Just about every beer blogger and beer magazine has published at least one article on the Best Beer Cities in America. A quick Google search even pulls up many Top-10-Beer-Cities articles from news outlets and other non-beer-focused publications. Last year, Bellingham even made it onto one such list.
Other than being highly subjective, the problem with most of these lists is that they only focus on a few qualifying factors. In order to determine a city’s greatness in the beer department, you really need to look at many contributing elements.
In no particular order, here are the qualifiers I believe a city needs in order to be considered a great beer city:
QUANTITY OF BREWERIES
When it comes to breweries, the old adage of more is better applies. Having a good number of breweries in a city provides beer enthusiasts with many options, and it also contributes to healthy competition between the breweries. Quality breweries should thrive while sub-par breweries should just fade away, keeping the bar raised.
When evaluating a city’s beer-worthiness, the production amount of each brewery is irrelevant. In fact, sometimes the smaller breweries with limited distribution networks are more charming to discover and more exciting to visit.
QUALITY OF BREWERIES
Let’s face it: Quantity is worthless without quality. When I think about how many horrible breweries I have visited over the last 20 years, I hear a little violin playing a sad song. A good beer city should have a high percentage of exceptional breweries. Period.
Here in Bellingham, we are fortunate to have so many high-quality breweries, and based on what I know about the ones in planning, I foresee this trend continuing.
BREWERIES PER CAPITA
A city’s breweries-per-capita ratio gives you a good idea of how well craft beer is woven into the community. Five breweries in a city of 5 million isn’t nearly as impressive as five breweries in a city of 5,000. Bellingham’s impressive ratio continues to improve, but it still has a way to go before reaching the unbelievably ratios in Bend or Hood River, for example.
DIVERSITY OF BEER STYLES
Not long ago, I visited a few breweries in one city (which I won’t mention), and each one of them had the same generic lineup: a pale ale, an amber ale, a brown ale, etc. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these styles, but breweries shouldn’t rest on their laurels with yawn-inducing common denominators. More than ever, breweries these days really need to innovate and find their own niches in order to keep the attention of today’s discerning beer drinkers, and they shouldn’t copy what another brewery is doing across town.
San Diego, for example, is known for its bold and aggressive, West Coast-style IPAs. But when you actually explore around the city – er, county* – you will find an incredible diversity that goes well beyond hop-forward beers. On my last visit I discovered some amazing sour ales, many barrel-aged beers, a few really well-made lagers, and I even found a true steinbier (instead of steam or flames, the wort is boiled by dropping super-heated stones into the wort, which scorches and caramelizes the malt sugars, imbuing the beer with rich flavors of toffee and caramel), which was unbelievably delicious.
A THRIVING BEER CULTURE
Cities with rich beer cultures are filled with knowledgeable beer drinkers, lots of beer-related events, and a high level of awareness about beer, in general. The average person on the street could point you to a nearby brewery or beer bar. Craft beer is omnipresent in stores, bars and restaurants, and a high percentage of it pours from taps across the city. When someone asks you if you want to grab a beer, it’s assumed that it will be a craft beer. It’s not a “beer snob” thing; it’s just the norm.