Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Beer culture: Where's the local?

Men's Journal Magazine recently posted its choices of the top beer cities in the US. In order, they were:

  1. San Diego, CA
  2. New York City, NY
  3. Portland, OR
  4. Philadelphia, PA
  5. Chicago, IL
Such lists are ultimately subjective, but the editors at Men's Journal seemed to have done their homework. The reasons they gave for their choices are sound, if not wholly convincing.

For example, concerning Philadelphia, they wrote:
Beer Culture: Within an 80-mile radius of the city center, Stoudt’s, Victory, and Sly Fox breweries cook up creatively hopped pilsners and experimental pale ales that are pushing the limits of these traditionally mild styles.

Yet the editors failed to mention the spectacular Philly Beer Week, the first of its kind in the nation, and arguably the best.

Ronnie Crocker, at his blog Beer Tx, tried to take issue with the rankings —where was Houston, Texas, after all?— but after a visit to San Diego, he acknowledged that city's beer supremacy ... at least for the present:
After spending a few days in San Diego this summer -- and, more recently, watching so many of the area's brewers rake in medals at the Great American Beer Fest -- I can't argue with that city's No. 1 ranking. Whether you're hitting one of the 30-plus breweries in the area (including the amazing Stone and Green Flash) or enjoying a pint at Toronado or Hamilton's, it's just a wonderful place to drink beer. There are places in Houston with as many tap handles, but these San Diego bars are primarily populated with locally brewed beers. It's a different experience.

[The emphasis is mine.]

The renaissance in the US of good beer includes an amazing cornucopia of imported beers. This is the spice, if you will, to the local choices. Beer, however, is a fragile, perishable foodstuff. It shows best closest to its source. Putting aside the issues of local provenance and civic pride, a city that recognizes and embraces that fact will have a more vibrant beer culture.

Imports themselves (whether US craft or from overseas) need to establish a local market as their base, whether that's a city, or as the brand grows, an entire geographical area. Ignoring that, they run the risk of collapse when the next imported flavor pushes them off taps in foreign markets, and even back in their neglected home territory. (See organic growth vs. geographic expansion, at Beer Scribe.)

In a recent post, beer blog BeltwayBeer.com published the draft list at an influential Washington, D.C. area beer bar/restaurant. Of its 28 taps, 16 are US craft, 11 are imports (German, Czech, and Belgian), and one is an English cider. It's an amazing list, even honoring the granddaddy of all craft beers: Anchor Steam. But where's the local?? The list features only one beer from all of the breweries in the local tri-state area of Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Not to single out this particular establishment, but a lack of local taps is indeed city-wide.

Baltimore, Maryland officially falls in this Washington, D.C. conurbation, but it's miles ahead in terms of loyalty to local beers. Day to day, Maryland breweries are well-represented. Even during the recently completed Baltimore Beer Week, when many far-afield breweries were featured, the underlying murmur was "Ain't Bawlmer grand, hon?" —and by extension, Maryland.

Here in D.C., long-awaited Birch and Barley/Churchkey (not the bar mentioned above) will open this Thursday, adding what promises to be a stellar showcase for good beer to a burgeoning list of beer bars and restaurants already in the city. Such places comprise one important peg in building a beer culture.

Local loyalty is another.

Loyalty, however, is not slavish support. It is informed, active, two-way engagement. When was the last time you were able to pick up the phone, call Belgium, and talk with Carlos Brito, CEO of international conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev, to complain about the weirdly unpleasant taste of, say, Bud Lite Golden Wheat? You could have, however, telephoned one of our several local breweries, and talked personally with the brewer or owner with praise or constructive criticism.

I'll stipulate that the craft brewery roster in the Washington, D.C. area may not be as experimental as that in the San Diego area (and the weather not as spectacular), but it's not for lack of good breweries that we're not going to be in that top 5 tier of beer cities. Consider the run on medals and awards by DC/MD/VA breweries at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival.

It's in terms of loyalty to and support of local beer that Washington, D.C. beer culture falls short. I'm not chastising too much, though. With beer choices like these, the 10th, or 12th, or 15th spot ain't bad.

Caveat lector: I work for a northern Virginia beer/wine wholesaler which sells beer from local breweries Flying Dog and Clipper City.


  1. are you saying the area needs better Breweries?

  2. Actually, I'm quite specific to the contrary: "but it's not for lack of good breweries that we're not going to be in that top 5 beer cities"

  3. Glad someone's reading! I should point out, though, that RFD rotates its taps often, and what might be on tap today isn't necessarily what's on tap next week, or the next. Let's set up a test, and next time I'm in RFD -- which should be in the next couple weeks -- I'll post another taplist, and see if they do better with locals. Thought-provoking post, thank you for it.

  4. The lack of local/regional beers on tap in the area has always bothered me. Yes its great to find that occassional rarity on tap at any number of places but I think the lack of locals also disrespects the local breweries. You never see St. George, Legend, Williamsburg, etc..at the majority of bars in the area. Guess you have to go down to Richmond.

  5. Can you give some possible reasonings as to why the traditional local support of a regional brewery is not exhibited in DC?

  6. Anonymous:
    There is a strong subset of support, often from beer drinkers of an, ahem, certain age, who remember when there were very few choices. The principal reason for a current lack of local support is the transient nature of the DC area population itself. As you travel out of the immediate perimeter, either north or south (as Scott notes in his comment) you'll find more active support for local breweries.


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