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Thursday, July 31, 2014

What Idaho Can Teach Us About Beer

I just spent the better part of a week in the state of my birth, Idaho.  Much of Idaho rests under the shade of vast pine forests, but the part where the people live is in the high desert in the south, land of brown, sage-covered hills with river valleys quilted with squares of green potato fields.  Idaho, like Washington and California, borders Oregon, and so there's every reason to believe it should be a great beer state. 

It is not.

Southern Idaho
It's not that there aren't that many breweries--at 35, it boasts a brewery for every 46,000 citizens, which is more than Wisconsin.  Rather, it's the way local beer is completely marginalized in favor of large brands.  Taplists feature mass market brands with only a gesture to the craft segment with a tap from one of the bigger, out-of-state producers like Sierra Nevada and Deschutes.  (Or in many cases, just bottles from these breweries.)  Grocery stores might have two or three Idaho brands, but no more.  Unless you've traveled through or live adjacent to Idaho, you will almost certainly not be able to name a brewery there.  I would be gobsmacked to learn that any brewery in the state makes more than 5,000 barrels. [Note: see comments below, and consider me gobsmacked.]  In Idaho, breweries are mostly brewpubs, and they live the tenuous existence of restaurants, and failure is a very real possibility.  Earlier this year, TableRock, the state's oldest brewery, was dumped in favor of a burger joint
TableRock, which opened in 1991, is a seminal part of Boise's craft-beer scene. But it struggled in the past few years. TableRock Brewing Co., which operated the brewpub, filed for bankruptcy in 2008 because of a failed bottling plant. Chris Nelson took over the brewpub in 2009, eventually putting TableRock up for sale. Multiple head brewers have come and gone recently, leaving Nelson to brew TableRock's beer.
There's a lesson here: culture rules all.  There's a band running about a hundred miles wide (sometimes narrower) down the west coast of the US.  It is one cultural zone.  The next thousand miles or so have an entirely different culture, one that transcends state lines and geologic regions.  The culture of Boise, Idaho is a lot like Cheyenne, Wyoming and Missoula Montana.  It's closer culturally to Phoenix than it is to Portland.

The vast areas of the Mountain West are mostly rural and white, and therefore conservative.  You'd think this would make them bastions of capitalism--and maybe they are, if you're in the business of harvesting crops or beef--but local businesses of all stripes struggle.  Portlanders default to locally-made products and even regard products shipped from as close as Washington with suspicion.  In Idaho, national brands rule.  I was near McCall for part of the time, a pretty resort town on the shores of Payette Lake.  Though a tourist town, it gives nothing away to Portland in terms of parochialism; according to legend (about which the Google is mute), locals once tried to ban Californians from buying property there.

With just 3,000 people, McCall can support two local breweries.  And yet, despite their relative health, they have no presence outside their own walls.  You can't find McCall Brewing's beer on tap around town, much less down in Donnelly, ten miles south.  The parochialism doesn't extend to being boosters for local businesses like it does in Portland.

Aside from its innately fascinating differences, there's a pretty big lesson in the way Idahoans regard locally-brewed beer.  They are never going to be a big craft-beer market.  It doesn't matter how many local breweries open, they are never going to be more than marginal players making a few hundred barrels (at best) a year.  This is true across large swaths of the US.  I don't know a ton about the South, but only three of the largest fifty breweries are located there--even though it has a third of the country's people.  Geographically speaking, most of the country is never going to embrace locally-brewed beer in anything like the way people along that hundred-mile band along the Pacific Ocean do.

Politicos often use the description "two Americas" to describe the US.  If you were to map red and blue states, I think you'd find a fairly strong correlation with this cultural affinity for locally brewed beer.  It's just one of those things that makes the United States such an odd and interesting place to live.

Update:  A brewery insider just sent me some internal numbers from IRI.  These are incomplete numbers, but they demonstrate how different the states are.  In Oregon, only three breweries are from out of state in the "craft" segment (New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Lagunitas, the 8th, 9th, and 10th best sellers).  Of the top ten sellers, 84% of volume are locally brewed.  In Boise (no state numbers available), only three are local (the 5th, 6th, and 8th).  Local craft beers only have a 20% share in Boise.  Also interesting: Portlanders spend about 30% more on cider than people spend on craft beer in Boise.

Read more here:


  1. Great post. It's important to note that Idaho is very much like Oregon and Washington in terms of split geographic personalities. In Oregon, we have Portland and the rest of the I-5 corridor, where most of the population lives. The rest of the state is rural and conservative. Washington is similar, with the dichotomy between Seattle metro and the rest of the state. Idaho has a North-South split. The bulk of the people live in dry Southern Idaho. North Idaho and it's green forests and pristine lakes has more in common with Spokane and could easily be part of Washington.

    In my experience, there are brewers in that area who are successfully distributing their beers in kegs and, in some cases, bottles. This is a very politically conservative area and they are well behind Portland and Seattle in beer IQ and tastes. Yet I would argue that strip of land, and I'm including the Tri-Cities here, is under the gravitational influence of Portland and Seattle, at least in beer terms. Your comment about Boise being culturally closer to Phoenix or Cheyenne or Missoula is exactly right.

  2. "I would be gobsmacked to learn that any brewery in the state makes more than 5,000 barrels."

    Grand Teton Brewing 9,954
    Laughing Dog Brewing 5,632

    That doesn't necessarily change your point - Grand Teton is really a Wyoming brewery. And Wyoming might have more going on that you realize.

  3. Pete, and the line continues right down into California.

    Stan, consider me gobsmacked. It doesn't really change the calculation, though. If you figure ~15k for the two largest and an average of 1000k for the rest (which is generous, I think), you're talking about less than 50,000 barrels produced in the state. Idaho's small, but it does have 1.6 million people--less than a gallon a head. (Oregon consumed a half million barrels of local beer and has a population of 3.9 million.)

  4. (And I should add, lest it's not clear in the numbers I was dodgily tossing around, that these are inexact comparisons. Some of the beer produced in Idaho is consumed outside the state, but there's a fairly close correlation. Only about one-sixth of the beer produced in Oregon is consumed there, and Oregonians drink quite a bit of craft beer from out of state.)

  5. Great job, Jeff, of summing up what I suspected.

  6. It's an interesting situation by a lot of accounts and as a "native" Idahoan and a beer nerd, it's nice to see a post about this. It's simply too easy to say that a largely white and conservative populace is to blame though, nor is it enough to say that it is an issue of a relatively low population.

    There's only a seven percent difference (89 to 83 percent) in white population between Oregon and Idaho. If that relatively small percentage difference were indicative of anything crucial, it would need to be repeated when we see that Washington state is "only" 77% white. Washington should, then, have a better beer culture than Oregon, which it does not.

    Or let's look at Montana. You say that Boise is culturally closer to Missoula than to the coastal cities. This is true to a certain extent, although remember that Ada county skews Democratic these days. But Missoula has had three good to great breweries since 2000 (Big Sky, Bayern, Kettlehouse), and a great many more if you include the very sparsely populated Bitterroot and Flathead valleys (Blackfoot, Bitter Root, Higher Ground, etc. etc.). There are in the past few years even more breweries in town too. But Missoula and environs are whiter, less populated, and probably poorer than Boise. Yet beer culture thrives there and as it does in other "cities" in Montana like Billings ( and to a lesser extent Bozeman. Montana, meanwhile, has a population of less than one million while Idaho's is around 1.6 million. I would guess too that Montana is poorer than Idaho on a per capita basis while being equally conservative.

    Idaho, then, is different. I think this has to do with a history of restrictive blue laws that in no small part have been the result of the fact that the population center is in the south and southeastern population of the state--parts of the state that have and in some cases still do skew heavily LDS. Although I don't know the details of brewery regulation in Idaho, I do know that state liquor stores were quite restrictive and that restaurant/bar liquor licenses were limited for years by population. This resulted in my hometown, Moscow (a college town) not having any new drinking establishments for decades, in liquor license hoarding and then selling them at exorbitant prices. This despite Idaho being one of the last states to go to 21 as a drinking age!

    I suspect that the real problem has been regulation. People in Idaho, especially northern Idaho, have been exposed to good beer for ever. And in fact breweries like Deschutes and Terminal Gravity (and the dearly departed Grant's) are essentially considered local in north Idaho and have been for decades. (I'm tempted to say it was easier to get Black Butte on tap in Moscow or CDA in 1994 than it was in Seattle.) The question then of why there are have not been production breweries in Idaho, with the exception of the awful T.W. Fisher's of yore, seems to me likely to have been a regulatory one. Clearly this is beginning to change as nanos like Sawtooth and the Moscow Brewing Company are popping up and Payette and Sockeye are ramping up production. (con't below)

  7. I wouldn't be at all surprised if some mild corruption in the distribution portion of the hallowed three tier system has something to do with it as well (see the Daily Show on Simplot for some good ol' Idaho corruption:

    I think there's one final issue at stake, and that is that Idaho made beer has been, and I will go so far as to say largely still is, not very good. If you can get Deschutes and Ninkasi and Odell and Terminal Gravity and Ft. George and Elysian and Oakshire and Hopworks and on and on, why would you drink Payette or (in the old days) T.W. Fisher's? There's an easy answer -- you wouldn't. Because there has been very little brewing culture in Idaho in the past 20 years, the state is quite far behind. As my experience in home brewing has taught me, it's easy to make beer but it's very hard to make *good* beer. Most states or regions with strong beer cultures have a 20 year history (San Diego, NorCal, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, New York) and a lot of shuttered breweries to learn from. Idaho doesn't. And unlike LA or Orange county, which were similarly destitute of brewing even seven years ago due to culture and to regulatory issues and which still struggle to produce any stellar beers, Idaho does not have the benefit of being easily able to train people in relatively nearby great breweries.

    So if you have a populace, or at least a portion of the populace, who has a taste for excellent beer in which excellent and fresh beer is available--even if it from other states--but that state has little brewing tradition and lots of regulatory issues, to open a production brewery would seem a quixotic choice at best.

  8. Great stuff from Alworth, Dunlop, Hieronymus, and I.

    I just arrived Oregon by roadtrip from Colorado [home].
    Our first night out was Burley, Idaho:
    .. ales and lagers bereft was me.
    Second night out, Hood River, Oregon:
    .. spoilt for choice; a plethora of craft beer venues.

    525 miles and a universe of difference.

    In the American West, we live in clumps and clusters with vast open space between. Space for vast differences.

  9. Table rock closed, but the burger joint you refer to is one of the best local Idaho beer supporters out there and will be using the brewing equipment for a new brewery.

  10. Interesting post with perhaps some overly strong conclusions.

    Being a mid-western raised "flat-lander" in the craft beer crazy (for now) state of Vermont, I hear a lot of comments from my fellow liberal, white, educated peers that generalize about places based on limited (or no) direct experience with "the South," "the mid-west," etc as you may be here by saying places may "never" embrace craft beer. Lets be careful- this can be perceived as the same sort of useless stereotyping that we liberals say that we are against. I think its okay if some Idaho residents prefer major brands or some folks in Greensboro Bend prefer Bud over the famous local or if not everyone in Southern Illinois seeks out Scratch Brewing for their suds...

  11. Two more breweries to add to the 5K+ club
    Payette: 5,348
    Sockeye: 5,177

  12. Idaho now has 41 breweries with another 9 that will that number in the next 12 to 18 months See

  13. I can get McCall Brewing Co. Wobbly Man or Devious intent in bombers from two grocery stores both within half mile of my Boise house.

  14. Payette Brewing over 10K bbls in 2014.