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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Correlation, Causation, and Culture (or, Don't Blame the Baptists)

Looking for the latest Hillary/Rubio politics news, I stumbled across this article in The Atlantic:
While observations abound about "the rise of America's craft breweries," the story has been very different on the state level. Vermont, for example, had one brewery for every 25,000 residents in 2012. Mississippi, meanwhile, had one for every 994,500. These aren't anomalous islands of booziness and temperance—they're exemplars of their regions. The nine states with the fewest breweries are all in the South. What is it about the region that might make this true?

In short, it's because of the Baptists. Steve Gohmann, a professor of economics at the University of Louisville, recently published a paper in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice cataloguing the potent blend of regulation, religion, and corporate interest that makes the South less hospitable to small breweries.
I don't have access to the article (and I'm not paying six bucks to read it), but this is almost certainly wrong. It's one of those cases in which the correlations are incidental and depend on getting the right cluster of variables in play. Gohmann apparently undermines his own thesis by observing the dominance of locally-distilled spirits.
Even though the South doesn't have many breweries, it does have plenty of whiskey distilleries—Kentucky, Gohmann said, is the American capital of whiskey. What do Baptists, Methodists, and their votes have to say about that? "My results are less likely to apply right now because microdistilleries are not capturing that much of the market from the large producers," he says. 
Beer culture is bizarre and hard to explain. Had Gohmann looked at countries besides the US, he would have seen similar patterns--breweried regions next to non-breweried regions. Take Germany. In 2006 (the most recent numbers I could find and good enough for our purposes), Bavaria had 618 breweries, while neighboring Baden-Würtemburg had just 180.  Seven of the twelve states had fewer than 60 breweries (ten percent Bavaria's total). The Baptists at play again? (No.)

A big part of the riddle, I think, has to do with parochialism--or the degree to which parochialism is expressed through local breweries. When you look at German (or American) beer production figures, rather than just counting breweries, the picture changes. Bavaria drops to number two in production, and the other states don't trail by nearly the same margin. As Gohmann points out in the article (again undermining his thesis), Southerners drink a lot of beer. They just don't insist that it be brewed on a local 10-barrel system.

I'd love to know why some places have tons of breweries and some don't, but I doubt anyone will offer a plausible reason. We're talking culture here, and the variables are too numerous and, well, too varied to ever nail down.

But don't blame the Baptists.


  1. There's also this: Germans did not settle in the South as they did in the North. So a strong beer culture never developed there as it did in the Midwest and, later, in Portland and other western cities.

  2. That's an incredibly important point. The US wasn't a beer country until the Germans came in the mid/late 19th century and brought tasty lagers. And they settled in the north. Before that we were a liquor and particularly whiskey country, and that well-established culture persists in the South.

  3. It seems like I got quite a bit on that from Maureen Ogle's excellent book. We know full well that the arrival of the Germans and their lager beers had a lot to do with making beer popular here. Temperance also played into that. But why didn't German brewers settle in the South like they did in the Midwest and West? My guess is climate and culture. But that's just a stab in the dark.

  4. Nope, nope, nope, Jeff. Way off on this one. Having lived in the south all of my life, I can assure you the baptists play a seriously huge part of this, post-prohibition.

    SC only gained the ability to purchase beer above 6% or buy wine and beer on saturdays within the last 15 years. We still have a ban on all liquor sales on sunday, and a state-mandated closing time of 7:00 on weekdays. Prior to the stone bill, in just the last two years, SC breweries were absolutely hobbled by the state. Since its passing, Columbia has gotten 3 new breweries (4th on the way), Charleston has gotten I think 2, and Greenville has gotten two. Even the small town of florence has added a brewery. Who was the opponent of the stone bill? Upstate bible thumper. It devolved into open warfare between the bible thumping and libertarian contingents of the GOP to get it passed.

    And south carolina still has one of the most crippling excise taxes on beer in the country.

    The appalachian south has always had a more lax attitude about this. That's where you will find all of the distilleries. Different culture than the deep south (parts of SC down to Miss and Alabama) or coastal "plantation" south (virginia, NC, parts of SC).

  5. Reading the abstract of the paper, yep, sounds right to me.

    If you followed homebrew legalization in the deep south (particularly alabama), things followed the exact same pattern: big industries and the beer and wine distributors put money in the pockets of the "fire and brimstone" politicians to keep the craft beer explosion at bay.

  6. Although Bavaria is the probably the most religious part of Germany (Catholics), Bavaria has more breweries that the rest of Germany combined. Most of these Bavarian breweries are very small and Bavaria, desprite having about 50 percent of the breweries in Germany, produces only about 20 percent of total German production. And Bavaria was also the single largest producing state in 2007.

    Although Bavaria is probably somewhat more religious than the rest of Germany, the church there has little influence over the state. Beer in Bavaria, in a sense, is more important to the state than religion - after all, beer brings in foreign tourists, while the church does not.

  7. Daniel, I'm not arguing that Baptists [religion] don't exert a huge influence over the South. But getting from there to why there are fewer breweries per capita is a trick no data will ever support. Culture is deeply complex, and trying to sort out which direction causation runs is a fool's errand.

    Send me the article and I'll point out the myriad gaps he won't be able to account for. (Your knowledge of science and history are impeccable, but religion and culture are my bailiwick, and a "way off on this one" is not going to be enough to convince me.)

  8. Southerners drink swill and are proud to do so. In my home state of Texas, there were plenty of 19th century German/Bohemian immigrants that landed in the central hill country. Southern Baptists still managed to screw everything up.

  9. The upland south is just as fundamentalist as the deep south, if not more so. I think the availability of capital or lack of it might have to do a lot with the lack of breweries. That too is changing, the Arkansas Beer Scene is growing by leaps and bounds. The pace of change is just slower here.