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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Where America's Cultural (and beer?) Boundaries Lie

I have long been fascinated by American culture.  I grew up in the Mountain West, a flinty, hardscrabble region where life is as spare as the high desert, and the people are as tenacious as sagebrush.  When people say the "Pacific Northwest," they often include Idaho, my birthplace.  It's absurd--Boise is five hundred miles from the sea.  You can drive from Munich to the Czech Republic and then to Austria, detouring into Slovakia and then drop into Budapest, Hungary in the same distance.  What would the cultural Pacific Northwest look like?  How about this:

What you're looking at is the result of some very interesting research.  A physicist named Dirk Brockmann was looking for sources of data to show mobility within the US.
[H]e stopped by the home of his old friend Dennis Derryberry in the green mountains of Vermont. Over a beer on the porch, he told Derryberry about his research. Derryberry asked: "Do you know about" You can think of as a primitive FourSquare for $1 bills. "Georgers"--as users call themselves--"check in" their bills by entering the zip codes and serial numbers, then write or stamp "" on the bill. If someone finds the bill and enters it again, they get a "hit."
What he deduced from those data were a theory he calls "effective boundaries"--those natural regions defined by affinity, not lines on a map.  The Northwest, you'll note, looks exactly like you'd expect it to.  It captures Northern California, as Jefferson Staters always knew it should.  That chunk of Malheur County where most of my family comes from in Eastern Oregon is properly aligned with Idaho--as I experienced the region in my youth.  Northern Idaho--Sandpoint, Coeur d'Alene--are part of the Spokane region, not the Boise region. Behold the rest of the country:

I have a strong suspicion that if you could map beer affinities, you'd find a map very similar to this one--at least here out west.  To the rest of the world, it's West Coast whatever (pale, IPA, red).  But everyone north of California sort of hates the Golden State (recall the Henry's ads?), which in turn thinks of Oregon roughly as often as it thinks of British Columbia.   Colorado roughly stands alone--as it does in the beer world, too.  California is part of a giant sunbelt.  I'm surprised to see a bright line separating Wisconsin and Minnesota, but not at all surprised to see that New England is one unified Red Soxistan.  That's exactly what it feels like there.

At the end of the day, it's all culture.


  1. That's pretty interesting. As an Oklahoman who moved to Texas, I am amazed to see the hard border at the Red River -- I assumed there was much more commerce across that border. Actually, the hard line between the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles is even more amazing.

    It makes me think that direction is missing from this map -- I would expect to see money flowing from Oklahoma to Texas (or from the Dakotas to Minnesota).

    And what is up with the little vortexes in the middle of nowhere (western Nebraska, western Kentucky, northern New Mexico)? Those must be places where a disproportionate number of people play "Where's George" because there's nothing else to do. (That might explain the Oklahoma boundaries also, I know my mother loves Where's George.)

  2. I'm fairly certain that if you asked most people in Spokane what region they're part of they'd identify more quickly with either the "Inland Empire/Northwest" or "Eastern Washington." Granted, though, the tastes would probably align fairly well with PNW palettes, albeit with a kind of Texas-interpreted-through-the-lens-of-Idaho rancher flair.

  3. Bill, I was actually thinking of you when I wrote this--and Charles, the only guys I know from that region.

    I'm not really sure what to make of those vortices, either. Part of New Mexico is actually smaller, amazingly, and no overlap with Arizona. I was surprised about that. I would have guessed Nevada and California, but put AZ and NM together.

    Brewolero, as a one-time Idahoan, I have to say that southerners never go to the panhandle. I've been there once in my life, and we had a little A-frame almost exactly at the line separating the state. But meanwhile I (weirdly) have a bunch of friends from Spokane, and they're constantly zipping into the panhandle. I totally buy it.

  4. Interesting geographic partitioning.
    Including eastern New Mexico with Texas, works for me. My Dallas based family vacationed in the Ruidoso, NMex, a half dozen summers when I was a lad.
    But, contrary to the NMex-Tex-La grouping, I did not visit Louisiana until I was beyond 60 years of age, roadtripping between Colo and Fla.
    Brockmann's human mobility map has made me wonder about a craft beer mobility map. Ie, how would the distribution of the largest 050 or 100 craft breweries map?
    The dimension of the craft brewery pipelines would be distorted/limited by the fact that many have been production limited as evidenced by 03 building 2nd breweries in NC and 01, in Chicago. And, others expanding capability in situ.

  5. The map is right with respect to Idaho...potato head country in the south doesn't belong with the panhandle. I know...I grew up in Lewiston. However, the overall Northwest area is wrong. To capture the true picture of what's going on, you have to draw a squiggly line down I-5 from Bellingham to Eugene (or the line in Northern Cali, if you wish). That's the Coastal Northwest. The Inland Empire to the east has little in common with the Coastal area. I think the line splitting Eastern Oregon is also wrong...because more of that area belongs with Southern Idaho. But I digress.

  6. The line down Wisconsin makes perfect sense to me. You mainly go to Madison, Chicago, Milwaukee when traveling & having fun. Unless, of course, Minneapolis/St. Paul is a closer jaunt which is the case for those left of the line. Now the Minnesotans definitely cross the border, but mainly on Sundays to buy beer (no cerveza sales on Sunday in MN). Jeff, your blog is always so fun to read.

  7. Sarah, I appreciate it. I think of the blog as a garbage scow of random content, so it's nice to hear that others approve of my baubles.