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10 Craft Breweries Innovating American Beer

Once upon a time, there were wine connoisseurs and beer drinkers, and the latter got a heck of a lot less respect, culinarily speaking. Times have changed. Craft beers have made a name for themselves in their own right, proving that something so unpretentious really can be every bit as sophisticated as that port or pinot. It's about time, considering beer is one of America's greatest pastimes. It's in our ball parks, our pubs, and our backyard coolers. And now, thanks to the rise of craft brewing, it may be better than ever.

The Brewers Association defines craft breweries as being independent, small and traditional. Generally, a small craft brewer produces at most 6 million barrels of beer annually and uses traditional ingredients combined with innovation. "Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent," the Brewers Association website reads. Most importantly, craft brewers know and love beer. The following brewing companies are just a few of those helping to redefine America's beer tradition, one barrel at a time. We've even included their rankings, based on beer sales volume in 2012, from the Brewers Association (BA) Top 50 U.S. Craft Brewing Companies of 2012.

10 breweries redefining American craft beer

  • Alaskan Brewing Co.: When 28-year-old beer aficionados Marcy and Geoff Larson founded Alaskan Brewing Co. in 1986, it became the 67th brewery in the nation − but the first in Juneau since Prohibition. Alaskan Brewing says its beers emulate those brewed during the Gold Rush. Whatever their inspiration, this craft brewery's beers have received a number of awards, and its Alaskan Smoked Porter has garnered over 18 medals at the Great American Beer Festival. BA 2012 Ranking: 16.
  • Anchor Brewing: In 1871, Gottlieb Brekle bought a beer-and-billiards saloon near the Russian Hill area of San Francisco for $3,500. Twenty-five years later, his venture was renamed Anchor. Over the years, Anchor, the nation's first craft brewery, survived fire, earthquake and the American Prohibition. True to its history, Anchor still brews its beers by hand in a traditional copper brewhouse. BA 2012 Ranking: 21.
  • Big Sky Brewing Co.: This Montana-based brewing company is a testament to how much three guys can accomplish with a bit of business savvy and a passion for beer. In 1995, Brad Robinson, Neal Leathers and Bjorn Nabozney rejoiced with the production of their first draft-only beer, Whistle Pig Red Ale. Scape Goat Pale Ale and Moose Drool Brown Ale followed shortly thereafter. Today, Big Sky produces 11 craft-brewed bottled beers. BA 2012 Ranking: 47.
  • Boston Beer Co.: Even if you've never heard of Boston Beer Co., chances are you know and perhaps love its Sam Adams ales. Sam Adams and its more than 30 "distinctive" ales have won international accolades, and, according to BA, Boston Beer Co. is the nation's best-selling craft beer. It also remains true to its "time honored traditional four-vessel brewing process." BA 2012 Ranking: 1.
  • Flying Dog Brewery: Few things scream adventure like a flying dog − or the history of the Maryland-based brewpub eponymously named. In 1983, an astrophysicist named George Stranahan and a dozen friends travelled across the globe to climb Pakistan's K2, or the "Savage Mountain," the second-highest peak in the world. On day 17 of their 35-day adventure, Stranahan's crew "totally ran out of booze." When they finally got their hands on some beer again, it was in a Pakistani hotel that featured an oil painting of a hovering dog. The experience inspired Stranahan to found Flying Dog Brewpub. Flying Dog produces a number of craft beers, including Doggie Style Pale Ale, which was named the top choice out of 20 pale ales on a 2010 New York Times list. BA 2012 Ranking: 29.
  • Left Hand Brewing: In 1990, Dick Doore's brother gave him a small homebrewers kit for Christmas, and according to Doore, "it was all downhill from there." Doore became obsessed with homebrewing. In 1993, he took his craft from faux to pro by launching a Colorado-based brewery with friend and fellow beer-lover Eric Wallace. Today, Left Hand Brewing produces a number of award-winning craft beers, including Milk Stout and Black Jack Porter. BA 2012 Ranking: 43.
  • Stone Brewing Co.: Homebrewer Steve Wagner and "business guy" Greg Koch first met in 1989, but it wasn't until they crossed paths at a "Sensory Evaluation of Beer" class at UC Davis a few years later that they discovered their shared love of beer − eventually launching their Stone Brewing Co. business in 1996. Today, the Escondito, California-based company produces an assortment of ales and porters. In 2012, Stone Brewing Co. earned a spot on Forbes's Ten Top American Breweries Worth A Visit. BA 2012 Ranking: 10.
  • SweetWater Brewing Company: In the 1990s, college roommates Freddy Bensch and Kevin McNerney graduated and headed west to the California-based American Brewers Guild to learn the art of brewing. In 1996, Freddy went to Atlanta to watch the Olympics and found a community that, according to SweetWater, needed a West Coast-style brewery. Thus began SweetWater Brewing Company. This craft beermaker has a number of awards to its name and was even named Grand Champion of the 2012 U.S. Open Beer Championship. BA 2012 Ranking: 24.
  • The Gambrinus Company: This San Antonio-based brewing company's name pays homage to Gambrinus of Brabant, the legendary "King of Beer," who declared, "Beer brings enjoyment to the world!" King Gambrinus's true identity is a mystery, but he remains revered among brewers as the patron saint. Today, Gambrinus brews a number of craft beers designed for "discriminating beer drinkers" through the likes of its Spoetzl Brewery, Trumer Brauerei, and BridgePort Brewery, among others. BA 2012 Ranking: 4.
  • Victory Brewing Company: This Downingtown, Pennsylvania brewery traces its beginnings back to 1973 when fifth-graders Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski first met on a school bus. Little did they know that, in 1996, their shared love of beer would lead them to launch Victory Brewing Company. By 2012, Victory says it had produced more than 93,000 barrels of beer. Today, Victory uses whole flower hops in its beers, something believed to produce more aroma and improved taste in beer drinking. BA 2012 Ranking: 26.

Brew up your own recipes: beer-making school

One feature you may note is that many of these successful craft breweries were launched by ordinary people who were passionate about beer. Some of you may even be inspired to follow in their footsteps. Beer-making classes would be a place to start, but successful brewers often need solid business − and marketing - sense, too. Fortunately, there are a number of schools that can help you develop these skills, including some online colleges. All you may need is a bit of inspiration, education and the stomach to tolerate potential missteps, especially in the beginning.