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Friday, April 17, 2009

Why Beervana Is

No one has ever tried to map the exact boundaries of Beervana. Just Portland? Oregon? What about Southern Washington--do we claim Walking Man, too? Personally, I think it's a state of mind tethered somewhat loosely to geography. Walking into the Elysian brewpub a few years back, I was stunned by how mcuh it felt like a place somewhere in East Portland. It was socio- and beeriologically indistinguishable from brewpubs in the Rose City. It is perhaps beyond convention to include Seattle (Beervana is the proud marker of a somewhat tetchy local population, after all), but in terms of continuum, you can't really draw a line that separates the beer culture of Washington and Oregon.

This apparently random rumination springs from comments Indianapolis-based Generik420 makes on my "beer regions" post below. He rightly points out that state lines are a crude measure. In the Midwest, Chicago and Indianapolis are culturally part of the Upper Midwest; the lower half of these states drift culturally toward Dixie.
The Indianapolis metro area comprises almost 1/3 of the population of the state and is located almost dead center in the middle, and is close to the density you used for the Beer Midwest states. Of interest to me is the fact that of the 28 breweries in Indiana, 20 of them are in the northern half. I also happen to know that there are 2 new breweries set to open within the next few months in the northern half.

I don't have true figures for this, but I feel fairly comfortable saying that most of the Illinois brewing capacity is occuring around the Chicagoland area which again is the northern area of Illinois.
I totally agree. This is exactly why I was trying to map regions--state lines are a crude measure and fail to capture cultural, beeriological (I may have coined a term here) geography. The upper midwest is definitely steeped in beer culture, but the definition of that region cuts through some states and loops together several.

But it got me thinking. Portland is regularly cited as the best beer city in the country. There are other contenders, but you understand the point. It is in any case the most-breweried. Yet Portland's share of Oregon breweries is modest. As Generik points out, 71% of Indiana's breweries are in Indianapolis. Only 40% of Oregon's breweries are in Portland (38 of 96). This is a rather remarkable fact: the most breweried-city in the country has a minority of the breweries in its own state.

You drive to most any Oregon town of 10,000 people or more, and you'll find a brewery. This is a marker of the penetration of beer culture into mass culture in the Northwest (the Washington Brewers Guild doesn't keep the same handy stats, but Seattle's share of WA breweries is probably roughly similar to Oregon's). Craft brewing is not an urban phenomenon--it's a regional one. We have passed a tipping point and now good beer is just part of the cultural tapestry.

Numbers don't tell you the whole picture, but sometimes they can point you to in the right direction.
Photo of Pelican Brewery courtesy of Travel Oregon.


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  2. At some level, regional preferences or alcohol-by-location is the issue. Go through Kentucky, which probably has very few breweries, and you'll find plenty of distilleries. In fact, Appalachia is full of legal and illegal distilling. My summer job growing up in the south reminds me that moonshine, even in the age of readily available liquor, is still an important cultural product.
    It is interesting that urban areas of the midwest are the dominant geography of craft brewing while our own rural or semi-rural areas here sport many a good brewery.
    By the way, the use of beeriology and tetchy in the same post is a triumph of words.

  3. As an East Oregonian living in a town of under 2000 people, I don't have the pleasure of a local brewery, but I do love my ale. I have been to virtually all of the breweries in Oregon's small towns, as well as several in Washington. The closest brewery to me is Ice Harbor Brewery in Kennewick, Washington. I have the same feeling there as you did at the Elysian - it would fit in perfectly in East Portland. I think the Beervana vibe of Portland has poured out of the city into many parts of the Pacific Northwest and thank goodness! Political demarcations should follow bio-regions, Walking Man would surely be included in Beervana and maybe even Ice Harbor, both breweries bounded by the Columbia River.

  4. [yawn]
    All right, all right, I'll get off that hobby horse. I just tried three new (to me) beers, so look for actual beer reviews next week.