It’s the sheer dominance of mass-market lager brands born from 19th-century German immigrants, the dynamic craft brewers principled on innovation and excellence in recent decades, and the proud embrace of both these homegrown stories by local drinkers that makes Midwest beer culture the most interesting in the United States. (Let’s also not forget its peculiar specialty drink Red Beer, a standard domestic lager tinged with tomato juice).
A couple years ago, we explored the wave of small, experimental Midwestern breweries taking the region’s scene in new directions while espousing the accessibility of its conservatively flavored history — the famous light beers made for mass consumption such as Budweiser, Miller High Life, and PBR — capturing the spirit of what makes the area so unique. Their zeal for creativity and variety challenges the erroneous perception in the minds of many Americans: that the Midwest is a place of sameness, racially or otherwise.
It can feel like beer enthusiasts only call to the coasts when pontificating about the industry’s elite and exciting producers. That should not be. Indeed, some of the country’s leading and oldest operating craft brewers hail from the heartland, continuing the rich traditions that have long made cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis synonymous with beer. And where else will you encounter such a wholesome devotion among natives to their hometown brewery than in Wisconsin, for New Glarus, which famously only distributes within the state. Wisconsin ranks eighth in the nation in per-capita beer consumption, and you can bet a lot of that is Spotted Cow.
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In fact, Midwesterners drink more beer than those in other regions. But with the number of operating craft breweries reaching an all-time high of 9,118 in 2021, it’s tougher than ever to keep track of all the industry has to offer, taste every new, nano, and nomadic around. And so, there are bound to be some names flying under the radar in so-called flyover country.
To find the Midwest breweries deserving of more attention and praise, we asked 15 beer makers, most of whom work in the region, to share their thoughts on the ones they believe to be overlooked and underappreciated. Here are the experts’ picks.
The Most Underrated Midwest Breweries According to Brewers:
- Keeping Together (Chicago)
- Nortons Brewing Company (Wichita, Kan.)
- StoneCloud Brewing Company (Oklahoma City, Okla.)
- Cedar Springs Brewing Company (Cedar Springs, Mich.)
- Greyline Brewing Co. (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
- Art History Brewing (Geneva, Ill.)
- BlackStack Brewing (St. Paul, Minn.)
- Civil Life Brewing Company (St. Louis)
- American Solera (Tulsa, Okla.)
- Dovetail Brewery (Chicago)
- JAFB Wooster Brewery (Wooster, Ohio)
- Daredevil Brewing Co (Speedway, Ind.)
- Rockwell Beer Co. (St. Louis)
- Exit Strategy Brewing Co. (Forest Park, Ill.)
- Modist Brewing (Minneapolis)
”I don’t know if I think it’s underrated as much as it’s still in its infancy, but Keeping Together is one of my favorite Midwestern breweries and was founded by Averie Swanson, one of the few master cicerones in the world. Her palate, her passion, and her extensive knowledge of beer and the interplay of yeast and bacteria make every sip of her brewing creations a wild delight. Her beer is joy. She is a thoughtful, incredible talent on the international level that our industry is lucky to have.” —Amanda McLamb, co-founder and owner, Resident Culture Brewing Co., Charlotte, N.C.
“Family-owned Nortons Brewing Company may not be underrated to those in their hometown of Wichita, Kan., but this is a brewery the rest of the country needs to know about. I’m always impressed when a brewer can execute multiple beer styles well, and Nortons does exactly that. Lagers, IPAs, sours, barrel-aged stouts affably named by his kids; Dan Norton has crafted a brewery powerhouse. We visited recently on a wedding weekend for one of Pilot Project’s own brewers, Damian Padilla, and our whole team left dragging our jaws off the floor. Well done, Nortons!” —Dan Abel, co-founder, Pilot Project Brewing, Chicago
“It’s seldom that you go to a brewery and find every beer to be exceptional across a range of styles, from Czech pilsners to classic American light lagers to hazy IPAs. But that’s what StoneCloud Brewing in Oklahoma City does, and really well. StoneCloud Lite is the perfect yard beer, for example. Plus, the small taproom is beautifully curated, with lots of natural light and comfortable decor. Even being only a few hours away, I’ve only run into a handful of people that even know the brewery exists. One of those is my packaging lead and another is the beer buyer at my distributor. At least within Kansas, I feel like the brewery is practically unknown.” —Jonathan Williamson, co-owner, Sandhills Brewing, Mission, Kan.
“I’m always impressed with a place that makes classic styles, and one that does them well is Cedar Springs. The brewery’s take on the German experience is great: from the atmosphere, to the branding, to the food at its pub, to the beer itself — like the Küsterer Original Weißbier, which has won its fair share of medals, including a silver at last year’s GABF. Makes me thirsty just mentioning it. Funny story: David Ringler, Cedar Springs’ owner, and I went to Siebel brewing school together many moons ago, and we ran into each other in Denver the night before this past year’s GABF. We were talking about hefeweizens, as we both like them, and the next day, it wins the medal.” —David Gonzalez, director of brewing operations, Lost Worlds Brewing, Cornelius, N.C.
“When I think of Midwest breweries, my brewing roots lead me to think about the amazing beer scene that Michigan has cultivated over the decades. Oftentimes, you think of the larger regional breweries when you start running down the list of places that are killing it. But I am taking this in a different direction, sort of. Greyline Brewing Company is a great spot on the north side of Grand Rapids that is led by Nate Walser, who helped to build so many of the cornerstone brands that Founders Brewing Company was built on. Now with his own project, he is doing what Nate does: making next-level malt-forward beers, top-shelf imperial stouts, and exceptional hop-forward beers. It’s easy to fly under the radar when you aren’t distributing beer regionally, which Greyline doesn’t do. But combining great beer, a tasty food menu, and great service, it will always be my favorite stop in the Midwest.” —Adam Mills, head brewer, Cartridge Brewing, Maineville, Ohio
“Art History in Geneva, [Ill.] has been putting out some amazing beers. Brewer Greg Browne, formerly of Mickey Finn’s and way back from Goose Island, has introduced many people to a lot of styles that aren’t found outside of their regions. The brewery focuses mainly on lagers and other traditional European styles, and the quality has been top notch.” —Daryl Hoedtke, brewmaster, Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago
“I wholeheartedly believe that BlackStack Brewing should be a top contender in the beer world. Hands down, the brewery is making some of the best beers in today’s elevated, ultra-competitive category: the infamous IPA. The singles, doubles, and triples hit on multiple layers and showcase very specific combinations of hops. It’s one of the very few breweries I actually spend money on without a second thought. I got nothing but the utmost appreciation and respect for their team, as they actually challenge us and the industry and serve as inspiration to do better.” —Sam Green, head brewer, Untitled Art, Waunakee, Wis.
“The crew at Civil Life in St. Louis churn out some amazingly authentic English styles in a great setting that’s currently going through an exciting expansion. Their brown ale is perhaps the most widely known craft beer in the area and one that’s a go-to of drinkers at bars near and far. Led by owner Jake Hafner and head brewer Dylan Mosley, they’re passionate, incredible people and have a dedicated approach to everything they do. I can say we are truly lucky to have Civil Life in the Midwest. —Denny Foster, founder and co-owner, Main & Mill Brewing Company, Festus, Mo.
“The reason I choose American Solera is its beauty in creating some of the cleanest kölsch beers, pilsners, and IPAs. Chase Healey, the founder of America Solera, was the co-founder and head brewer at Prairie Artisan Ales, so we can all agree that he knows how to produce great beers. His latest brewery is located in my hometown of Tulsa, Okla., and the team are big contributors to the community, which is why I think more people need to start learning about these guys. I highly recommend Tulsa Pipe, which is my favorite West Coast-style IPA out there.” —Emily Ellsworth, brewer, 26 Degrees Brewing Company, Pompano Beach, Fla.
“In an echo chamber bouncing about with hazy double IPAs, fruited sours, and pastry stouts, it’s easy for a brewery like Dovetail to be passed over. But the beauty of this Chicago producer lies securely in its skillful execution of some of the toughest styles to hide flaws. The ode to traditional practices is inspirational; from the brewhouse to beer service on kölsch night, it’s one not to miss. Every style done harkens the drinker to Europe, whether it’s the Czech pale lager, German altbier, or Polish grodziskie. The beer is sensational.” —Chris Deapo, owner and brewer, Brewery Novalis, Syracuse, N.Y.
“It’s always a treat when I’m able to make a trip out to JAFB in Wooster, Ohio. The owner, Paul Fryman, is a great guy, and all of his beers bang. JAFB won two medals at Great American Beer Festival last year, including a gold for its hefeweizen. Great variety of stuff. The beer is probably well rated, but even a lot of people who are into beer have never made the trip there when I’ve brought them up. It’s a small place, and Wooster is kind of far from the larger cities in Ohio.” —Wyatt Routson, director of brewing, Broadview Brewing Company, Broadview Heights, Ohio
“Daredevil Brewing in Indianapolis doesn’t care what beers are trending or what the latest gimmick is. It doesn’t brew anything for the ‘hype.’ It brews great beer for people who appreciate great beer. It brews just about every type of German lager there is and does them all very well. Its flagship, Lift Off, is a West Coast-style IPA bursting with citrus and pine hop aromas. There are not many breweries that can brew classic German lagers and American IPAs with the level of quality and consistency that Daredevil can, and for that, it has my respect. The brewery’s distribution footprint is slowly expanding, so hopefully, more Midwesterners can enjoy its offerings soon.” —Jeremy Anderson, quality control manager, New Holland Brewing, Holland, Mich.
“Rockwell Beer Company in St. Louis has a fun take on traditional or classic beer styles with innovative twists, like the Kazimierz, a foeder-aged Baltic porter. The brewery is really nailing it down and making them approachable for everyone.” —Andrew Hood, barrel manager, Sun King Brewing, Indianapolis
“My buddy Glab invited us out for his birthday dinner and drinks at a new spot I’ve never heard of on Bar Row, a mile-long stretch of bars and restaurants in Forest Park, [Ill.]. The place was called Exit Strategy, a pre-Prohibition-style brewpub owned by husband and wife, Chris and Katherine Valleau. I was kind of shocked to find a brewery in Forest Park, considering there had never been one in that area before. But this place had great food, dope atmosphere and people, and fire beers. My personal favorite is the Exit Strategy American pale ale. We all know these last few years were tough for restaurateurs, so it’s awesome to see Chris and Katherine come through all that and kick ass. Exit Strategy is definitely a hidden spot you need to go find. Oh yeah, they’re homebrewers, too!” —Zack Day, co-founder and director of brew operations, Funkytown Brewery, Chicago
“While not necessarily underrated within the Minnesota brewing community, Modist Brewing deserves far more credit nationally for its innovative approach to craft beer. Modist utilizes a mash filter for wort separation, allowing them to create mash bills with little to no malted barley — normally a necessity in traditional lautering vessels. The brewery’s flagship Dream Yard is made with 100 percent oats and wheat, with no malted barley at all, which immediately sets it apart from all other IPAs on the market. While pushing the envelope on innovation and adjunct usage in its IPAs and pastry stouts, Modist also does a great job with easy-drinking lagers such as my go-to Supra Deluxe, a Japanese-inspired lager with 40 percent rice, as well as foeder-aged lagers. The taproom is conveniently located right outside Target Field and is my go-to destination before Twins’ home games.” —Ben Smith, head brewer, Surly Brewing Co., Minneapolis