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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

A Return to Regionalism?

Let us review: long ago, beer was a local product.  It was made in a town and drunk largely in that town.  Rare was the beer from another place--and it was just too expensive to make and ship to displace local beer.  Came the 18th and 19th centuries and their attendant technological breakthroughs, and beer got big.  Porter circled the globe.  Breweries powered by steam grew geometrically.  Even then, local beer dominated.  Then in the 20th century mass markets won out.  Regional breweries declined and multinationals seized counties, countries, continents.  In the US, everything became inverted so that the presence of a tap handle by a regional brewery was the rarity--mostly it was the standard national brands in every bar from Portland to Portland.

A few weeks ago, Harpoon sent me a press release announcing the 20th anniversary of their IPA.  Twenty years!  For an IPA, that's quite a thing.  I distinctly recall the first time I tasted this beer.  It was round about 1996 and I was meeting my future wife's family.  Mainers, they had mostly migrated south to the capital of Red Sox nation.  Sally's brother fetched a beer from the fridge and it was brightly-colored and bore a name perfect for Massachusetts (I thought of white whales).  There was no Sam Adams in the house--this was not regarded as an authentic New England tipple.  Harpoon IPA, that was the city's beer.

By modern standards, Harpoon is a pale ale, not an IPA--just 5.9% and 42 IBUs--but it was impressively ahead of the curve back then.  Dry-hopped with Cascades, it's round and caramelly (tres 1993) but quite sprightly with hops.  I think both he and I had placed a lot of faith in that bottle.  We both wanted it to meet with my approval, to illustrate that Boston had a Portland-worthy beer.  We were so pleased it did.

In England, if you travel more than 100 kilometers in any direction, the beer changes.  Actually, the crap beer is drearily the same no matter where you are--icy Kronenberg and Guinness and so on--but the cask beer reflects the place.  The entire island of Great Britain is no bigger than Minnesota, so I found this surprising.  I got Fuller's in London, Harvey's in Brighton, Greene King in Suffolk (okay, you can find Greene King everywhere, but this subverts my thesis so let's move on), Marston's in the Midlands and so on.  I was charmed by that and thought it one of the ways that Britain was superior to the United States, but it occurred to me much later that the United States is actually now very British.

If you go to a pub in Boston, you'll find mass market lagers, probably Sam Adams (a brewery that, no matter what locals think, is loath to cede the city), and Harpoon.  If you go to Chicago you'll find the mass markets, Goose Island, and what, Three Floyds?  (It's been too long.)  You come to Portland, Ore, and you'll actually be lucky to find a mass market beer in some places--otherwise it's a sea of locals.  The interesting thing is that you can't get Harpoon in Chicago,* and you can't get Three Floyds in Portland, and you can get almost nothing brewed in Portland outside the Pacific NW.

When I visit Boston, I always want a Harpoon.  It's a beer I associate with the city.  I know there is a ton of great beer in New England, and I also have a bird-dog's sense of flushing out something new.  But the first thing I want is the standard, the tuning fork for the region.  It's pretty hard to maintain the kind of dominance that was possible in the 90s, so probably Harpoon's flagship is no longer the Boston beer.  But it's one of them, and I have to wait until I'm on the East Coast to get a bottle.  And having to wait, having the beer be a part of that very particular point on the globe, makes it all the more special when I finally do.

Happy anniversary old boy, I hope you're around another twenty.

*I see Harpoon has made it to a half dozen pubs in Chicago, but again, as this subverts my thesis, let's forget it.


  1. I for one love seeing the rise of regional beers - though as a Brit I tend to think of each state as its own region. I am getting to the point with VA breweries that I rarely, in a pub context, drink anything from out of state. When I go to the in-laws place in SC, I want SC beer, likewise for out annual trip to FL, though in fairness local Floridian beer can be hard to find in Daytona Beach, especially in a pub context.

  2. Mowhawk Bend in Los Angeles has about 70 taps of all californian beer except one out-of-state brewery per month that is featured with a few lines. I quite like that idea but I can see it being difficult to keep that many taps interesting in many other states.

  3. I think this is a great point. I moved to Petaluma, CA a few years ago knowing that I would drink a lot of Lagunitas. I think this is also a great point that needs to be brought up in the sense of the 'locavore' movement. Not only does drinking local beer save the environment, but there are some beers that just taste better when they're fresh.

    Now, if I can only get someone to build a malting kiln in Petaluma, too . . .