Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
With at least one craft brewery in almost every neighborhood in America, consumers are spoiled for choice. Sometimes, that’s great. Choice means variety, and variety is the spice of life.
But perhaps in the maze of milkshake IPAs and cookie-infused breakfast stouts, you find yourself wishing for simpler times: times when a few-dozen brave independent craft breweries pitted themselves against the might of Big Beer, when discovering a hidden case of Bell’s Hopslam at your local bottle shop felt like winning the lottery, when looking at a taplist involved choosing between five or ten options from breweries that you knew, loved, and trusted. Ah, to be alive and of drinking age in the early 2000s!
Luckily, there’s a way to capture that experience. Many of the original breweries that kicked off the craft craze are still making their flagship beers—often in new packaging and more accessible than ever. However, if you’re like me, you probably haven’t tried the old standbys in a while. So this is your cue: Head down to the bottle shop, pick up one of the classics, and remind yourself why you fell in love with craft beer in the first place.
This is the beer that first introduced America to hops. First brewed in 1980, the only thing that has changed about this American classic in the last 40-plus years is the packaging. A refresher in warm to hot weather, Sierra Nevada achieves a perfect balance of malty backbone and bitter Cascade hops. Cascade might not be as sexy as some of today’s more tropical hop varietals, but that doesn’t matter when you’re 20 miles into a backpacking trip and this liquid hits your lips.
In 2002, Oskar Blues became the first brewery in America to stuff craft beer into cans. That beer? Dale’s Pale Ale, another beverage responsible for converting macro-beer drinkers. Although Oskar Blues classifies Dale’s as an American Pale Ale, the blend of comet, cascade and centennial hops give off serious IPA vibes. As good in the taproom as it is after a long bike ride, the country’s first canned craft beer is a classic “anywhere” beverage—just watch out for that 6.5% ABV. A bonus is that, since 2013, Oskar Blues nonprofit Can’d Aid has delivered over 2.9 million cans of fresh water to disaster-stricken communities.
Is there anything more refreshing than a Samuel Adams Boston Lager? Publicly released on Patriot’s Day in 1985, the beer achieved national acclaim six weeks later, when it earned the title of “Best Beer in America” at the Great American Beer Festival. Almost 40 years later, it remains the quintessential post-yard work beer. Brewed according to Reinheitsgebot, the German Purity Law which says that beer can only contain water, hops, barley, and yeast, Boston Lager is a malty, well-balanced, and easy-drinking beer that tastes the same no matter where you drink it.
Firestone Walker head brewer Matt Brynildson has more experience aging beer in bourbon barrels than almost anyone in the world. That experience is best expressed in Parabola, a thick 13.6% ABV bourbon barrel-aged stout with notes of chocolate, black cherry, and coffee. A celebratory beer to drink with good friends, the brewery has released a new vintage each year since 2006, which you can drink right away or cellar for years to come.
Lagunitas IPA was first introduced to the market in 1995, when you could still get away with naming a flagship after a style. (And when the “C” hops—Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook—were all the rage.) Supported by a backbone of English malts, this beer remains one of the quintessential IPAs, filled with scents of dank hops and notes of pine and grapefruit. To make this classic new again, try pairing it with spicier dishes like tacos or a shrimp po’boy.
Distributed along the Eastern seaboard from Pennsylvania to Florida, this stout is a creation of The Duck-Rabbit Brewery in Farmville, North Carolina. Barring a few lighter styles that the brewery started making on its 15th anniversary in 2019, it has spent the last 18 years dedicated to a single purpose: the art of perfecting dark beer styles. The Milk Stout, which emerged from this pursuit, is similar to the brewery that makes it: humble, unassuming, and excellent. Full-bodied but clean, this dark-as-night milk stout is perfect for a chilly fall afternoon. Also, I loved that when I called the brewery to fact-check this article, it was founder Paul Philippon himself who answered.
Everyone loves Spotted Cow, the cloudy farmhouse ale from Wisconsin-based New Glarus Brewing Co. However, it’s New Glarus Raspberry Tart that has turned more people into funky, fruity sour beer believers than any other. Spontaneously fermented in oak vats with Oregon raspberries, Wisconsin-farmed wheat, and year-old Hallertau hops, each sip of this 4% ABV framboise tastes like biting into a handful of ripe raspberries. You might need a road trip to track this one down (New Glarus famously doesn’t distribute outside Wisconsin), but a trip to Green County is one of those craft beer fan rites of passage.
In 2000, Russian River co-founder Vinnie Cilurzo wrote his name into the annals of beer history with Pliny the Elder, a double IPA brewed with Amarillo, Centennial, CTZ, and Simcoe hops. A decade later, it was easy to attend any good beer festival and find a dozen beer nerds who’d give up their firstborn child for a taste. In 2022, the beer is (relatively) easier to obtain, though it remains one of the best beers ever made. Packing a robust 8% ABV, Pliny the Elder is impossibly well-balanced, somehow remaining light and drinkable with a smoothness that surpasses the softest nitrogenated stouts.
With the tartness of kombucha, the spritz of champagne, the color of rich mahogany, and the taste of oaky tannin and funk, New Belgium’s La Folie isn’t for everyone. But it’s perfect for those who appreciate challenging, complex beers. One of the first commercially brewed sours, La Folie tastes just as good today as it did during its first release in the late ’90s. If you haven’t tried this beer in a while (or at all), you owe it to yourself to quaff a bit of U.S. beer history. Because let’s be honest: When was the last time you drank a Flemish sour brown ale?
In 2003, John and Jen Kimmich borrowed $150,000 to open a 60-seat brewpub called The Alchemist Pub and Brewery in Waterbury, Vermont. By modern standards, that makes The Alchemist—and its bestselling Double IPA Heady Topper—an OG. Available since the earliest days, Heady Topper spent many years as a functionally unobtainable delight, requiring a pilgrimage to Vermont and crushing defeat if the brewery was sold out. Dank, unfiltered, and endlessly smooth, Heady Topper tastes just as good today as it did then, when patrons snuck into the bathroom to pour their pints into water bottles. True story!
First brewed in 2003, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA didn’t introduce America to hops (see Sierra Nevada Pale Ale), but it was the first IPA to use a Dogfish-developed technique called “continual hopping.” With this technique, hops aren’t dumped into the brew at any one time but are continuously added over the course of the beer’s 60-minute boil. Because of its hoppy profile, this beer pairs incredibly well with crunchy snacks or hard cheeses. For a real treat, pair a bottle of 60 Minute IPA with a bowl of pretzels and a block of vintage cheddar.
While Bell’s Two Hearted IPA usually steals the spotlight, you shouldn’t sleep on Oberon. First brewed in 1992 and marketed under the name “SolSun,” Oberon’s bright, sunny packaging hints at the liquid it contains. Released every March as an ode to summer, the 5.8% American wheat ale is the perfect beer for a day at the beach. Of course, if you’re looking to relive the classics, you won’t go wrong with Two Hearted, either.
Called “the first craft beer” by famed beer writer and taster Randy Mosher, Anchor Steam has been bottled since 1971, which definitively makes it the oldest standby on this list. In fact, the beer has such a storied history that in 2015, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee named the third week of August “Steam Week.” With a creamy head and strong malt character, Anchor drinks well by itself but excels when paired with backyard classics like hot dogs, burgers, or mac and cheese.
When Canadian-brewed La Fin du Monde hit the American market in 1994, it became the first beer in the United States to re-ferment in the bottle. Perfectly paired with pulled pork sandwiches and thick French fries (dipped in mayonnaise, as is the Belgian way), La Fin du Monde has spent the last few decades aging gracefully and gathering wins from prestigious global competitions like the World Beer Championships and World Beer Awards. With aromas of must and coriander, and notes of peppery clove and fermented fruits, the beer brings to mind the dark monasteries of the ancient monks who first brewed Tripels to supplement their diets.
Ask a dozen brewers about the craft beer that changed their lives and at least half of them will point to Allagash White. Unpopular upon its 1995 release, the Belgian-style wheat beer has since outsold even the trendiest IPAs. Why? Because it’s damn good. Crisp and refreshing, with notes of coriander and Curaçao orange peel, Allagash White changes the minds of even the worst haters. Once only available in brown bottles with an iconic yellow label, the Portland, Maine, brewery started canning in 2019, making this 10/10 more accessible than ever.