Simply the Best 

Has this happened to you on the road? You think you've found a great bar, only to discover it's out of half the beers on the menu, and the bar staff don't know Scotch ale from Scotch whiskey. Then, to make matters worse, you later find out that the place down the street had 15 local micros on tap and made the best pizza in town.

That needn't happen to you again, thanks to The Beer Lover's Guide to the USA. The authors, award-winning travel and beer writers Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky, have spent thousands of miles on the road, looking for America's best places to drink beer. The result is a comprehensive guide listing more than 4,000 establishments from every state in the Union.

Unlike many guidebooks, which limit themselves to places that brew their own, The Beer Lover's Guide includes all kinds of establishments where good beer--and good times--are on tap. The listings include British and Irish pubs, German restaurants, and venerable old alehouses, as well as brewpubs and brewery tasting rooms.

Earning a place in the guide meant meeting the authors' tough standards. Beer is the number-one criterion, of course, but Hieronymus and Labinsky realize that good beer alone won't guarantee a pleasant time. Food, in particular, can make or break a visit. With brewpubs offering beer-themed dinners and incorporating house ales into their menus, the authors stand on solid ground when they insist on food "more diverse than Applebee's."

Choosing which places to list was tricky enough, but the authors went one step further, giving them a rating of zero stars (a cut above average) to four stars (extraordinary). Four-star honors went to an elite group of twenty-one. Some, like California's Anderson Valley Brewing Company and Washington, D.C.'s Brickskeller, are well-known in the beer world. But lesser-known gems, like the Northeast Tap Room in Reading, Pennsylvania, and the Archer Ale House in Bellingham, Washington, are on the honor roll as well.

Predictably, Hieronymus and Labinsky's top beer cities include Denver, Portland, and Seattle; and they highly recommend college towns like Austin and Madison for a pub crawl. But the authors also let you in on a few secrets: Baltimore and Pittsburgh are vastly underrated; and smaller cities such as Anchorage and Portland, Maine, have sneaked into brewing's big leagues.

The Beer Lover's Guide is painstakingly well-organized, and the writing is as fresh and crisp as a well-brewed Pilsner. For each state, the authors recommend local beers worth tracking down, establishments most deserving of a visit, and offbeat places where fun is the order of the day. The state's best places to drink are grouped alphabetically by city. In selecting establishments, Hireonymus and Labinsky took pains to cover all parts of the country; they learned first-hand that it's possible to find good beer almost everywhere.

For each establishment, the authors provide all the essential information: address and telephone number, opening hours, smoking policy, and some idea of what's on the menu. In addition, there are short, but lively, descriptions of the top-rated places. Many are filled with amusing trivia: for example, Rich O's in New Albany, Indiana, charges $6.50 for a Budweiser in an effort to discourage macrobrew consumption; Shipyard Brewing in Orlando is the nation's only in-airport brewpub; and Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern in Monroe, Wisconsin, serves Limburger cheese sandwiches--with a breath mint on the side.

As one who's done his share of beer traveling, I particularly enjoyed comparing my experiences with those of two gifted writers. While I took issue with some of their ratings, my impressions of the establishments I'd visited were usually close to theirs. And thumbing through the guide brought back warm memories of the beer trips I'd taken over the years.

The Beer Lover's Guide to the USA is, simply put, the best guidebook of its kind. At $15 (paperback edition), a bit more than the price of a 12-pack of good ale, it's a bargain, too. If you're planning on spending time on the road this year, you'll find this book every bit as valuable as your trusty road atlas.