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Friday, January 08, 2016

A Long-Winded Way of Saying: Quit Counting Breweries

On Tuesday, in one of my least-viral posts in recent history, I pointed out that assessing countries based only on the growth in number of new breweries gives you a limited perspective. It's better if you also consider existing breweries and total beer production. Germany produces a ton of beer and still managed to support 1,300+ breweries, so despite its anemic new-brewery growth, you still have to acknowledge its preeminence among brewing countries. Owing to the wild success of that post, I'm back for more.

Now we turn to the US for a similar look at state-by-state numbers. These figures come from a paper in The Journal of Wine Economics from a couple months past. They were working with 2012 numbers, but they still paint a very rich portrait. Here are the brewery counts from that year for the top ten states (they look woefully out-of-date, but probably line up pretty closely with the current top ten and demonstrate a similar distribution).



But now have a look at the top ten states by production (this is craft brewery production only). It paints quite a different picture.


California had nearly three times as many breweries as Pennsylvania in 2012, but actually brewed less beer. (Also not that  theMassachusetts number is misleading. It comes principally from Sam Adams, but of course, the amount of Sam Adams brewed in Mass is a tiny trickle--the state's production is actually south of 500,000 barrels.) Washington made less than a tenth the amount of beer as Pennsylvania. It would be great to run this with 2015 numbers, because the effect would be far more dramatic. Nearly all of the breweries that have opened since 2012 are brewing a tiny fraction of the beer. So all the talk of new brewery openings and total breweries would obscure that fact that two states brew a huge share of all the craft beer in the US, and the top four are far ahead of the rest of the country.

And the effect can get very pronounced the further you go down the list. Illinois, for example, had 59 breweries in 2012, but collectively only brewed 81,000 barrels--less than many larger craft breweries. (North Carolinians, who do a lot of bragging about the number of breweries they have, should probably be a bit more circumspect; in 2012 their 59 breweries only made 156,000 barrels--about a tenth the amount of Oregon.)

If you think I'm on a weird bender about possibly extraneous measures, well ... there's more! Over at All About Beer, I try to make the case that brewery numbers are themselves not terribly reliable. (Barrel numbers, which are tracked by the tax man, are rock-solid.)
If you’re like me, you suspect there’s an actual number of breweries in these locations, one that is knowable and countable, and if everyone adhered to the same rules, we could tot them up officially. We know quarks exist, for god’s sake; surely the number of breweries in London, England can’t be beyond our ken. It kind of is. Here we drop into something like a quantum state, where arithmetic may no longer suffice. There exist what we might call Schrödinger breweries, entities that can simultaneously be said to exist and not. I’ll describe the difficulty by way of example.
All of which is to say that counting breweries doesn't make a lot of sense. Cities and states do not try to burnish their cred by citing stats on the number of restaurants or karaoke bars or pet stores. What we actually care about are important, excellent, interesting, or unusual breweries, right? I propose that we quit harping on total numbers.


Update. In the manner of blogs, this post sort of developed as I was writing it. (Note to self: don't do that.) Let me clarify the actual point by responding to Stan Hieronymus' comment:
"Right now there are four breweries within 3 miles of our house (in St. Louis). If plans for 2 more go through, likely, then there will be 6 breweries. At a personal level, the number matters. And shouldn't beer always be personal? Put another way, the big picture that interests me is a sum of all the little pictures." 
Yes, exactly. My real belief is that there is way to much focus on the number of breweries to the exclusion of other factors. Production is a proxy for popularity at both the market and brewery level. They suggest a market where a lot of people are drinking a lot of beer. Illinois looks like a good beer state until you consider that people weren't drinking the beer. In Stan's example, it's great to have a lot of breweries near your house if they're good breweries. Having a bunch of mediocre breweries is no bonus at all. By only focusing on numbers, we miss other important factors. It should be a consideration, but it should never be the only consideration.

4 comments:

Stan Hieronymus said...

Right now there are four breweries within 3 miles of our house (in St. Louis). If plans for 2 more go through, likely, then there will be 6 breweries. At a personal level, the number matters. And shouldn't beer always be personal? Put another way, the big picture that interests me is a sum of all the little pictures.

Lew Bryson said...

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Tim Klinger said...

Seeing PA at the top tells me Yuengling had to be included. No problem calling them a craft brewer but they don't really make beer for craft drinkers. Wonder what their chunk of PA production is.

Anonymous said...

Pennsylvania not only has Yuengling, but also a Sam Adams brewery and LaTrobe, which brews Iron City and used to brew Rolling Rock. Not sure that any of these should be counted.

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