How Great Beer Towns Get That Way

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How do great beer towns get that way?

I thought a lot about all this when I was in Portland, Oregon a couple of weeks ago. Each time I visit, it seems like every pub, brewery, bar, and restaurant in the town is busy, if not downright packed in the evenings. On the one sunny day during this last trip, the beer garden at Apex was already seeing action when we arrived around 5:00. When I stopped by The Commons around 1:30 one afternoon, most of the tables were occupied. And when I finally made it to Ex Novo for the first time, with fellow beer blogger Natasha Godard (http://www.metacookbook.com/), once again, plenty of customers at 5:30 and crowds when we left several hours later.

At Ex Novo with Natasha Godard

At Ex Novo with Natasha Godard

Portland grocery stores, some with growler fill stations, allot copious amounts of precious shelf space to beer. Even among the famous Portland food carts you find some dedicated to local beers. The cute little Cheese and Crack Snack Shop we stopped at had a nice beer menu in addition to the traditional wine list you expect at such a place. And you know you’re in a real beer town when even Target uses Coronas in their summer clothing display.

Target summer display

But how did Portland get this way? Let’s take a look at some of America’s beer history.

Schlitz signThe first thing great beer cities anywhere in the world have always needed is great beer. Then, brewery folks have to connect with potential retailers and customers and educate them about why the public should buy their beers. By 1900, beer drinkers all over America were making wealthy men out of immigrants with surnames like Busch and Schlitz and Coors. Everybody knew Germans made the best lagers. They were brewing day and night and employing thousands in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Golden, Philadelphia, New York—until 1920.

When the Amendment 21 repealed Prohibition in 1933, many of the old breweries were in disrepair. Most owners and employees had moved on or died. Americans under the age of 34 had never had a legal drink on U.S. soil. And just because alcohol was now legal didn’t make it socially acceptable in the eyes of many Americans, especially after 13 years of hillbillies and mafia types pedaling all sorts of questionable booze. What beer culture remained was left in tatters.

Over the next half century, survival of the fittest and consolidation were the name of the game. A year after Prohibition ended, the country had 756 breweries. By 1983, it had 80. Light lagers and Big Beer ruled. The great beer towns were mostly about their history of brewing. And then a funny thing happened.

In the eighties, the craft beer movement, which had actually been stirring for a few years, quietly picked up steam. Many of the cities that would rate great-beer-town status in 2016, got their first microbreweries during that decade: Boston with the eponymous Boston Beer (1984), New York with Brooklyn Brewery (1987), Wynkoop in Denver (1988), Deschutes in Bend (1988) and Karl Strauss in San Diego (1989).

Small and localFast forward 30 years and a whole craft beer culture has come into existence. Never mind that people in the industry can’t even agree on a definition of craft beer. Words like “small” and “local” get used a lot. Whether we’re talking about craft beer, organic jelly or handmade soap, who doesn’t like small and local these days? That, of course, leads to jobs, local pride, T-shirts and bumper stickers.

Today’s Americans are arguably better educated than our parents, which has led us to more disposable income that a lot of us are willing to spend on quality. We’ve gained sophistication and constantly want new experiences. A microbrewery with half a dozen beers in 1989 was exciting. Today, we expect at least 20 rotating taps, seasonal brews, ales and lagers, sours and barleywines, etc, etc. Consumers and innovative brewers alike keep pushing expectations higher—and not just for the beer.

Beer dinners and tastings keep evolving—and their prices rise accordingly. We want more beer and more than beer at festivals, which keep growing in size and number. We flood destination breweries, some with gourmet restaurants and beautiful gardens. When larger craft breweries announce they’re considering sites for a second facility elsewhere in the country, city councils and citizens fall all over themselves to attract them, and banks follow.

In short, craft beer and great beer towns have never been cooler. Portland and San Diego, stay cool, but keep an eye on cities like Austin and Asheville because they’re hot on your tail!

At Cheese and Crack with Erica Patino and James Abney

At Cheese and Crack with Erica Patino and James Abney

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