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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Too Many Beers

Over the past week, I've been working my way through a review copy of Andy Crouch's new book, Great American Craft Beer. The goal of the book is to offer a survey of American craft beer and includes a long section of beer descriptions organized by categories--I'll explain it more when I do a review. As I always do with these things, I ran a quick reliability test: under Double IPAs, Pliny the Elder; Black Butte with the porters; Ommegang Hennepin among the saisons; and Cascade in the American Wild Ales (the Cuvee, though, as dark horse selection). It all checks out. I have no reason to doubt that Andy's done a fine job selecting these beers and that, among all the style categories, one couldn't quibble with more than a tiny fraction.

Then I checked the index to see which Oregon breweries made the list (10) and noticed that the beers of Andy's New England home region seem to be over-represented. Six Connecticut breweries get a mention, but just three from Washington state. In all, Crouch highlights thirty-four New England breweries. Is this a case of bias, or is there another explanation?

Let me make the case for "other explanation." Consider these numbers. As of the end of July, there were 1600 American craft breweries. If we do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, assuming an average of ten beers per brewery, that would mean these breweries produced 16,000 beers in the past year. (With seasonals, one-offs, and special releases, the average is probably substantially higher.) Even in a state like Massachusetts, with a modest number of breweries (38), that's hundreds of beers to keep track of. By these numbers, the West Coast alone produces 5000 different beers--half that in the Northwest.

When you begin sorting beers by style, you have a staggering list to wade through. Any writer limiting herself to six American beers per style is necessarily going to leave out--what, sixty?--good beers. Thanks to the internet, we share a psychic national space. Brewing, however, remains almost exclusively a local or, at best, regional phenomenon. I always have this wish that I could climb the craft brewing mountaintop and survey the entire landscape, comparing all the country's breweries. It's a fool's errand, though. Hell, until last week, I hadn't even tried the beers of our new crop of nanobreweries here in Portland. It's frustrating, but also true: no one person can ever fully wrap his head around the variety of beers brewed in the United States. There are just too many of them.


  1. I haven't done the geography but in addition to AC's geographical proximity there might be a regional proximity problem. That is, "New England" is a collection of several states most of which are very small with pocketed communities. It might be that it's very easy to get a good collection of "New England" beers just by spending a weekend with Boston as your base camp. In the same time period in the PNW, you would gain the same familiarity not with the PNW, but with Portland only. (although six beers from CT seems excessive FWIW.)

  2. "It's a fool’s errand," is accurate. However, we can try to hit every brewery in the nation, even though living in Portland allows for a lot of stimulation. However, start small. People can take a weekend and do some coastal breweries, then take another weekend and hit Eastern Oregon. I appreciated your evaluation of Prodigal Son, but I visited Mt. Emily Ale House and the almost flawless Barley Brown's on the same trip. I have met people whose passion is skiing and they make it a point to ride New England, Colorado, Oregon, etc, but they started on that one bunny hill. I hope more and more people do attempt to try beers from all excellent craft brewers in the country, but start out in your city, your state and your region. Thank you for the review.

  3. " one person can ever fully wrap his head around the variety of beers brewed in the United States. There are just too many of them." What a wonderful problem: too many good beers to try them all. We live in a great country, don't we?