Beer Above the Clouds
The best airport beer bars, a pizza party, and I burn my face off with hops
Call it a strange flex, but this is a beer I drank at 37,000 feet on Monday evening as I flew home on Delta from San Diego. Some travelers won’t be so lucky to be able to do this over the summer — both Southwest and American Airlines announced they would not would not resume sales of in-flight alcoholic beverage sales after documented incidents with rowdy passengers. I’m actually not a huge fan of drinking in the air — typically, it induces a headache for me that only adds to the stress of traveling, and in-flight beer options are often quite limited. I’ll always hold my breath when I’m given a can from Sweetwater on Delta, until I turn it over and see how fresh it is. This bright, hoppy pour of 420 Extra Pale Ale is less than two months old and is much improved over the last can I had back in 2019 that was approaching its best-by date. I’m also keeping an eye out for Sweetwater’s new Hazy IPA brewed especially for Delta, though it’s hard to tag your location in an Untappd check-in when connected to in-flight WiFi.
A guide to the best American Airport Beer Bars
Summer travel season is upon us, and the TSA reported Memorial Day Weekend passenger traffic was up to 73% of 2019 levels — and nearly seven times higher than the number of people who flew on the holiday weekend last year. With all those rowdy people crowding into airports again, you might need a pre-flight beer to ease your pandemic-addled mind. As a seasoned traveler, I have a few favorite bars with excellent beer selections that I’ve found as I crisscross the country. I provide this list as a service to you, in the event you’ll be traveling through one of these airports this summer.
Detroit Metro Airport: Plum Market (McNamara Terminal, near gate A36)
It doesn’t look like much from the exterior, but this deli/coffee shop/convenience store has a bar at the back that serves easily the best beer selection in the airport, an exclusively Michigan-brewed list of 12 drafts. They regularly keep cans of Old Nation M-43 in their cooler, one of the state’s most cultish hazy IPAs. The coffee shop stocks fresh-baked goods from Zingerman’s Deli in nearby Ann Arbor, which is a nice added bonus.
Burlington International Airport: The Skinny Pancake (North Security, near gate 1)
The small airport that acts as a gateway to Vermont is definitely the only place where you can drink a can of The Alchemist’s Heady Topper before your flight. This bar also offers nine draft selections from Vermont breweries and cideries, and some great brunch grub to pair with your beverage, if you’re a believer that rules don’t apply and morning beers in airports are acceptable.
Tampa International Airport: Cigar City Brewing (Airside C, near gate C43)
A flight before your flight? Don’t mind if I do! This outpost of the famed Tampa brewery offers up a wide array of their own beers and also happens to have a small-batch brewhouse on premise that is the only post-security brewing facility in an American airport. You can even buy merch from the brewery to stuff in your carry-on bag.
Denver International Airport: Root Down (C Gates, in center core)
Colorado’s largest airport sports outposts of the state’s breweries (Great Divide, New Belgium, and Boulder each have a location in the airport), but Root Down pulls from a wide array of local breweries to curate a draft list of nearly two dozen beers (including a dedicated draft line for Crooked Stave) and pairs it with some high-quality farm-to-table grub and sleek interior design that’s exceptional for an airport bar.
Portland (OR) International Airport: Henry’s Tavern (Concourse C, near gate C11)
This spot in a well-known beer mecca has possibly the largest draft beer selection of any airport bar in the country. 32 beer strong, this list weighs heavily toward Pacific Northwest options from Deschutes, Pfriem, Fort George, and Boneyard. One small bummer: due to construction, Henry’s is currently only accessible to Alaska and American Airlines passengers.
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport: Stone Arch (Terminal 1, in MSP Mall)
Behold! My favorite airport bar in the United States. Functionally, this is already a great bar for its ample seating at a long, wrap-around bar top that offers a nice perch at its rounded end for people-watching. But the beer list is second-to-none for an airport: over two dozen Minnesota-made beers from breweries all over the state, curated by the state’s Craft Brewers Guild. The food is authentically Minnesotan, too, with cheese curds, spam fritters, and a Juicy Lucy all on the menu.
This July, it’s a Pizza Party on Staten Island
Beer events are slowly getting back on the calendar in a post-vaccination world, and Staten Island’s Kills Boro Brewing Company is among the first to set a date: on Saturday, July 31st, they’ll throw an afternoon Pizza Party at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. The four-hour event will feature eight breweries and eight Staten Island pizzerias paired up in a party to raise money for the host venue. Breweries announced so far in addition to Kills Boro are New Jersey’s Icarus Brewing, Rockland County’s Two Villains, and NYC’s own Non Sequitur, with more to be announced soon. Pizzerias announced so far include Lee’s Tavern, Pier 76, and DOUGH by Licastri. Tickets are $65 and include unlimited beer samples and a full pie’s worth of pizza. The event is also child-friendly, with a $25 food-only ticket for the kiddos.
The reopenings continue
As New York continues to reopen, more and more venues are returning to normal service. Here are three more glimmers of hope announced this week:
Threes Brewing’s indoor spaces are fully open again. Effective on Tuesday, you could drink at the bar at both of their Brooklyn locations for the first time since March of 2020. They’ll continue to offer socially-distanced seating indoors by request, with vaccinated and unvaccinated sections.
Beer Street in Williamsburg reopened seating yesterday for the first time since pre-pandemic. The shoebox-sized original that produced the already-reopened Vanderbilt Avenue spinoff has been to-go only since last Spring. Proof of vaccination is required for entry.
For those who feared the worst for classic dive bar Rudy’s Bar & Grill on 9th Avenue near Times Square, they announced yesterday that their reopening date is August 1st. Here’s hoping the hot dogs return, too.
Total brewery count: 2,248
New breweries in 2021: 174
Breweries visited in South Dakota: 6
Breweries in South Dakota featured as a Brewery Visit of the Week: 2
Brewery Visit of the Week
Brewery #542, Miner Brewing Company, Hill City, South Dakota (Visited 14-Apr-2016)
The contrast between two breweries that are a half-mile apart on the same highway could not be more stark than in Hill City, South Dakota. On one hand, you have a Brewery that Will Not Be Named that caters to the motorcyclists that storm through the Black Hills each summer, serving basic beers with misogynistic names, including some truly abhorrent phrases from which other breweries have long since distanced themselves. And on the other hand, you have the women-owned-and-operated Miner Brewing Company, making complex, layered beers that acts as a salve for whatever the hell is going on down the road.
I really enjoyed the beers from top to bottom here, including a Brett IPA with blueberries, a true-to-style Dunkelweiss, and a Brown Ale made with South Dakota-grown chokecherries. The staff couldn’t have been more friendly and knowledgeable, and they were incredibly patient with my since-departed father, who was already exhausted from a day of travel and felt a bit lost in a craft brewery taproom.
The brewery itself is led by brewmaster Sandi Vojta, who pulls from both her European heritage, the history of the Black Hills region as beermaking region during its mining days, and her experience as a winemaker at the co-owned Prairie Hills Winery. It leads to a broad selection of beer styles — five years after my visit, the menu remains as diverse as ever: Lambic, Kellerbier, Gruit, IPA, Irish Red, and a Juniper Rosehip Cider all appear on the tap list. Miner tries to be everything to everyone, and they manage to succeed at it. The other place down the road? That should be nothing to everyone.
Statistical Nerdity of the Week
Last weekend, I visited San Diego, California. If you didn’t know, San Diego County has the most breweries of any county in the United States. Typically, the count hovers around 170 or so, though the number is in flux with Covid-era closings and openings.
Next week, I’ll be visiting one of the most breweried counties in the United States on a per-capita basis: Skagway Borough, Alaska (the 49th State doesn’t have traditional counties, so Boroughs will have to do for this statistical analysis). Skagway has a population of just 1,183 people, but manages to have two breweries, resulting in 169 breweries per 100,000 people.
You can probably attribute these numbers to not to its handful of residents, but to the one million tourists on cruise ships who typically visit the town each year. Naturally, those tourists didn’t come last summer, and this summer’s cruise ship traffic will be light and late to start, so I’m going to do my best to support the local economy — and naturally, drinking some beer will be a part of that.
Skagway ranks second nationally behind San Juan County, Colorado in breweries per capita. Tiny San Juan County (population: 699) boasts two breweries itself, just a block apart in the county seat of Silverton, an old mining town that’s become a tourist destination. That works out to a whopping 286 breweries per 100,000 people. To put this into perspective: we here in New York City barely have half a brewery per 100,000 people.
Beer of the Week
Fall Brewing in San Diego has always impressed me, dating back to the first time I visited in 2014 just a month after they opened. It remains largely unchanged as a space, and the beer is always tasting better than on the previous visit. After starting my visit last weekend with a nice, crispy pilsner, I asked the taproom staff, “can we go hoppy this time?”
“Would you like a nice, burn-your-face-off-with-hops beer,” one of the staff replied.
“Hell yeah, I would.”
On a warm afternoon in San Diego, this bright, bitter beer sparkled in the sunshine and reminded me of those West Coast beers from last decade that would border on abrasive with their hoppiness. Yet this beer had some new-school appeal with a generous double dry-hopping with some of the hop hits of yesterday and today: Simcoe and Amarillo, Citra and Strata. It indeed burned my face off with hops (actually, that might have been the low-latitude June sun), but I enjoyed every second of it.
Long Read of the Week
New York-based writer Courtney Iseman has a new newsletter, Hugging the Bar, and it’s a really great read that’s definitely worth getting delivered to your inbox. Her third issue last week challenges the entire purpose of beer festivals — especially at a time when many of the stories of sexism in beer are rooted in beer festival experiences. It’s a perspective that’s well worth your consideration.
One Last Thing
Hey, are you traveling this summer? With summer plans well underway, I’d love to answer your beer-related travel questions. Whether you’re looking for a beer bar in Newport or a brewery with a family-friendly outdoor space in the Catskills, I’m hoping I have your answers — and can share them with others here making similar plans. Put your questions in the comments!