enough about the great things Other Half Brewing is doing in New York City. While they are renowned for crafting wonderful IPAs, Sam Richardson and Matt Monahan are producing some other ridiculously good stuff, including Imperial stouts, saisons, and a slew of American wild ales. They are ramping up cooperage in the immediate future, so expect to see much more barrel aged stuff that will have New York City beer folk salivating."—James Tai (Beer Acolyte)

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[Photograph: Courtesy Lift Bridge Brewery]

"Minnesota is right in the middle of a major local craft beer explosion. The options increase nearly daily, and most of these newbies are bringing some seriously good brew to the table. My favorite local brewery is one that hit the market a mere 6 years ago yet is still considered one of the "godfathers" of the local craft beer movement. Lift Bridge Brewing out of Stillwater (Minnesota's very first city) is a true example of excellence. Farm Girl, their flagship saison, has become one of the torch bearers for our local beer scene. Brewer Matt Hall adds spice and fruit with a deft hand, lending complementary flavors to their beers without overwhelming the beer. Their year round line up is full of tasty brews, but it's the specialty beers which really set them apart: Barrel-Aged Silhouette Imperial Stout, spiced up Belgian ale Biscotti, and don't forget the 'Mini-Donut' beer that is found exclusively at the Minnesota State Fair! "—Daniel Parker (Original Gravity)

"Rip Current in North County San Diego is a real gem. They've got amazing hoppy beers like Lupulin Lust and Impact Zone, and also make amazing German Style Alts and Bocks."—Corey Esoldi (Societe Brewing)

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[Photograph: Tracy Hurst]

"I feel so lucky to be living in Chicago at this time because the brewing scene here has exploded in the last few years, fueled in part by the path carved out by breweries like Goose Island, Half Acre, Revolution, and Haymarket. It is getting hard to keep up with all of the new breweries in Illinois, but a list of my favorites reads pretty long. From the people at Marz Community Brewing, who are showcasing a true community focused brewery, to One Trick Pony, with one of the best black IPAs I have ever had. Then there's Metropolitan, producing some of the best lagers in the country and Une Annee, a Belgian inspired brewery in Chicago's West Loop."—Ryan Gavrick (Wirtz Beverage)

"My favorite local brewery at the moment is The Rare Barrel in Berkeley, CA. They only make sour beers and I'm in love with them! They came out of the gate very strong about a year ago, won some GABF awards right away, and continue to crank out wonderful and interesting sours one after the other. Local-ish runners up would include FreeWheel Brewing in Redwood City, CA for their world class English cask ales, Sante Adairius down in Capitola, CA for all their fabulous farmhouse brews, Cellarmaker in San Francisco for all their great hoppy releases, and Almanac Beer Co. in San Jose/San Francisco for their fantastic barrel aged brews. Any Bay Area 'best of' list also has to include Russian River, Lagunitas, Drake's, Linden Street, Anchor, and HenHouse."—Chris Cohen (San Francisco Homebrewers Guild)

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[Photograph: Carol Cochran]

"Horse & Dragon in Fort Collins, CO is one of my go-to breweries. Their Picnic Rock Pale is my personal favorite. The taproom is spacious and bright with tall windows to let you gaze outside, as well as into the brewery. As an added bonus, you can simply walk down the street to either Funkwerks or the newest brewery in Fort Collins, Snowbank Brewing."—Becki Kregoski (Bites 'n Brews)

"4Hands Brewing Co. in St. Louis does a variety of things really well and they are only getting better and more exciting. Barrel aging, bugs, and bacteria are becoming serious strengths for them. I recently tried a Passion Fruit Prussia Berliner Weisse in their tap room that blew me away. Chocolate Milk Stout is their fall/winter seasonal offering and is by far my favorite beer from them. It is silky smooth, creamy, and chocolatey and the closest thing to a milkshake I have ever had in a beer that didn't actually contain ice cream. People are going to flip when they see this one show up in cans later this season."Chris Kline (Schnuck Markets)

"If you are looking for a local beer in Las Vegas, look no further than Joseph James Brewing. They are the only production brewery in Nevada—all other breweries are brewpubs. Joseph James won Bronze at GABF last year for their Citra Rye Pale Ale. This beer is delicious; the Citra hops elevate the spice of the rye, making a nice bright pop of flavor."— Melissa Long-Higgs (Nevada Beverage Company)

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Agrarian Ales annual hop picking party. [Photograph: Aaron Brussat]

"I would like to point out Agrarian Ales near Coburg, OR. It is a farmhouse brewery located in an updated barn. They grow all of their own hops, around 10 varieties on two acres of organic land, and invite the local community out at the end of August for a hop picking party. Some of those hops go directly into a batch of beer, and the rest get dried for them to use throughout the next year. It's an old-school event with pit-roasted pig, live music, and friends young and old getting sticky fingers. It's that sense of community that makes microbrewers so vital, and why I chose Agrarian. Their beers range from light German-style ale to their Dandy, a porter with roasted dandelion roots weeded from their hop fields. Their 'Belgene' series of beers matches Belgian yeast strains with lots of hops to satisfy the Northwesterner's hop jones."—Aaron Brussat (The Bier Stein Bottleshop & Pub)

"My favorite local brewery is Marin Brewing Company, because their head brewer, Arne Johnson, challenges you to look past the loud and wacky flavors of extreme beer and find the subtleties in styles that don't normally show up on your radar. Staple beers like Mt. Tam Pale Ale and Point Reyes Porter are delicious and well constructed, and occasionals like the Albion Amber will stun you with the depth of flavor a 5% amber ale can show you. Marin beers are first and foremost beers for drinking. These are not beers with something to prove, and I feel they are under appreciated because of it."—Collin McDonnell (HenHouse Brewing Company)

"There is a lot going on in the Minnesota beer scene right now, and I don't think it would be where it is to today with August Schell Brewery in New Ulm, MN. August Schell has been around sine 1860 (only 2 years younger that the state itself!) and they brew fantastic traditional German style lagers true to the family's heritage. With the addition of hoppier craft lagers like their new Arminius Hoppy Pale Lager and a fantastic sour beer program, August Schell's is not only a stalwart but also an innovator and a leader. If you can get your hands on any of the limited Star of the North Berliner Weiss series of beers I highly recommend them!"—Joe Falkowski (JJ Taylor Distributing)

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[Photograph: June Joseph]

"It's hard to pick the best brewery in Nashville, TN because new breweries like Black Abbey, Little Harpeth, and Tennessee Brew Works are making great beers out of the gate. But Yazoo Brewing Company is the Nashville brewery visitors should not miss. Yazoo has been making great beers since 2003 and recently started a wild and sour beer project, the Embrace the Funk (EtF) series. Brewmaster Linus Hall and bug-wrangler Brandon Jones are moving the EtF beer production offsite to a new location to ensure the non-wild Yazoo beers remains that way. Stop by their taproom and try their unique Dos Perros Mexican-style ale, the imperial smoked porter named Sue, and whatever funky beer is on tap. The small-batch EtF beers change frequently, but are always delicious."—Kendall Joseph (Beer Makes Three)

"I'll share two of my favorite local breweries since I'm situated right on the District border with Maryland. From DC I have to tip my hat off to Right Proper Brewing Co. They opened a brewpub with intent to brew sours and some old world styles—no easy feat. They're not just pulling it off, they're brewing some of the best beers I've ever had. A favorite: The Lubitsch Touch, which is 4.7% ABV Grätzer (pale smoked beer). It has an insanely savory quality. My other new favorite brewery is Denizens Brewing Co. based out of Silver Spring, Maryland. Their Lowest Lord ESB is a sleeper beer that's primed to take over the lower Maryland/DC area. It's incredibly drinkable with a balance of bitterness and some biscuit and nutty undertones and a hidden fruity yeast character that just makes the whole beer come together."—Brett Robison (Republic)

"Bellwoods Brewery in Toronto is my favorite local brewery. They've only been open a couple of years, but they're putting out consistent, high quality, and creative beers. I'm really enjoying their 'Bounty Hunter' Coconut Porter right now, with its understated, but noticeable and clean, coconut and vanilla flavors. Another favorite: Side Launch Brewing Company just outside of Toronto. They mainly focus on German styles, like their perfect Bavarian style Weissbier. I'm really excited for the future of both of these breweries."—Jesse Vallins (The Saint Tavern)

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[Photograph: Julie Verive]

"The beer scene in Los Angeles has been expanding at a rapid pace, and there are many worthy contenders for the "best" brewery in the area now. It all depends how you define "best," and for this questions I'll consider the best brewery to have a diverse lineup of excellent beers, a strong identity, a comfortable taproom with a devoted fan-following, a widespread presence throughout the region, and strong ties to the greater beer community in LA. Even with those specific guidelines it's a hard call, but Smog City Brewery scores highly in all categories. Founder Jonathan Porter makes a handful of different IPAs that rank among LA's best; a fantastic Bohemian pilsner that occasionally gets extra dry hopping, a cask treatment, or even a sought-after zwickel (unfiltered) version; and one of the best coffee beers you'll ever try. He's not afraid to experiment with weird beers, sour ales, and barrel aging, but quality control is the main concern (after creativity). Apart from the aforementioned Little Bo Pils and Coffee Porter, my favorite beer that Smog City makes is an occasional mashup of the brewery's flagship IPA and mango puree, and Hop Tango sets a new bar for fruit-forward IPAs."—John Verive (Beer of Tomorrow)

"I recently moved from Arizona, and in just over two years, Dragoon Brewing in Tucson has become what I believe to be the best brewery in all of the state. Dragoon IPA is my favorite year-round single IPA that can be found in that area. I also love their Sasion Blue, which is brewed with the addition of blue corn and agave nectar, refreshingly tart Daisy Berliner Weisse, the meticulously hopped and bitter bomb Sarcosuchus Double IPA, and their Bourbon Barrel Aged The Dos Imperial Stout. If there is one downside to this young brewery, it's that their hours and seating in their tasting room are extremely limited. However, Dragoon broke ground on an expansion last month and you should be also be able to find their beer on tap at most of the finer beer establishments around Arizona."—Tyler Morton (Mikkeller Bar)

"This is an easy answer for me: Big Island Brewhaus in Waimea on the island of Hawaii. I have a lot of respect for Maui Brewing which comes in a close second but Big Island Brewhaus really takes the cake for me. The small ten-barrel system has been brewing for a little over 3 years and has racked up some major awards: two golds and one silver in the US Open Beer Championships and two World Beer Cup bronze medals. Their White Mountain Porter is brewed with Big Island-grown and roasted coffee along with Hawaiian coconut. Mandarin oranges from the town of Waimea are used in the Mandarin Gold, and breadfruit shows up in a cream ale they serve on nitro. But I love their more traditional beers, too, like the Red Giant, an almost Imperial Red Ale, or the Holy Humulus, made with whole cone hops."—Bill Carl (Southern Wine & Spirits of Hawaii)