Bob McClenahan / VisitNapaValley.com
Man cannot live on peated Scotch whisky alone. I would have never guessed that was the case until I finally visited the land of peated Scotch whisky: Islay. There, on the tiny Scottish island, reside eight whisky distilleries, all specializing in the smokiest of drams. Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin -- you know the famous names. For a peated whisky lover like myself, I was in heaven. But, after several straight days of exclusively drinking exceedingly aggressive whisky with flavor notes of “campfire,” “iodine,” and even “band-aid,” eventually I just wanted a damn beer.
There are certain regions throughout the world with names that instantly conjure thoughts of particular alcoholic products. Sometimes, the place name is the product name, as in the cases of Champagne or Cognac. And yes, I firmly believe you should always prioritize drinking that which is uniquely local to an area, even if you’re not the kind of person who would typically drink, say, Armagnac or Bordeaux while at your hometown bar. But just because a region is more famous for a wine, spirit, or liqueur doesn’t mean it doesn’t also have some decent beer options -- and a good beer can be a welcomed reprieve from an over-exposed local speciality.
Below, a look at what beers you should drink when visiting places where beer isn't the traditional first choice.
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Known for: heavily peated Scotch whisky
What beer to drink: Islay Ales, BrewDog
Believe it or not, teeny tiny Islay -- land of just 3000 people, give or take -- actually has its own brewery, Islay Ales (motto: “Ales from the Isle of Malts”). Opened in 2003 by a former firefighter who had retired to Islay, the four-barrel brewery mainly focuses on lower-ABV cask ales. Beers like the light and drinkable Finlaggan Ale (a mere 3.7% ABV) and Ardnave Ale (a 4.6% ABV hoppy bitter) are perfect after a day of sipping 115-proof drams. (Recently, they’ve also begun making a series of unique peated ales, using Kilchoman malts.) Still, the beers aren’t exactly easy to find, even on Islay, where you’re more likely to see multinational light lagers on tap in the island’s bars and restaurants. You’ll also see plenty of offerings from BrewDog, the Scottish craft brewery that has become ubiquitous within the country and beyond.
Napa Valley/Sonoma Valley
Country: California, USA
Known for: Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel
What beer to drink: Russian River Brewing Co., Lagunitas, Bear Republic, Fieldwork Brewing
You can argue about whether Napa or Sonoma Valley is the superior California wine region, but you can’t argue Northern California's status as an under-the-radar beer behemoth. Even wine-haters could have a heck of a time sipping their way through the Valleys. Sonoma is a particularly fertile beer destination, with three of the country’s most acclaimed and pioneering breweries all within a few miles of each other (Lagunitas in Petaluma; Bear Republic in downtown Healdsburg; and of course, Russian River in Santa Rosa). In fact, Russian River began as an offshoot of a winery, and now makes some of the world’s best wild ales, utilizing wine barrels from friendly neighbors. The brewery options in Napa Valley aren’t quite as mind-blowing, but you’ll still find a Fieldwork Brewing taproom downtown.
The Bourbon Trail
Country: Kentucky, USA
Known for: bourbon
What beer to drink: Against the Grain, Country Boy Brewing, West Sixth Brewing
Study a map of the great state of Kentucky and you’ll quickly realize two things: Bourbon County no longer has any bourbon distilleries in it; and, should you want to venture down the so-called Bourbon Trail that links such famous distilleries as Jim Beam, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey, you can opt for staying in either Louisville or Lexington. Louisville is an up-and-coming beer city, with great beer bars like Holy Grale as well as a world class brewery in Against the Grain. Lexington is a tad closer to the majority of the Bourbon Trail and now has a booming beer scene. Country Boy Brewing makes numerous experimental (and often barrel-aged) beers like a Jalapeno Smoked Porter, while West Sixth Brewing is located in a remodeled bread factory that also functions as a full-size course for high octane women’s roller derby matches.
credits:"[West Sixth Brewing](https://www.westsixth.com/)"
Known for: Champagne
What beer to drink: Brasserie Les 3 Loups, Brasserie Artisanale Masclaux
One of the world’s great geographical indications, Champagne can only be made in the Champagne region of northeast France, fulfilling certain rules set forth by the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne. The notion of drinking a humble beer where tame lagers like Kronenbourg dominate and fancy schmancy bubbly flows like water might horrify the natives -- but there are a couple of local breweries in Champagne that are worth a nod, too. Located in the valley of the Marne, surrounded by numerous champagne vineyards, Les 3 Loups (The 3 Wolves) produces Belgian-style beers. And slightly northeast in Berméricourt is Brasserie Artisanale Masclaux, focused on making “Reims beer,” a historically local blonde brew dating back to a 1625 edict.
Known for: Rioja red wines
What beer to drink: Mateo & Bernabé and Friends, Cervecera Artesana
Located in the north of the country, Rioja is made from grapes grown in La Rioja, Navarre, and parts of the Basque Country. And though few things pair better with the local “pintxos” (small snacks) than these robust reds, there’s also an emerging beer scene. The region’s first craft brewery, Mateo & Bernabé and Friends, opened in 2012 with attractively-labeled wine-like bottles named after the proprietors and their friends. Meanwhile, the Cervecera Artesana launched in Nalda in 2014, producing beers like the Palax lager -- which are lightly regarded by online reviewers. It’s also a great region for cider, of course.
credits:"[Mateo & Bernabe & Friends](https://www.facebook.com/mateoybernabe/photos/a.309109579144713.76086.299288926793445/320991081289896/?type=1&theater)"
Known for: Chianti, Brunello, anything made from Sangiovese
What beer to drink: Birrificio Brùton, Archea, Mosto Dolce, Diorama, Chianti Brew Fighters
You don’t need to read its Wikipedia page to know that Tuscany -- the gorgeous tourist mecca in the center of the country -- is the king region of Italian wine. Which makes the fact that it is also becoming such a hot spot for craft beer so interesting. For the longest time, if you’d desired a beer after a long day of vineyard crawling, you’d be stuck with an simple Peroni or Moretti. But nowadays there are some several dozen craft breweries in the region and, with no classic brewing tradition to draw from, the offerings are quite eclectic. Birreria Le Baladin, Italy’s barleywine masters, can be found just north of the area. Birrificio Brùton in central Tuscany makes American-style beers utilizing Italian heritage grains like farro. While within the growing beer scene of Florence, look for upstarts like Archea, Mosto Dolce, and the incredible Diorama, which makes its own offerings like Maison Saison, while also stocking rare lambics from Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen. There’s also the aptly named Chianti Brew Fighters in Radda in Chianti.
Known for: mezcal
What beer to drink: Santisima Flor de Lupulo, Casa Cervecera Tierra Blanca, The Beer Truck Company
Evoking mole and mezcal, the name Oaxaca (say: “wa-ha-ka”) is so often used in the names of Mexican-American bars or restaurants (and you’ll rarely see a spot named “Jalisco,” where the more prevalent tequila is produced). A six hour drive southeast of Mexico City, many of the region’s top mezcal makers barely distribute their wares -- which gives one all the more reason to visit. Still, on a hot Oaxacan night, you might prefer cooling down with a frosty brew, and luckily, you now have more choices than just a bucket of Coronas. Santisima Flor de Lupulo (The Hop Flower) was the first nano-brewery in the area, opened in 2014. There’s also Casa Cervecera Tierra Blanca, which offers beers like Tierra Ahumada (Smoked Earth), a tasty stout meant to be paired with Oaxaca's famous dark chocolate. And December rings in Festival de la Cerveza Artesanal, which I’m guessing you can translate on your own with just a little bit of effort.