Best Craft Beer State: Does Quantity Equal Quality?

at-a-glance-map

Map courtesy of the Beer Institute: http://www.beerinstitute.org/br

USA Today recently published their list of the “10 “best” craft brew states in America,” and it seems that no complex calculations were involved – they simply listed the states with the most breweries, from greatest to least, and then supplied a few examples of why each state is awesome.

Here’s what their list looks like:

Rank

State

Craft Breweries

1

California

268

2

Washington

136

3

Colorado

130

4

Oregon

124

5

Michigan

102

6

Pennsylvania

93

7

Wisconsin

75

8

New York

72

9

Texas

59

10

Illinois

54

The robo-authors (credited as “10best editors”) seem lukewarm about second-place Washington, saying “Washington state has 136 craft breweries, including the well-known Pyramid Brewery, headquartered in Seattle. It’s no surprise that this evergreen state has such a passion for beer, as the first American microbrewery — Yakima Brewing & Malting Co — was based here.

But they breathlessly gush about how third-place Colorado’s “craft brewery list reads more like a roundup of the best breweries in the country. If that’s not enough, Denver hosts the Great American Beer Festival where you can sample 2,200 beers from 500 of the country’s best breweries.

Hmm…despite this massive love for Colorado, Washington wins with a “well-known” brewery and a little bit of history?

Clearly, using the number of breweries in a state is a crude way to judge the quality of that state’s beer scene.

Maybe it’s better to look at the states with the FEWEST people per brewery.  This might be an indicator at which states have the most robust brewing scenes, relative to their population.

This is something the Brewers Association calculates for their Capita Per Brewery report, and here’s how those numbers looked in 2011:

Capita/ Brewery Rank

State

Total Breweries Capita/ Brewery

1

Vermont

24

26,073

2

Oregon

124

30,896

3

Montana

32

30,919

4

Colorado

130

38,686

5

Maine

33

40,253

6

Wyoming

12

46,969

7

Alaska

20

35,512

8

Washington

136

49,445

9

Wisconsin

75

75,826

10

Delaware

9

99,770

Okay, so this is worse.  Much worse, actually, unless you want to try and convince me that Montana, which ranks third on the list, has a better beer scene than California, which ranks 21st.

The only way to create a “best” list is to know which states have the best brewers, the coolest brew pubs and the most dedicated beer geeks. The closest I could get would be to create an unranked collection of the 10 best beer states in America, and even that would be tough.

At any rate, when you use the word “best” you’re talking about quality, not quantity.  Perhaps USA Today should re-title their article as “10 states with the greatest number of breweries.”

Or maybe not – nobody would read that.

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Categories: Beer, News

Author:Jim Galligan

Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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41 Comments on “Best Craft Beer State: Does Quantity Equal Quality?”

  1. April 23, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    MOAR IS BETTER!

    • April 23, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

      ‘Murica!!

  2. April 23, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

    I think there are some gems in here, but Pyramid? Yikes.

    I can’t rank in order, but there are some good ones in the list. California, Colorado, Vermont, Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine, Penn, NY, Texas gets a nod. Totally leaves out North Carolina though and Indiana. Even Alaska deserves a nod.

    • April 23, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

      It’s certainly a good place to start, because it shows which states are supporting their brewers, and people generally don’t support crappy products. But the ranking is wonky, and the list gets a little dicey around number 8 or so (nothing against NY).

      • April 24, 2013 at 7:49 am #

        Completely agree. New York does have Six Point, Ithaca, Brooklyn, Southern Tier, Ommegang, Schmaltz, but not bringing many big bang names to the table outside of that. Texas…Jester King…but that is about all I can think of if you are discounting the big brands. Also, only 59 in a state the SIZE of Texas. Completely disproportionate.

      • blake
        July 3, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

        But Jim, in the past 14 or so years in NY we have had such amazing brewers as the Hudson Valley Brewery (which had the most amazing Old Man Ale) unfortunately no longer existing, and the wonderful Brooklyn Brewery which has an incredible array of scrumptious offerings. There is also the new Bronx Brewery which can stand it’s own against anybody. Saranac is pretty good but honestly is not in the same league as the afore mention wizards. I do my part on a weekly basis to make NY higher on the list. Good article, thanks.

  3. Brendan
    April 23, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    What about ranking based on accessibility, i.e. shortest/longest drive from AnyTown, State to a craft brewery? That sounds harder than probably is – just some time with Google Maps or MapLost and then calculate the average per state.

    • April 23, 2013 at 2:44 pm #

      That would mean my homebrew is the best beer on the planet (it’s a sort walk to the garage) and I can assure that is NOT the case! :)

  4. April 23, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Quality can be quantified; it just depends on the metrics you want to use. While correlations between breweries and the local population are one way to measure the vibrancy of the beer “scene”, the most successful craft breweries export their product. Does the greatness I enjoy from Avery Brewing remotely in Los Angeles not contribute to Colorado as being a great beer state? I would argue that even when a state’s beer is enjoyed outside that state, that ought to rack up points for that brewery’s state.

    I think that a good way to quantify the strength of a state’s craft beer quality would be to use ratings of the beers. You wouldn’t want sheer number of reviews or even an average of ratings for the brewery mixed in with the number of total breweries in the state to dominate the state rankings, because you’ll still end up with more breweries = better state. But you can tweak the math to take use the rankings to inform the notion of the quality of the beer, and use population data to understand the consumption density, especially if you were able to separate the ratings by in-state reviews and out-of-state reviews. There are other factors that can be used to understand the local scene… number of beer blogs based in the state, especially beer blogs that are expressly about the local scene.

    I guess in the end, the right metrics must be driven by the actual question. In this case, I’m not even sure what it is? Top 10 states that produce the most enjoyed craft beer? Top 10 states that with an awesome local craft beer scene? Top 10 states that have the most resources for home brewers? As you rightly conclude, your actual question/headline will dictate what metrics you need to gather. But to say that you can’t get at the nut you think they should be after because the factors are qualitative… well, if you can perceive it, you can measure it. Whether those data are readily available for analysis… that’s another issue altogether.

  5. April 23, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    I think there’s too much attention on the beer. Yes, I said it…on the beer. For me, craft brewing is more than beer: it’s community and scenery as well. I’d rather sip on a B+ beer while sitting on a balcony overlooking the ocean than an A+ beer while sitting on on arctic ice flow with a hungry polar bear. That’s just me, though

    • April 23, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

      Give me the polar bear, you can keep the ocean ;)

    • April 23, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

      So Alaska doesn’t make your list? ;)

      I agree that “scene” is hugely important, and it’s one of the reasons I shy away from saying which state is better than another when it comes to beer – I honestly don’t travel enough to be confident in listing them.

      • April 23, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

        Ha! I would take the mountains of Alaska (summertime) over the hot, humid, empty plains of Kansas (where I grew up)

        But even more so, I’d like a place where I can drink and converse, and not a crowded, loud club. Remember that scene in Shawshank Redemption where they’re sitting on the roof having a Bohemia style lager? Probably crap beer, but in that moment it was the best on Earth. Ok, so it’s a movie :) But I think beer has that kind of power, and it shouldn’t be lost or overlooked.

        *steps down from soapbox*

        • April 23, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

          I agree. I adore Leinie’s Summer Shandy because I had one on a hot afternoon sitting with my family besides the Wisconsin Dells.

          I’d have spat it out in NJ, but it tasted like magic in a glass at that moment.

        • blake
          July 3, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

          I think that there IS something to Cultivated Pint’s point simply because of the fact that I spent my older teenage years drinking cold Corona with a slice of lime and, for whatever reason, that is the beer that I enjoy most on a hot summer day. I know that taste and smell are the closest senses we have to memory so I KNOW that plays a lot into it but, as much as I ADORE craft beers…on July 4th I’m gonna be having Corona with lime. Maybe not exclusively but I will have a few. Cheers, my fellow Americans!

  6. April 23, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

    We’re Number 3! or 4, or… In any case Colorado comes out in the top 5. :)

    Unless you can visit every single brewery, in every single state, whatever criteria one can use is still subjective, or data driven, and will always be up for scrutiny from those who think their state was slighted.

    I think Brendan has the closest criteria for best beer state, only I would label it as the state most conducive to drinking fresh craft beer.

    • April 23, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

      I think accessibility is a great criteria for judging a city, but I’m not sure about a state. I could live across the street from Saranac and would drive past the place to go buy beer at the store. But you put me in the gaslight district in San Diego, and I know I’m someplace special.

      • April 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

        I think accessibility is a perfect gauge for best beer state. It means that the breweries aren’t concentrated around just urban areas and are spread throughout the state, thus showing a higher appreciation for craft beer from the state as a whole. It’s a lot harder for a small town brewery to survive than a big city one. The more small town breweries, the greater support for local craft beer, in all of the state, not just the cities.

        • April 23, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

          But Rhode Island would always win. :)

  7. April 23, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

    There are a few ways to get at more qualitative data.

    You can look at top ranking beers on BeerAdvocate, RateBeer, and Untappd. On Untappd you can filter by country, but you still get the list by beer, not by brewery. I don’t see a way to get a state ranking out of any of these via site UI.

    I’m sure the owners of the sites could do a data dump and generate user scores by state. If all three sites agreed to collaborate, that’d make one hell of an article (or even one hell of a series of articles).

    • April 23, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

      Already ahead of you on that one, Bill!

      • April 23, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

        Why am I not surprised?

        • Matt
          April 24, 2013 at 10:52 am #

          I like Bill’s idea here. If you went with those three sites, you could do a BCS-style ranking. Maybe it could be a biannual or triennial thing, just to allow for up-and-commings (North Carolina?) to get a good foothold and recognize changes in consumer preferences.

        • April 24, 2013 at 11:44 am #

          They would certainly be great metrics, but it all hinges on the three site owners’ willingness to participate, either by providing the data dumps or by aggregating them themselves per Jim’s spec to get at the info. It’d certainly be heightened exposure for each of their sites!

  8. Brendan
    April 23, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

    Jim, if I have a batch in the fridge and another in the fermenter then my apartment is twice as beer-friendly as your house – nah nah hah :)

    • April 23, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

      Well there you go. And the beer is probably just better, as well.

  9. April 23, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

    Yeah, I saw that article and was dumbstruck. The “reasons” were terrible. I mean Cali is gonna be up there no matter what, but still.

  10. Diss Content
    April 24, 2013 at 11:14 am #

    Using a raw brew house count per state seems a coarse and quick criterion.

    California will rank among the largest for most counts since it has the largest head count in the nation. That approach will basically ‘lock’ California in the best beer position for some time to come.

    To California’s credit, the beer laws are quite liberal in that one can self distribute, engage in direct retail sales (aka: off sales), and aren’t required to have a restaurant to qualify as a micro brewery. This filter or lack, facilitates the creation of many potential great beers via sheer numbers in the micro brewing pool. That environment would be an attribute of a great beer state, but not necessarily the best of breed.

    Sports teams are measured for performance by beginning with the same playing fields; it would be a great step in the right direction if the same was true for craft beer manufacture.

    • blake
      July 3, 2013 at 5:52 pm #

      Not true, Diss Content…the new Yankee Stadium has an AMAZING short porch in right field. That’s why they can hit so many dingers. But I DO agree with your evaluation. Well said.

  11. April 24, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

    It goes without saying that the quantity of brewers in a particular state is absolutely irrelevant. The “10best editors” are idiots (Charles Barkley accent implied for effect). Passion and culture can’t be measured with that kind of simplistic data. I’d argue that it would be challenging to measure craft beer culture by virtually any objective data. I guess the number of craft breweries would be a s factor but not one which I’d give a whole lot of weight to. Your idea of calculating breweries per capita is maybe a bit better but still pretty much useless on its own (sorry – I know).

    Looking at from the map’s point of view, using state borders is, in and of itself, irrelevant. The whole idea of that list is stupid (recalling Barclay).

    Cheers!

  12. Craig
    April 24, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

    I doubt even Beer Advocate and Rate Beer data would be meaningful. There are many ratings that seem inflated because it’s rare – the “I’ve had it and you haven’t” factor. Kinda like how I rate Moby Dick a little higher simply because I waded through the whole thing. And if you scan the top 100 lists on either site, you’ll see almost nothing under 6.5% abv or 60 IBU, which pretty much eliminates any lager/German-style breweries. The ratings definitely seem to be skewed toward the hopheads and beer geeks (or snobs).

    Using GABF medals is also hard to judge since only a fraction of the total breweries participate, and I would imagine that fraction gets smaller the further you get from Denver. It’s not cheap to participate in GABF, and there is little return, particularly for breweries with small distribution areas.

    There was a greater point to all this, but I somehow lost it. Anyway….whichever way you mesaure it, it would be hard not to make CA, OR, and CO the top three. Their quantity tell you they have a population that supports good beer; their medals and ratings/reputation tell you they have great brewers who please the beer geeks; and they all have made contributions that have changed the direction of the industry.

    • April 24, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

      The data would still be anecdotal, but is much better than looking at # breweries per state or average breweries to population. I agree that many of the beers are over/under rated based on pure emotional disposition (rare beer = yummy because it’s rare, macro = suck because it’s cool to bash macros). Still, it’d be an interesting study to report on – what social media thinks are the best breweries or best states for beer. A full-blown BJCP-style audit of beers (unless I’m mistaken) either doesn’t exist or would be incredibly difficult to piece together to form a complete and accurate picture. Perhaps if the ABA gave certified judges a place to log “official” reviews using their scoring criteria, then over time there’d be something meaningful to mine data from.

      • Matt
        April 25, 2013 at 11:41 am #

        Parameters would definitely have to be set carefully (e.g., to get at Craig’s point of style preferences — stouts of all sorts get inordinately high rankings if you ask me) but it seems like factoring in points for style as well as collective consumer preference. This would also make it fun in tracking preference trends. Things like GABF medals could also factor into points.

        There are two things critical to the scoring system: (1) that it be marginally understandable to most folks, and (2) that it be byzantine enough that no one can get a legitimate footing on how things are scored (and, thus, cannot argue with rankings).

  13. April 26, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    Has anybody considered tallying up the beer drinkers rather than the beer producers? Seems to me that if one state has a significantly larger percentage of it retail beer sales going to craft than another, then the first state is a better scene for craft beer.

    And I agree with C.P. who said “For me, craft brewing is more than beer: it’s community and scenery as well. I’d rather sip on a B+ beer while sitting on a balcony overlooking the ocean than an A+ beer while sitting on on arctic ice flow with a hungry polar bear.”

    A great deal of the quality of a good beer is the context in which it is consumed. Put me in a loud club scene and it doesn’t matter what’s on tap–I just want outta there!

    • blake
      July 3, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

      Good point, Massugu…I do believe that atmosphere and company have a lot to do with what we perceive as good or bad. If we are having a particularly good time somewhere we would associate that beer with being good. On the other hand, if your steak is overcooked and your server sucks ass then whatever beer you had that night would suffer accordingly. Points to ponder.

  14. July 4, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    Vermont? Whatever. There are 14 breweries in Bend, Oregon, population 80,000, per capita 5,714, doh!. The list should be Oregon, Colorado and Washington, 1,2,3.

  15. Delmer Fehrs
    July 4, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    Who cares? I live in Oregon and salute Bert Grant for starting all this up in Yakima.But the main point is that I’m happy to be able to get good or great beer just about anywhere in the country today!

  16. Wagz
    July 4, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    Let’s really identify the concentration by city….and Portland wins out for the World

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