I love beer.
It is one of two beverages I drink regularly, the other being water. And really, you needn't waste your time with much else.
Yes, wine is fine to take to a dinner party, and an occasional margarita can be fun, but nothing beats a beer. (I bet the guests at that dinner party would appreciate a six-pack.)
And in the beer world, nothing beats a locally crafted brew.
Craft brewers are small, innovative businesses that interpret historic beer styles with new twists or develop new styles using both traditional and nontraditional ingredients.
Whenever I travel, I always seek out a local microbrewery or brewpub.
When I'm home, I thirst for beer from one of 12 craft breweries in Northeast Florida.
I'm not alone.
In the first six months of 2013, craft beer sales increased 15 percent in dollars and 13 percent by volume, according to the Brewers Association. During that same period last year, dollar sales rose 14 percent and volume increased 12 percent. Meanwhile, overall beer sales in the U.S. slumped 2 percent in the first half of 2013.
Craft brewers sold 7.3 million barrels of beer from January through June, up from 6.4 million barrels over the first half of 2012, the Boulder, Colo.-based trade group reported.
As of June 30, 2,538 breweries are open for business, an increase of 446 from a year ago. More than 1,600 breweries are in the planning stages. The majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewer.
"More breweries are currently operating in the U.S. than at any time since the 1870s," Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, said in a statement. "Beer-drinkers nationwide are responding positively to high-quality, full-flavored, diverse offerings from American craft brewing companies that continue to innovate and push the envelope."
Full-flavored is right. We're not talking about nondescript, pale yellow liquid. These are beers that come in every shade of the brewers' rainbow and have tastes from all around the flavor wheel — sweet, bitter, sour, fruity, floral, nutty, hoppy and more.
Bold City Brewery's signature Duke's Cold Nose Brown Ale, named after the owner's late, beloved boxer, has hints of chocolate and caramel with a smooth nutty finish — the epitome of a comfort beer.
Intuition Ale Works' Shotgun Shack Black Rye Ale combines roasty malt, spicy green peppercorns, malted German rye, Magnum hops and American hops for flavor and aroma in a full-bodied brew.
With Green Room Brewing's Shaka Oatmeal Stout, who needs a Guinness? Or try Count Shakula with a hint of chocolate, or Thin Mint Shakula.
Pinglehead Brewing's Black hOPs is a hoppy chocolate hybrid that's as fun to say as it is to drink.
The Rye of the Tiger at Engine 15 Brewing Co. is an amber-colored rye beer with citrus and spice and everything nice.
Aardwolf Brewery is still ramping up beer production, but its pilot batch of Hungry Bean Brown will satisfy beer drinkers and coffee klatchers alike.
If darker beers scare you — and they shouldn't — local craft breweries offer lighter colored brews that still pack in flavor. Bold City's Killer Whale Cream Ale is a favorite. Give Intuition's People's Pale Ale or Jon Boat a try. Engine 15's (904) Weissguy is a traditional Bavarian-style Hefeweizen with notes of clove, orange and coriander. Mile Marker Brewing's Islamorada IPA has all the hop flavor and aroma with less bitterness. Green Room's Diamond is a Belgian-style wit, or wheat, beer.
Many of these breweries carry a few beers from their fellow brewers, so you can often try more than one brand of beer. And several of them are bottling and canning their quaffs, so you can find them on the shelves at grocery and liquor stores.
"Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy," Benjamin Franklin is often misquoted as saying. He was actually talking about the rain and its nourishment of grape vines for the production of wine, but it's easy to imagine Ben tossing back a few brews with fellow patriots on the Continental Congress.
And just so you know, wine drinkers aren't the only ones who can claim health benefits from their chosen libations. Sipping about a pint of beer was found to improve blood flow and heart function in a group of healthy men, according to a recent study by Harokopio University in Athens. That's on top of studies that show it can reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and kidney stones. Beer is also packed with nutrients such as fiber, B vitamins and silicon. Warning: The health benefits vanish if you drink too much.
So the next time you're up for a beer, try one of these craft breweries. You'll taste the difference. And when you're at your favorite bar or restaurant, ask what kind of local beers they carry. If the answer is "none," ask why not.