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Friday, March 20, 2009

Good Beer Cities

Leaving aside the question of "best," and leaving aside that poll I linked to earlier, I'd like to meditate for a moment on the nature of what characterizes a good beer town.

Beer is local. In the middle ages, every town had two buildings that rose higher than a story--a church and a brewery. Breweries depended on local agriculture and water for ingredients, and these limitations created the distinct styles we now celebrate. In the modern era of globalism, breweries are no longer restricted; a good brewer will have traveled the globe and tried hundreds or thousands of foreign beers, all of which inform his own styles. But even with globalization, beer is local. We have other limitations. The beer you'd wish to drink in the heat of Phoenix, the gloom of Oregon, or the elevation of Santa Fe differs. Our regional and ethnic history contributes to the styles we admire. Finally, local ingredients, even in the age of globalism, can definitely play a role in creating regional styles.

So a city should have a unique beer culture if it's a "beer town." I've got or have had relatives scattered across the Mountain West, and while cities like Boise and Salt Lake have local brewpubs, they're as generic as Applebee's. These are not good beer cities, however good an individual brewery may be. Ask yourself--what's an "Idaho beer?"

A good beer town should have not only the ready availability of distinct, local beer, but a public clamoring for it. I like to check out little Mom and Pop grocery stores to see what beer they stock. In a beer town, they will have a decent selection of micros and imports. I look at the taps in hole-in-the-wall bars and also upscale bars. In a beer town, they'll both have some decent selections. I look to see whether there are regular local beer events--festivals, tastings, brewing dinners, meet-the-brewer events, that kind of thing. You only have those events if the public is demanding them. Are there taprooms in the city that feature a slate of a dozen or more exceptional taps? How many of these places are there? Have some of the local upscale restaurants, influenced by the brewing scene, begun to feature beer along with wine? Here's an especially potent test to run. If I go to a city, can I find any place with a Belgian beer on tap (Stella excepted)? A city can't call itself a beer town if the answer's no.

Looking for the "best" beer town is a fool's errand. Portland, a city of a half million, is clearly the most saturated environment for beer. That's in large part a function of it being the right size--too much smaller and it wouldn't have a critical mass to support all the activities, and too much larger and you'd find a population with more varied interests. Surely there are as many good places to get a pint in San Francisco but, owing to its size, the level of saturation is necessarily less. We can't identify a "best" because it's never going to be an apples-to-apples comparison.

It is possible to identify "good," though. I'd look at some of these indicators I've mentioned. Strip away local boosterism, and there are sadly fewer good beer cities in the country than we'd like. Fortunately, the number is getting larger by the decade, not smaller.


  1. Interesting angle there Jeff... Of course, I agree with some of what you say. You are speaking about diversity of selection, but do say beer is local. I think beer is International.

    "A good beer town should have not only the ready availability of distinct, local beer, but a public clamoring for it."

    Clamoring? Like the locals penchant for PBR?

    Here's where you lose me... Other than HOTD's Adam & Fred which are considered Internationally unique, what do you find to be locally distinctive? American versions of British ales? Trust me, Portland isn't breaking any new ground there.... ;-} What is so unique and distinct?

  2. Jeff,

    I don't know exactly how one might verify this, but I have heard from some of the old hands in the business that Portland has always had a strong "draft beer" audience. In other words, the sale of beer by draft is proportionally higher in Portland and has been for many years. If this is true, I wonder if it might be a factor in your Good Beer Cities criteria? If so, how would it correlate in other towns that would share some of the characteristics that you find definitive?

  3. Addendum to my post: Draft beer as a proportion of all beer sales through bars has always been higher than the national average and this is a characteristic that pre-dates the development of craft beer in Portland.

  4. "In the middle ages, every town had two buildings that rose higher than a story--a church and a brewery"

    Huh? Where was this? I'd have thought brewing was a mostly-domestic activity until the industrial revolution.

  5. I would like to see the statistics on how much Portland brewers distribute throughout the country.. as I know.. even Widmer Hefe is popular in Florida! I don't see too many beers here from any other 'beer city' other than WA, and CA. I just honestly think many like Portland beers better in general.

  6. Is the circus in town?

  7. "I don't see too many beers here from any other 'beer city' other than WA, and CA."

    You're not looking in the right places.... ;-}

    There is nothing wrong with the concept of supporting local breweries. That said, just drinking the local staples may not expand your palate for diverse styles.

    Why have diversity, you may ask? Why limit yourself? If you like beer, why not explore the entire brewing landscape? There are so many wonderful styles of beer in the world to try and explore. Why limit yourself to 5-6 beer?

    The locals drive the market, but if the locals are not exposed to a variety of beer styles, the market becomes limited. I don't see why we should cut ourselves short.

    To say locals like Portland beers better truly can't be stated... If locals are not exposed to OTHER beers or styles from different states or countries, they really can't make a fair assesment.

    I hear lots of clamoring over Lagunitas beers, Great Divide, Stone, Alesmith and even Dupont from Belgium. These beers are all from out of state and hopefully will expand the local palates into new directions.

    Back to PBR for a second... I just don't get it.... There's lots of comments on how great the local beer is, but we have this huge population of locals that are drinking PBR. I'm not sure I would consider a beer recommondation from a PBR drinker. That's like taking a wine recommondation from a guy who drinks wine in a box...

  8. "Back to PBR for a second... I just don't get it.... "
    It's successful branding. When 90's counter-culture went mainstream cheap beer made a come back. And when you are young, broke, and of drinking age, your pennies to drunkenness ratio gets better with a suitcase of contract-brewed, bland, but popularized PBR. I know slackers will still drink decent-tasting microbrews, but a sixer of tall boys makes for an inexpensive game of beer pong.

  9. Mark, you're right about Portland and draft beer and your point is well-taken. Somehow I find it hard to consider a town a "beer town" that drinks a lot of good beer, but lacks great pubs.

    Beer Nut, I got that straight from Michael Jackson, so I consider it reliable.

  10. Now, Doc, to your intifada against PBR. I'm certain you know that industrial lagers account for the overwhelming majority of beer sales--true in beer towns like London and Brussels, not just Portland. You have often voiced this compaint, but it seems far more an expression of culture. You don't like that some of the kids drink Pabst.

    I see a totally different reality. Back in the late 90s, the young people did mount a rebellion against micros on socio-economic grounds. It seemed the stuff of aging yuppies. You didn't see them in pubs or at fests and other events. I despaired. But now, craft beer is a young person's game again. You do see them in pubs, at events, and in breweries. People like Alex Ganum have matriculated from fandom and gone pro. The next generation seems safe!

  11. Ah, you caught me....! ;-}

    In CA, old Yuppies were the people who owned the Micro's and Brew pubs....and the 90's brought young people to appreciate and expand the micro/brew pub stratus. So, I'm not following what exactly happened here.

    Sorry to here the 90's kids missed the bus..... They must have been drinkin PBR and on Crack....


    Safe!? I'm looking for expansion and diversity, right?? Lets hope you're correct...

  12. Philly seems like a good beer town by these standards.

    The town clamors for the distinct local brew, Yuengling, while also supporting local breweries like Yards and Philadelphia Brewing Co. (Not to mention Sly Fox, Weyerbacher, Troegs, Victory, Stoudts, etc)

    There are a ton of nice tap rooms where you can find Belgians, and even out in the burbs you can find them on tap.

    It has a nice annual festival in Philly Beer Week.

  13. I heard Philly Beer Week was huge, about double the amount of events as the SF Beer Week. Of course, it was only the first SF Beer Week... ;-}

    SF Beer week had 145+ beer events in a 10 days period which included two major beer events, Strong Beer festival and Barleywine festival. Both events ran separate and both for a week long.

    I think I need to visit Philly!

  14. Anon,

    "...when you are young, broke, and of drinking age, your pennies to drunkenness ratio gets better with a suitcase of contract-brewed, bland, but popularized PBR."

    I guess Burgie, Keystone or Hamms could have worked too...

    Personally, I remember being young, but never broke... I always had a job, even if it sucked. If I was broke, I'd be looking for a job, rather than sitting around drinking cheap ass shit beer. ;-}

    Even when I made minimal money at a young age, I drank Sierra Nevada, St Stan's, Mendecino's Red Tail and Sam Adams. If you're going to drink, why waste time on drinking shitty beer..... ? :-O