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.
A city’s beer culture is sometimes difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it. Portland, Oregon has it. Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins have it. Seattle has it. Plus many other cities – both big and small – across the country have it.
SUPPORT FROM LOCALS & LOCAL BUSINESSES
We all know of some non-progressive cities and states that are slow to accept change and are lagging when it comes to craft beer. Hypothetically speaking, if you took a successful craft brewery and plopped it into one of these cities (and then limited its distribution to local only), it might not stay in business very long. Just because a brewery makes great beer doesn’t mean it will sell well on a local level. Local palates have to be adapted to it, and there must be enough of them willing to drink it.
Peripheral businesses and organizations also are critical in a brewery’s success. A healthy homebrew community seeds future brewers. Brewers Guilds provide support and a collective voice. Local and state governments need to legislate in support of small and independent breweries. And within this ecosystem, distributors and retailers play key roles as well, as they help small breweries sell their product and grow, plus they can provide beer drinkers with wide selections of beer from breweries both near and far.
Of course, there are many other mutually beneficial partnerships with other businesses and organizations, such as restaurants, food trucks, malting companies, hop suppliers, farms, beer yeast producers, various charities and much more. When all these different entities cohesively work together, the synergy only adds depth to a city’s beer culture.
GREAT BEER BARS & RESTAURANTS
It’s not all about the breweries. Lockstep with the growing number of breweries across the country, great beer cities also have great beer bars and restaurants that feature impressive tap lists and/or bottle lists. In some of the most beer-forward cities, chefs are becoming experts at pairing beer with food, and they’re also highlighting beer as an ingredient in food.
BEER EVENTS & BEER COMPETITIONS
Good beer cities have one or two beer-related events each year. Great beer cities have dozens of events throughout the year. And the greatest beer cities showcase a wide variety of events throughout the year, including beer festivals, beer dinners, beer competitions, charity fundraisers and more.
Bellingham has a slew of beer festivals, including April Brews Day, Brewers by the Bay, Yes, We CAN! Canned Craft Beer Festival, Best of the Bay Homebrew Competition, Bellingham Beer Week, a host of beer dinners by local breweries and restaurants, and much more.
Great beer cities have good public transit systems and they are biker and pedestrian friendly. Being able to easily get around a city has little to do with beer, but when you’re visiting a city for its beer, it’s everything because drinking and driving is never a good idea.
Some cities have businesses that help in this department, such as beer tours with vans or multi-person pedal bikes. Speaking of which, you can now book a seat (or the whole bike) on Pedal Party NW in Bellingham.
Of course, the Bellingham Tap Trail can help you navigate to all the beer destinations in Bellingham.
*THE SAN DIEGO SITUATION
Many top-10-beer-cities lists include San Diego. I’m fine with this, as this city is more than worthy, and it is home to many exceptional breweries. But when people make the argument that San Diego is the best beer city in America, they often exaggerate the boundaries of the city.
When people refer to San Diego, they’re almost always referring to San Diego County. Some of the most popular “San Diego” breweries are not even in the city of San Diego. Stone’s original brewery (Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens) is actually in Escondido, which is more than 30 miles north of San Diego. Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey are in San Marcos. The beloved Pizza Ports are in a slew of coastal towns outside of San Diego (Carlsbad, Ocean Beach, Solana Beach and San Clemente). And Alpine Beer Company, which is often mentioned as a “San Diego” brewery, is about 45 minutes east of San Diego.
Another important thing to note is that San Diego County is a whopping 4,500 square miles, and San Diego itself isn’t too shabby with 372 square miles. By comparison, Seattle is just 84 square miles (142 square miles if you count the water areas), and Portland, OR, is only 145 square miles.
I don’t mean to pick on San Diego; I just wanted to point out the importance of comparing apples to apples when arguing the beery merits of one city over another.
ALL IN GOOD FUN
One thing is for certain: The fact that we’re even having good-natured debates about which cities are the best beer cities speaks volumes about how far the craft beer movement has come over the last few decades.
Regardless of the city you’re in, it’s good to be a beer lover in America these days. And with all that’s going on locally, not to mention in Vancouver just to our north and Seattle just to our south, it’s even greater to be a beer lover in Bellingham.