Buying Beer, Part 5: Breweries to Visit When Traveling

Buying Beer: The Series So Far
First, an announcement: As we’ve progressed through this series, there are a few more topics that have come up that are worthy of attention. Also, the articles have been well-received among readers, so we’re proud to say that we’re extending it for three more installments. They are:
  • Buying Beer, Part 6: How To Set Up A Beer Cellar At Home
  • Buying Beer, Part 7: Cheap Thrills, Or What The Chefs Drink
  • Buying Beer, Part 8: Inexpensive Craft Beer That’s Actually Good
The focus of this installment has been re-envisioned to center more on out-of-state breweries than on specific beers. First, it was soon clear that a list of specific beers would run into the hundreds. Second, a lively discussion on the Houston Let’s Talk Craft Beer Facebook group made it clear that there are more considerations for traveling beer enthusiasts than just picking up packaged beer and figuring out a way to get it back home. That said: 

How to Get Beer Home

It is illegal to ship alcohol across state lines via the United States Postal Service. Additionally, while it's not illegal to try to ship alcohol by private carriers such as FedEx and UPS, their stated policy is that they will ship alcohol only under contract for licensed wholesalers, dealers, distributors, manufacturers and importers. If an individual ships alcoholic beverages and gets caught, the bottles will be confiscated. So, there’s a risk of both wasted time and lost dollars if that happens. That's better than facing criminal charges, but it's still upsetting. 

A better idea is to check the bottles with your luggage. A few bottles can be stowed in luggage, so plan ahead and leave some room in your suitcase when packing. Wrap the bottles in bubble wrap, or purchase one of the many custom bottle packages available online, such as Wine Skins.

For larger quantities, there are specialized boxes fitted with Styrofoam housings. Any beer shop worth its salt will have these for sale. Six-bottle shippers are much easier to carry than 12-bottle shippers — and are also unfortunately often much harder to find. The shape of large-format beer bottles is slightly different from that of wine bottles, so still plan on wrapping with newspaper or small cell bubble wrap. This prevents them from rattling or sloshing in the Styrofoam compartments. (Real pros — or real serious beer collectors — buy specialized luggage for this purpose.)

Making the Most of Beer Tourism

Next, let’s consider how to get the most out of beer tourism. Joshua Justice of Flying Saucer Draught Emporium (and a former Houston Press contributor who wrote several noteworthy articles on craft beer) pointed out that it’s not just about seeking bottles to ship home. He wrote, “As an [beer pub] operator, I'm looking to spend most of my money on-premise when I travel, so I want diversity of tap wall and knowledgeable staff. I still wind up shipping boxes and boxes home, but I'd rather focus on breweries. Partly, it’s because that's where I want my money to go, but also for the experience, which is more worthwhile for me.

The point is to not ignore the small breweries that may or may not package their brews in bottles or cans. Joey Williams, beer manager at Spec’s, recommends talking to knowledgeable professionals in the city you’ve visiting to get the lowdown on where to find the best brews — including some hidden gems. “Wherever you go, wherever you are, talk with the locals about food and drink for the best information,” he says. “Ask the local bottle shop’s 'beer guy' (I use that as a gender-neutral term) or the staff at the bar/restaurant you’re at. They’re much closer to the ground floor than you or your social media connections in regards to happenings.”

Here are breweries that should be on the must-visit list. It’s not exhaustive by any means, so readers who don’t see their favorite small breweries here should feel free to add to it in the comments section below. Most of these breweries will have packaged beer, but call ahead anyway to check on that, as well as for information about tours and tasting room hours. Thanks to Joey Williams of Spec’s; Kevin Floyd of The Hay Merchant; and James White, David Nettleton, Will Tervay, Nena Lamb and Andy Charlton of the Houston Let’s Talk Craft Beer group for contributing to this list.

Belching Beaver, San Diego
Coronado Brewing Company, Coronado
Firestone Walker Barrelworks, Buellton
Half Door Brewing, San Diego
The Lost Abbey/Port Brewing Co., San Marcos
Mission Brewing, San Diego
Modern Times, San Diego
Rare Barrel, Berkeley
Russian River Brewing Company, Santa Rosa

Copper Kettle Brewing Company, Denver
Crooked Stave, Dener
River North Brewery, Denver

Connecticut: Lawson’s Finest Liquids at Two Road Brewing, Stratford

Florida: Cigar City Brewing, Tampa

Indiana: 3 Floyds

Maryland: Heavy Seas, Baltimore

Massachusetts: Trilium, Boston

Michigan: Bell’s Brewery, Comstock

Minnesota: Surly Brewing Co., Minneapolis

Schlafly, St. Louis
Urban Chestnut, St. Louis
4 Hands, St. Louis
Side Project, St. Louis

North Carolina: Wicked Weed Brewing, Asheville

Hill Farmstead Brewery, Greensboro Bend
The Alchemist Brewery, Waterbury

Washington, D.C.: DC Brau, Atlas, Bluejacket

Wisconsin: Central Waters, Amherst

Belgium: Brasserie Cantillion

Don’t Ignore the Bigger Breweries, Though

Just because well-distributed breweries are sending beers to Houston does not mean they are shipping their very best. For example, Evil Twin recently became available, but only the most ubiquitous, common types. So, I Love You With My Stout isn’t hard to come by, but there’s been no sign of Imperial Biscotti Break so far. The second brewing of Stone Brewing Company’s W00tstout, a pecan- and chocolate-infused collaboration with nerd hero Wil Wheaton, Fark founder Drew Curtis and Stone founder Greg Koch, never made it to Texas, even though both the first and third in the series did. It was easy to find in San Diego, though. The best and rarest beers are simply easier to find in the brewery’s hometown.

Make friends with people at home who love beer as much as you do so you have someone to send the inevitable “Hey, is this beer available in Houston?” messages.

When Possible, Time Visits With Special Beer Events

Williams also mentioned that beer festivals and events are a wonderful way to be able to try many different out-of-state beers. Almost every major city has several annual beer festivals, and the greatest among these might be The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver. During the festival, some of the most coveted awards in the beer industry are handed out as well. Williams said:

Every year, Denver is swarmed by an international crowd of the beer-passionate, and GABF is the reason. In addition to GABF, bars, restaurants and breweries in the area do their best to set off all of the fireworks at once to draw a crowd to their doors. It’s the easiest way to become the envy of those around you, or the beer guy at your local store. I would know. I’ve never been and I hear all of the stories from friends, coworkers and customers. I hate all of you. 

It's okay if people hate you sometimes, as long as it's for a good reason. 
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook