If I wanted water, I would have asked for water.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Best Town for Beer? Bad Question

When Stan Hieronymus posted his defense of Portland, it precipitated a little debate about whether Portland was the best beer city in the US. Portland was definitely ahead in the popular vote:
Portland wins, hands down in my opinion. There are, what, 30 breweries/brewpubs in Portland? Throw in all the strip clubs and it’s no contest whatsoever.
--Eddie Glick

Plus, don’t sheer numbers work in P’land’s favor? It’s got more breweries per capita than any city in the world, right? So if you want a brew tour, well, logistically, P’land oughta be the place to go.
--Maureen

Portland Wins, I haven’t done due diligence on exploring the Portland beer scene, but I am soon to correct that oversight.
--Thomas
And so on. But what caught my attention were the dissenters:
Denver!? Portland!? Weren’t you paying attention when Philadelphia declared itself the best beer city? 8^P
--Mallace

I’m going to make my regional claim for Sonoma County. Napa can have the wine, we make the best beer in the country. Bear Republic, Lagunitas, Russian River and Moonlight highlight the breweries in the county with Marin Brewing just south of the county line and Anderson Valley to the north among others in Mendocino county.
--Mario
I don't doubt that Portland can credibly defend its claim as the best city for beer. By any standard, we win (sorry Mario). We have the most breweries and the most good-beer pubs; we drink the most beer; we have the most good beer; and most importantly, we have the largest number of educated, knowledgeable beer drinkers. (Best beer? Of course--but that's a subjective statement, so I'll just leave it here in the safety of parentheses.)

Then again, so what? Enumerating these facts amounts to cataloguing answers to other questions. But Best beer town? It's misses the point. A town becomes a good beer town when it can support a local brewing scene that is organic, lively, and unique. I went to grad school in Madison, and that was becoming a good beer town when I lived there 15 years ago. But it was a different kind of beer town. With the long history of German immigration, Badgers were much more interested in the beers of their ancestors. As a result, Capital, Sprecher, and New Glarus all specialized in or heavily featured lagers. It is in the heart of America's breadbasket, so no surprise that malt-first beers are a fave.

My (wholly uninformed) sense of Denver brewing is that it is aimed at a population who's famously sporty: they take their beer with them, and they don't want it to be too heavy or alcoholic to slow them down. So Colorado beers are lighter, less hoppy, and less alcoholic.

The Philly thing? No idea, but maybe someone can describe its unique qualities.

In Portland, we drink in pubs. It's because the weather is grim half the year. Not cold enough to keep us from going out, but a pretty constant state of 45-degree grayness. So we go for a little liquid warmth, gathering in pubs with friends. (We also go to a lot of movies.) The northwest has developed a palate that appreciates intense flavors, so it's not surprising that we like the beer to be fairly green from hops. (Not to mention that this is where they're grown, and we tend to like fresh, organic things.)

It's actually pretty depressing to visit towns that haven't yet grown into their beer scene yet. Due to the McMenamins and the overall success Portland has had with beer, often you see a pale facsimile in other towns. So I like to visit places where the vibe and beer styles are different. If Denver had the same kind of beer and was like a Southeastern version of Portland, we'd lose something.

My fantasy for the US is that regions begin to develop their own character so that when I travel around, it's like moving from Dublin to London to Brussels to Munich. Wouldn't that be cool?

6 comments:

KeAloha said...

Great piece Jeff. It's something that everyone arguing about "who is the best" should read.

Dr Wort said...

I don't think we should even worry, who's the best. It's just nice to come into a town or city and have some nice choices. I'd be happy with 3 decent Brew pubs, rather than a town that has 20 pubs, but only 2 are decent... So number don't matter on either side of the equation.

anne sprecher said...

Worthy reading indeed! Thanks for including Sprecher, Jeff.

Cheers from the heartland,

Anne Sprecher

Jeff Alworth said...

Thanks for the comment, Anne. We still get a little Sprecher out here from time to time--at the Oregon Brewers Fest. Hope to see you there this year.

Jody said...

Nice assessment. I lived in Portland many years and wholeheartedly agree. I also lived in Denver for about five years and have a single word to say about their "beer scene:"

PATHETIC

Sorry, Denver. You may have the mountains and the sports, but your beer sucks.

Anonymous said...

Asheville, North Carolina!

Plenty of local beer, and much nicer than Portland...just don't move here!

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