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Thursday, October 09, 2014

I Don't Think This Is Right

I finally got around to reading Greg Engert's Esquire piece this morning.  He makes an argument that we shouldn't valorize local beer just because it's local.  I'm not particularly persuaded by his overall point (though I really wish people drank a lot more imported beer than they do), but it's plausible.  This, however, struck me as dead wrong:
All too often, when locally brewed beer gains prominence, a uniformity of offerings ensues. Bars, restaurants, and retail shops begin to showcase a similar roster of breweries and flavor profiles. These lists are often hop-heavy based on the standard session IPA, pale ale, IPA, and Imperial IPA.
One of the problems in assessing this statement is that I don't live everywhere.  It's absolutely not the case in Portland.  Whether you walk into restaurant with four tap handles or a beer bar like Apex, you're going to be offered a range of beer styles.  I just recently went on a whirlwind tour of Victoria, BC--not true there, either.  In the smattering of restaurants and pubs I've visited in Maine and Massachusetts, not true.  When locally-brewed beer gains prominence, more people are drinking it, which means there's more variety in the market. 

But that's just my experience. Can anyone point to a place where a burgeoning beer scene reduces variety?  I'd like to hear about that.

Chalkboard at the Hop and Hound, Bothell, WA


  1. I'll give a non-portland example: Columbia, SC, a small city in the hinterlands of the bible belt, has had only one brewpub for years. They've also been crippled by import restrictions courtesy of the three tier system. So, for the most part, bars and restaurants serve the same few AB-Inbev beers, with the "craft" selections offered by that supply chain (Kona, Widmer, Redhook...). Occasionally you'll get a bar that stretches out to North Carolina or Georgia beers, but it's rarer and inevitably more expensive.

    They manage to get a law changed, and within the span of about a year we've gone from 0 breweries to 3 (soon to be 4). That alone has changed the landscape at a lot of bars that only served AB-Inbev beers. True, the bars tend to all serve the same local beers now, but they have either replaced or supplemented AB-Inbev offerings before.

    Engert's piece would have more merit if there weren't a number of other factors involved with imports. Changing the laws away from the 3-tier cartels is often harder than changing the ones that cripple small breweries in the same states.

  2. I think there will soon come a point where even a well-managed brewery won't be automatically successful just because it opened and is producing beer. I may like it that a Baerlic (not picking on them, just an example) opened up in my neighborhood. But if they don't produce something that is better or different in a good way than what I can get at Gigantic or Hopworks (again, just examples), I probably won't go there much. As for the uniformity, I think there are trends and fads, i.e. the biggest, hoppiest IPAs, or now the belgian-style beers. But with added competition, I think more brewers will be trying to find niches, different beers that might latch onto more tap handles than if they just tried to out-IPA the current batch. I think the increased competition will increase variety rather than reduce it.

  3. I was thinking about writing on this as well. I'm really not sure where he got this idea. I lived in Indianapolis when it made the decided move to open a million breweries all at once. I currently live in Denver and I've visited several cities both on-the-map "beer cities" like Philly and San Diego as well as some not-so-noticed places. My experience is the one Jeff describes here. More breweries = more variety.

    I think maybe the author is confusing the arrival of regional styles with stylistic uniformity. Certainly all the "pacific northwest" IPAs have some similarities. And the saison's in Colorado are definitely more wheat-forward than saisons I've had elsewhere. But the fact is, we have a brewery here that makes all their beers from a red base (red saison, red porter, red IPA etc). We have another that focuses purely on Belgians, another exclusively on German lagers, and another on sours. They can live here because there's so many breweries here and there's a market for them, just as Jeff says.

  4. Daniel,

    That's a good point about Columbia. My wife is from Columbia and we visit reasonably regularly and beer choice was pretty much limited to Hunter-Gatherer and Flying Saucer. I am looking forwarad to getting down in November and trying some of the new stuff, especially River Rat. If you have any more pointers for drinking holes with a good selection, I'd love to know!

  5. I've definatly seen this at local bars in Salem, but not based on a new local brewery opening up. Rather it's usually a keg of something sells well, they put that beer back on and it sells faster, they add more varieties of that style, and it continues until the fad has blown itself out. f/stop fitzgeralds in Salem is a great example of this. The other thing I've seen alot of is three or four BMC taps and 4 or 5 "craft taps" with over 3/4 of the taps being IPAs or some variation thereof. I think that this second example is more what he's talking about. Bars are in the business of selling beer. To an uneducated person a bar filling half their taps or more with the latest fad could look this way, even though we know not all the beers up on the board are even close in flavor or style.

  6. As I mentioned on twitter, I was thinking about this earlier before I saw your blog post.

    I noticed a comment on twitter by @robsterowski talking up Cairngorm's Trade Winds and I realised I hadn't seen that beer around for years. A few years ago I used to see it around and drink it regularly.

    Got me onto thinking about all the beers I used to drink but rarely see anymore. The thing is that the proliferation of local breweries means that all the pubs around here now don't have to search far and wide for beers as they used to. But all the local breweries are very much one and the same, all brew the same styles and there's very little to choose between them; you can have any style as long as it's a) pale and hoppy b) stout c) brown bitter.

    I actually started missing the days where it was unpredictable what beer I'd find in the pub and where it came from. Now I can guess it's going to be from one of a half dozen breweries, all of which I'm overly familiar with.

    Disclosure: I'm also a brewer but foremost I'm a curious drinker.

  7. James' reply rings true with me to an extent, too.

    There's also an argument that having an emphasis on "drinking local" makes pubs a lot slower to pick up on new stuff unless it's actually being brewed locally. For instance, it'd be nice if a few more pubs in these parts stocked new-wave US-influenced craft stuff, but a lot of them seem to have an attitude that they're doing eight real ales from local microbreweries so they're already getting ten-out-of-ten for beer and how could anyone want more than that?

    This is a feature of the beer culture - that it celebrates localism for its own sake - rather than the local beers, though. I'd imagine that if your in one of the places where the new exciting stuff is the local stuff then it's pretty great. I've seen fairly modern beers from Tiny Rebel cropping up in very traditional pubs in South Wales, presumably because the pub like to support local breweries regardless of whether they're beardy old fogies or hip young gunslingers...

  8. Not exactly, but kinda-sorta, in Seoul, for two reasons:

    1. Now that the brewing industry has opened up for smaller operators, every small pub wants its own house beer. However, every small pub does not have a brewer. They contract the brewing out. And they are legally allowed to rebrand contract brewers' templated offerings. So you can walk into three different new pubs, order the house beer in each, and have the same pint. When a new place is found to have opened up, the first thing I see people asking is whether is it another one of those rebranding places? Sadly, word of mouth does less than a more sensible branding law would.

    2. The brewing scene has exploded in the last few years, and expat homebrewers have been a big part of that. However, most of the expat homebrewers are American (or Canadian). So... yeah, the hop-centric thing is a feature in the Korean brewing scene. (Previously, Korean brewers seemed to emulate Bavarian brewing.)

    That's not to say that beer in Seoul hasn't diversified radically--my last trip back, I was stunned at the variety available, especially in terms of imports--but as for local offerings, I'd say there was definitely a skewing towards that hops hops hops thing, and the rebranding did sometimes give a feeling of homogeneity... though in reality, beer in Korea is much less homogenous than it was even five years ago. (And after all, the first domestic sour (well, intentionally sour) beer went on tap last month, so... probably all of this is just a passing phase.)