The great state of Vermont tops the list of U.S. state breweries per capita based on the Brewers Association’s count of operating breweries and the 2008 population estimates found at www.census.gov. The fortunate citizens of Vermont have a brewery for every 32,698 people. There are 19 breweries and 621,270 citizens in Vermont. Additionally, every Vermont brewery is a craft brewery according the Brewers Association’s craft brewer definition, from small start-up microbrewery Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Warren to the revered Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington to regional craft brewer Magic Hat Brewing Co. and Performing Arts Center also in Burlington. The top 5 states in breweries per capita are rounded out by Montana, Oregon, Maine and Colorado.
Well, at least we’re in the top five. But what does this mean for the consumer, anyway? Is this really Beervana?
It certainly seemed to be when I first arrived here. Locally brewed ales were available at every pub I went to. And they were so cheap! $2.50 wouldn’t buy a pint of Bud Light in DC, much less a quality craft brew. Portland seemed like heaven.
But as time went on, the initial euphoria wore off and all the beers started to run together in my memory. They were good, but often failed to stand out from one another.
And that’s when I started getting nostalgic about the DC beer scene. The beer selection at an average DC bar is terrible, the prices are too high, and there are no good local brewers that I’m aware of. But the bars that try a little harder offer some of the best beers from throughout the Eastern US. Dogfish Head in Delaware, Brooklyn in New York, Allagash in Maine, and Bell’s in Michigan stand out particularly as innovative, relatively large craft brewers who make consistently good beer in a wide variety of styles, and they’re all distributed fairly well within the city.
On top of this DC went though a welcome Belgian invasion over the past few years. Newcomers Birreria Paradiso, Brasserie Beck, Granville Moore’s, and Rustico in Alexandria are amazing, offering a wide array of imports and some of the best American craft brews (Marvin too, apparently, though I haven’t been there). DC has become a fantastic city for beer drinkers despite having very little beer culture of its own.
To some extent, I think DC’s poverty of local brewers has been an advantage, freeing local bars to open their taps to the best brewers they can find, no matter where they come from. In this respect it is a surprisingly good beer city and I often miss its best destinations and my favorite eastern brews. (A similar dynamic is at work in New York City’s coffee scene, which in just a few years has gone from dismal to one of the best in the country. In addition to there being a few local players, NYC consumers benefit from competition among Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture to get into the top cafes.)
Oregonians, in contrast, take pride in drinking locally. And while there are many great local brews, my outsider’s impression is that this allows some good but unremarkable beers to skate by. There are benefits from showing tough love and a willingness to abandon the home team that don’t show up in a measure of breweries per capita.
None of which is to say that this isn’t an incredible city for beer drinkers. It’s certainly better than the District; even the place I get my haircut in Portland offers better beer than what’s found in many DC bars. There are more Oregon beers to try than I could possibly handle (though it’s fun to attempt it). So while at the margin I’d like to see a little less local dominance of the taps here, I’m more interested in finding out what I should sample next. Ninkasi and Caldera are especially good breweries that I’d never encountered before moving here, and Belmont Station’s unbelievable retail selection takes care of a lot of hard to find bottles. What else am I missing? What are the Oregon beers I should seek out immediately?