The Great Beer City Debate…

In the United States, we’re obsessed with debating the respective merits of just about everything and then assigning it a blue ribbon or gold medal. We have pig beauty pageants, pumpkin chucking contests, and the Summer Redneck Games. In the brewing world, the drive to judge things extends far beyond the usual beer competitions and festivals.

In the last two years, cities around the country have promoted their local beer offerings by touting their ranks as America’s best beer town. In Philadelphia, local supporters of Philly Beer Week extol their virtues in “America’s Best Beer-Drinking City.” Denver offers the “the Napa Valley of Beer,” San Francisco represents “America’s Original Craft Beer-Drinking City,” and Portland, Oregon proclaims itself “Beervana.”

In the past year I’ve had the good fortune to travel around to most of America’s top-tier beer cities and after quite a few pints, tasters, and tours, I’ve come to one conclusion: there actually is no such thing as America’s best beer city. While this may be the inevitable end result of a hopelessly theoretical comparison of some highly competitive locales, the intellectual exercise of debating America’s best beer cities demonstrates the remarkable strength and diversity of our burgeoning regional beer cultures.

To the extent possible in our mental gymnastics, we should try and define the criteria underlying a great beer city. The core of a great beer city revolves around a handful of passionate breweries and brewpubs. Add to that a few superior beer bars focusing on diverse craft taps, fair prices, and offering events promoting better beers. Finally, throw in a few less tangible criterions, including how well craft beer and better beers integrates into the local scene and the number and quality of local beer festivals.

When beer drinkers toss around potential candidates, a few names always make the top-tier, including those mentioned above along with Seattle and San Diego. While these big cities pack some serious punch, size is hardly the denominating factor. America’s three largest cities, for instance, almost never get a mention. Between them, New York, L.A, and Chicago, all good drinking cities, offer fewer than ten breweries and brewpubs. By way of comparison, Portland (OR) has less than 4-percent of their population while offering three times as many brewpubs and breweries.

Size does matter and it’s another factor to consider when assessing smaller cities. Sure it’s easy to support a few good beer establishments when you have a couple million customers nearby. But it’s when you start taking a look at some of America’s smaller towns that you get a full appreciation of what constitutes a great beer city. While medium sized towns including Milwaukee, Austin, and Pittsburgh all have impressive offerings, let’s get even smaller. How about we nominate Portland, Maine, or Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Michigan, or Fort Collins, Colorado, or Madison, Wisconsin? And where else but Burlington, Vermont (population 40,000), can you hit three brewpubs in a three block radius and still have two breweries to visit?

The creation and celebration of citywide beer appreciation festivals is a significant development in the history of American craft beer and they should be supported. But it doesn’t take the aid of local chambers of commerce or tourist bureaus for people to help develop, nurture, and promote their local beer scenes. Although a handful of quality craft beers may not be available at average, budget Chinese food restaurants in our area, as is the case in cities throughout Oregon, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue to support prefabricated pubs with run-of-the-mill beer offerings. Instead, it’s time to think before we drink and pledge our support for local places that appreciate the diversity of craft beer while respecting their customers with fair prices. Because looking inward and celebrating our local beer scenes is the only way to make every American city a great beer city.

–Article appeared in Volume II Issue XI of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Welcome to Portland, Maine, the Best Beer Drinking City in New England…

When I was giving talks and doing press interviews in support of The Good Beer Guide To New England, I would inevitably get asked about my favorite New England beers, breweries, and brewpubs. A less frequent question that I spent little time pondering was what city is the best for beer drinking in New England. As with my selections of Great Beer Bars, a few ground rules are necessary in this intellectual exercise. Of beer bar greatness I have written,

These places excelled in several crucial respects, including “extraordinary selection of craft beers, respect their clients in terms of keeping prices fair, hold events promoting craft beers (from beer dinners to brewer meet-and-greets), make craft beer key to their business, and also offer true character as pubs.�

When it comes to defining a great beer drinking city, many of the similar criteria apply (and it certainly helps to have some great beer bars in your pocket). In addition to possessing a few great or good beer bars, a great beer drinking city will support a few to several local breweries and brewpubs. You should also look at how well craft and better beers in general have integrated into your local scene. When you patronize a local restaurant or even a chain, how is there beer selection? In cities, such as Portland, Oregon, where integration of better beer into the local scene is seamless, you can find excellent craft offerings even at the most pedestrian restaurants, say a hole-in-the-wall Chinese place or even a TGIF’s. You’d also like to see a host of beer related events throughout the year, from larger festivals to smaller, more locally oriented events. Pricing is of course importance. Better beer doesn’t do you much good if you can’t afford it. And finally, proximity and size of the town itself are factors to consider. Of course, cities such as Chicago and New York by their sheer size have a larger volume of drinking establishments to offer. Quantity doesn’t mean quality and an unscientific weighting has to take place to give smaller cities a chance to compete. Obviously, this whole process is hardly a quantifiable pursuit. I also have to take into account that I simply prefer the beers produced in certain towns and the general feel of the drinking vibe of some as compared to others. Now there are inevitably other criterion I have missed and I’m happy to reanalyze with your suggestions but I think we’re off to a good start.

Here in New England, several cities vie for the title of Best Beer Drinking City in the region. While listing my top cities, I think its important to do some geographic arithmetic. Of the top cities, the Massachusetts nominees include Boston (including Brookline), Cambridge (including Somerville, i.e. the near North of the River communities), and Northampton and Amherst. Maine offers Portland. New Hampshire offers Portsmouth. Rhode Island offers Providence. Vermont offers Burlington. Connecticut doesn’t really have a competitive offering but I’ll be polite and suggest New Haven.

Without extolling the virtues or decrying the flaws of particular places or breweries and pubs in each city, I’ll cut to the chase. The top three nominees are Boston, Burlington, and Portland. While I love Amherst/NoHo, the scene is just too small to sustain the title and they offer no breweries. The same fate befalls my home town of Cambridge and nearby Somerville. Portsmouth offers both a brewpub and a brewery but no beer bars and again is too small to compete. Providence is of sufficient size but its two brewpubs do not provide enough substance to rise to the competition. While a good stop for a night, New Haven really shouldn’t even be competing here.

That leaves Boston, Burlington, and Portland. While it may be a bit surprising, I think Boston places third on this list. I’ve done the city a real favor by tossing in Brookline, which includes the Publick House and soon the Road House, even though it’s not at all part of it. While Boston offers three brewpubs, a brewery, and two Great Beer Bars and two good beer bars, it’s actually not a great drinking city for other reasons. Boston is a city dedicated to the average, pedestrian bar experience. Walk into nearly any bar in the city and you will see the same 6-10 taps. Harpoon IPA, Harpoon UFO or Blue Moon, Bass, Budweiser, Bud Light, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Sam Adams Seasonal, Stella Artois, Guinness, and then a shortlist of other stand-ins, be they Smithwick’s, Harp, Old Speckled Hen, Miller Lite, or Coors Light. With its predisposition towards prefabricated pubs, such lists are not surprising. In a city the size of Boston, it’s not surprising that you would find some solid beer bars. When I start to ruminate on Jacob Wirth’s and Doyle’s Cafe, I start to rethink a third place slot. But when you really have to search for them, the city deserves to be docked a few points. The presence of Beer Advocate and its beer events (of which I am usually a part) add back to the positive side of the ledger. But that a city so well known for beer offers three brewpubs, all of which are part of chain operations, is troubling. And while Harpoon is certainly a consistent, serviceable, and solid craft brewery, the brewery’s products don’t offer a lot of inspiration to consumers (although the upcoming Leviathan series may change that). And no, the limited presence of Boston Beer doesn’t add much when gauging the city’s place in the region’s beer scorecard. The city would seem ripe for a small, inventive brewpub or brewery to target niche consumers, similar to the way the Surly Brewing Company has successfully competed in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market.

That leaves us with Portland and Burlington. Perched on beautiful, opposite ends of New England, these twin Queen cities really offer the beer drinker a range of offerings. Despite their small sizes, neither forgoes quality or makes excuses. At nearly 40,000 people, Burlington is by far the smaller of the two (Portland clocks in at 65,000, compared to 650,000 for my Boston/Brookline hybrid). Despite its size, Burlington is all about the beer. It is the home of the quirky Magic Hat Brewing Company, one of the nation’s fastest growing craft breweries. Magic Hat sponsors an annual Mardi Gras parade down the snow covered streets of Burlington and offers some seriously odd tours. It also can’t seem to grow content with any one flagship product, constantly switching up their available beers and keeping it interesting. The old standby, #9, remains to this day an interesting pint and the recently released Lucky Kat is an unusual IPA anywhere in the country. Burlington’s downtown is perhaps the only place in the world where you can visit three brewpubs in a three block walk (with two of them, the venerable Vermont Pub and Brewery and American Flatbread-Burlington Hearth, directly across the street from one another). Greg Noonan of Vermont Pub has helped push craft brewing in Vermont and beyond and his smoked porter helped reinvigorate a dying method of adding flavor to beer. At American Flatbread, Paul Saylor produces some of the region’s best beers and has also selflessly promoted other better beers, from Vermont and beyond, in his own pub. Down the street, the funky 3 Needs remains the town’s bad boy brewpub experience, although a littles less so without the smoke. Burlington also hosts the fantastic Vermont Brewers Festival on the banks of beautiful Lake Champlain.

On the other side of New England, the City of Portland is an eclectic mix of different elements and interests. Portland is home to a surprising number of breweries, five in total. I am including Sebago in this list even though it is located in nearby Gorham as Sebago still owns two tap rooms in the city where its beers are delivered for fresh consumption right out of the tank. The others include Allagash, Geary’s, Shipyard, and Stone Coast. Even with the loss of the Stone Coast Brewing Company (and its excellent Knuckleball Bock), which is rumored to be closing August 1, the city remains a tough competitor. Add to that the presence of Great Beer Bar The Great Lost Bear and things look good for Portland. The city also hosts the long running Maine Brewers Festival and the Bear hosts a series of fun beer events throughout the year, including a competition among the city’s brewers in a consumer poll.

Needing to confirm my feelings, and because of a trip with friends, I visited Portland again this past weekend. While Gritty McDuff’s, a brewpub that serves classic English-style ales, remains a great place to spend a snowy, Winter afternoon, and Sebago’s Old Port pub is the perfect place to end an evening, I was most interested in stopping by two new places that could seal the deal for Portland. Well, we went one for two which isn’t too bad. The Prost International Beer House is located right in the Old Port and promised a German themed beer experience, an angle sorely missing in most of English-oriented New England. I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up because these things don’t usually work out very well. That was the case with Prost.
We stopped by late in the afternoon, but before it grew dark (beware the nightclub crowd after dark). Prost felt like a German themed Bennigan’s or TGIF, with a sterile environment where the theme made little sense. In a bar where women were made to wear tartish dirndls, you shouldn’t be surprised that the place only serves two German beers. The plastic encased German themed menu was ridiculous both in presentation and content. It’s a German restaurant in theory but it serves Italian and Spanish sausage? And just because you add a German name or reference to a pedestrian American food item does not make it German (waffle fries called Luft Waffle Fries, the Zimmerman Nachos) and why is Shepherd’s Pie on the menu again? The skull and crossbones on the menu designating the higher alcohol beers notations would make good evidence in a lawsuit for over-serving or make you think the beer is poison. The waitress immediately apologized for several missing beers despite advertisements that “Yes, we really have 100 taps.” Just don’t expect them to be filled.

Disappointed, we traveled to Novare Res, a place run by Eric Michaud, formerly of the Moan and Dove in Amherst, Mass. You can immediately sense the connection upon entering the small, oddly shaped space. The tap list is straight out of the old M&D playbook, with a solid range of Belgian ales and German lagers tossed in for good measure. Beers were properly presented and served and tasted clean. The large and spacious outdoor deck more than doubles the size of the place and is a bit of a novelty in downtown Portland. Having only recently opened, the place is still experiencing some hiccups but nothing it won’t overcome. Add to the mix occasional events with breweries and you’ve found an excellent addition to the Portland scene.

Digressions aside, despite its small size, Portland offers a whopping number of good beer choices. With its diverse beer offerings, from breweries producing a wide-range of world class beers to homey beer bars and a Belgian beer cafe, reasonable prices, welcoming drinking vibe (except very late on weekend evenings), Portland is my choice for the Best Beer Drinking City in New England.

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Some Disjointed Thoughts After My Return From Portland, Oregon…

Things have been a little quiet here due to a fair amount of recent traveling. In the last two months I’ve been in Florida, DC, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Portland, Oregon and I’ve had some very different beer drinking experiences in these diverse parts of the country. I returned last evening from Portland, Oregon, where it was 58 degrees and rainy most of the week, to experience what the rest of the country has been enjoying, 95 degrees and humidity. It appears that gin and tonic season is suddenly upon us.

I think it may take some time to process my Oregon experiences. I’ve wanted to visit Portland, dubbed ‘Beervana’ by enterprising local publicists, for a number of years. It was perhaps just behind Bamberg on my to-do-list of beer destinations. And while Bamberg exceeded my already high expectations, I’m still trying to figure Portland out. It’s indisputable that quality craft beer has permeated the city. You can find a solid pint in nearly every restaurant in the city, even the diviest Chinese joint. Where most cities would offer Sapporo or another bland lager at an Asian restaurant, we always found Black Butte Porter or Mirror Pond Pale Ale from Deschutes and oddly, Fat Tire was everywhere. And while we visited a couple of dozen breweries, brewpubs, and beer bars in the course of five days in the city and the quality was always high, something about the experience failed to quite live up to the hype. The only comparison I have is Bamberg, which also has a dozen or more breweries, brewpubs, and beer bars in a small city. While Portland definitely offers a greater quantity of beer spots, I think Bamberg may be the better city for beer (even if the diversity of selection is less than Portland).

I can unequivocally say that the Oregon Brewers Guild did a great job with its guide to the state’s breweries. In a dozen pages in its “Guide to All Things Beer in Oregon,” the guild lists dozens of beer events and festivals, 139 breweries, brewpubs, and brewery tap houses, and 9 local tap houses. Add in a helpful map with locations of all of the above spots and visitors have a tremendously handy resource to finding quality pints in the state. I’ve recently been perusing similar guides from other areas and associations, including the San Diego Brewers Guild and the Michigan Brewers Guild, and firmly believe more state organizations should spend a few dollars to promote their interests in this accessible manner.

I can also unequivocally state that a brewery the size of Widmer should run more than 3 tours per week, serving approximately 45 people. In a time when Widmer ought to be concerned with its public image due to its relationship with Anheuser-Busch, one which I support, I think that engaging the community a little more might be wise.

While my feelings on Portland are not yet fully formed, I can say that the Bier Stein Bottleshop & Pub in Eugene is one of my new favorite places to have a beer. The concept here is one that we rarely see, due to expense, insurance issues, or more likely, local and state regulations. The Bier Stein is a package store that also offers patrons a place to stay and drink their recently purchased bottles. If you take away the beer, you get 15% off your bill. If you stay, you’ll be drinking a huge range of craft beers from around the world at substantially cheaper prices than what you would be paying in a bar. Want to try all of New Belgium’s lineup? $1.95 per bottle. How about Elysian’s Jasmine IPA in a 22 ounce bottle? $5.95. The beers are served in appropriate glassware and you can also select from ten or so well-priced draft beers. I’ve also seen the concept of a package store bar in Sonoma, California, at the Wine Exchange, which offers six or so draft beers as well as a much smaller number of chilled bottles. I love the concept and think it’s a great way to sample new beers at very friendly prices, especially in this price sensitive climate.

There were certainly a number of quintessential and memorable beer related moments during the trip, including the visit to the crazy Kennedy School, seeing Don Younger smoking and playing video poker at the Horse Brass, and drinking a number of excellent organic beers (including from the Hopworks in the company of local writer and photographer Matt Wiater of Portlandbeer.org and his girlfriend Becky). During the trip, we also spent some time with the employees of Full Sail in Hood River, the locals at Rogue in Newport, and at various places around Western Oregon. After some contemplation, I’m sure I’ll return to offer some more coherent thoughts on the trip.

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