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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Small Town Advantage

Someone at the Brewers Association is doing a great job placing articles in high-profile news organizations (and always in the gee-whiz ain't-it-cool mode, too*).  The latest is from NPR, which recently gave craft brewing a fat, juicy kiss.  Almost every sentence could have come from a Brewers Association press release.  But it was a passage in the piece detailing breweries per capita to which I would like to draw your attention:
The Brewers Association finds that states in the Midwest and Northwest support particularly strong beer cultures. And five states that have the most craft breweries per citizen might be called the craftiest of the crafty: Vermont: 27,206, Montana: 30,919, Oregon: 31,662, Alaska: 35,512, Colorado: 39,600.
In comments, lots of people complained that this is a misleading metric.   I totally agree.  The NPR reporter, Bill Chappell, uses per capita brewery density as a proxy for strong beer cultures--a perfect example of a common conflation.  A lot of different factors go into beer culture, and brewery density is only one weak correlate.  Take for example Belgium, a country I think most people would agree has a better beer culture than Montana or Alaska.  Breweries per capita?  One in 87,000. 


Consumption is the relevant metric.  How much craft beer does a state consume?  Breweries produce radically different amounts of beer, and cities and states consume different amounts of beers.  New York City has very few breweries and would get crushed in the per capita metric.  But that has a lot more to do with the cost of a square foot of land than what people are drinking in the bars.  I won't fault Portlanders for straining their arms patting themselves on the back--our brewery number is staggering--but we should have a touch of humility.  We have breweries because we can afford them.  The real reason we're so advanced is because we drink such a huge proportion of craft beer.

If a state has a few dozen tiny brewpubs but the population still drinks 97% macro, it's not a great beer state.  Unfortunately, stats on consumption and other pithier metrics just aren't available.  I wonder why the Brewers Association doesn't put those out?
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*NPR even fell for this line, from BA spokeswoman (and genuinely nice person) Julia Herz: "Herz calls it an inclusive category.  'The bottom line is, we don't define what craft beer is. Craft beer is different things to different beer lovers,' she says. 'To me, it's small-batch beers made on a local or regional level.'"  Of course, the Brewers Association's entire raison d'être is defining what craft beer is, and who gets to be in the club.  NPR is surprisingly bad about using paid advocates to speak as if they were just disinterested bystanders--whether in politics or industry. 

9 comments:

Tracy Thomas said...

The number of beer events per capita would be a good measure. Not an easy one, but events going on around the area provide a base for the culture.

Mike said...

I agree with a lot of what you wrote. First a question: what is your source for the Belgian breweries per capita?

But, if you want to see a really impressive local beer culture (at least using breweries per capita), consider Neuhaus ad Pegnitz: four brewers for less than 3000 residents (that's about one per 700 people).

As far as consumption, Belgians currently drink about 65% industrial beers. In the US, that market share is about 90%, isn't it? That seems fair proof of Belgian beer culture.

Jeff Alworth said...

I divided the population (10.8m) by the number of breweries (125) and rounded. The figures I've seen place the lager consumption at 70%, but why quibble--we agree that consumption illustrates the point far more ably.

Mike said...

Well, I don't know where you got the 125 number from, but it must be quite old. According to this article (http://goo.gl/20OkR) in a Belgian newspaper there were, in October 2011, 178 breweries in Belgium, a growth from 134 in 2007. I'd guess your source to be nearly 10 years out of date.

Jeff Alworth said...

Mike, why is every comment you make a provocation? You have a unique perspective on beer and the substance of your comments I generally welcome. But by adding the needless speculation on the end of this, you turn what otherwise might be a fruitful discussion into the invitation to a pissing match. Was that last sentence really necessary? (Your comments on other posts today have the same flavor.)

My instinct is to answer that last sentence with an equally derisive: "Your guess, as usual, is wrong." But I do think we can have a fruitful conversation and I hope/believe you're actually trying to start one.

So: there are a number of sources that list a much smaller number. This one (2011), for example, lists 135. The difficulty is defining what a brewery is. Liefmans? De Struise? De Cam? Numbers will vary depending on classification.

The really weird thing is we both agree that Belgium is a great counter example to the breweries-per-capita-equals-good-culture thesis, so I'm not sure why you're pressing the point.

Mike said...

Jeff, as a former journalist, accuracy has always occupied a special position in my own research. Am I so unreasonable to expect it in others? Secondly, I have always believed that the best source material is original sources. OK, that's not always possible, but I'd still consider who the sources are.

So, for example, here's another source that I consider more reliable than a trade association and who includes the sources for his information: http://goo.gl/mqsCZ

If you scroll down to his section 2.5 (20th century), you'll see a little further down, Table 2.1.

He lists 115 breweries in 2003. He's got a list of his sources at the bottom of the page (does the trade association list sources?). With 115 in 2003, 134 in 2007 and 178 in 2011, the figures just feel pretty correct.

He's also got some fascination other information, such as: in the year 1900, there were 185,000 pubs in Belgium, which comes out to one pub per 32 persons.

And finally, of course you are correct that we agree, but is there any reason that we can't be accurate at the same time?

Jeff Alworth said...

It is not unreasonable to expect accuracy. But neither is it unreasonable to expect a bit of graciousness. (On the internet you may have to work to find them, but a person can hope.)

Tim Webb also cites a number closer to 125, as does Pattinson. Sorry, no links. We can do this all day.

The thing is, "accuracy" is often a moving target. I notice that you ignored my questions about what qualifies as a brewery. What we're talking about isn't a matter of when the breweries were counted, but how they're counted. It's absolutely legitimate to count Liefmans, De Struise, and De Cam as breweries--or to say they're not. Off hand I can think of a couple dozen Belgian breweries in that hazy category.

The world is often not black or white, Mike.

Finally, the last point I'll make is this: when you speculate about where other people are coming from ("I'd guess your source to be nearly 10 years out of date"), you depart completely from the realm of accuracy. That's pure, subjective projection. If you extoll accuracy, let others speak for themselves.

Mike said...

Your comment "the world is often not black or white" probably holds more true in Belgium than anywhere else!

I'll give another source with the information you want and then my comments: Zythos, the Belgian beer consumers association lists 146 breweries (as of last December) and 44 "beer companies".

Zythos is a "national" organisation, but only has chapters in Wallonia (the Dutch-speaking part of the country). Presumably, these figures come from members. So, I would take them with a grain of salt.

Secondly, take a look at these guys: http://www.verhuisbrouwerij.be/
How would you count them? They have a brewery, but it's in a camper dragged around the country for brewing demonstrations. FWIW, Zythos counts them as non-brewers, but then as brewers when they took a stand at the Zythos beer festival.

Zythos does not count de Struise, but it does count that brewing installation they put into an old school near their vacation bungalows (their main source of business, I suspect).

So, if we use the Zythos figures, that's 190 breweries/beer makers. However, the 178 figure I first quoted is from a newspaper quoting a book. How many there actually are is difficult to pin down. But that there are more than 146 seems pretty clear.

Mike said...

Sorry, I had an early-morning mind slip: Zythos is specifically NOT active in Wallonia - they are only active in Flanders.

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