Here in Washington we enjoy a vibrant beer culture. We have over 100 breweries making some of the world’s finest craft beer and we have hordes of people who love to drink it. This is not a secret. Our affection for craft beer has not gone unnoticed and apparently the word has gotten out that our craft beer market is not only large, but it is easy to infiltrate as well. Breweries from around the nation seem to be lined up at the border waiting to beset upon us a torrent of beery goodness.
An astounding number of out-of-state breweries entered the Washington market last year alone. Firestone Walker, Russian River, Southern Tier, 21st Amendment, Double Mountain and a number of others appeared on the local beer scene in 2009. Some other relative newcomers, like Victory and Ninkasi, have become rather ubiquitous around Seattle over the last couple of years. By all indications, the trend will continue in 2010.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that it is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m just pointing out that it is happening.
In the USA, craft beer sales account for 4% of all beer sales (according to the Brewers Association). In Washington, we greatly exceed that number. It’s purely anecdotal, and I have not been able to find anything official, but I hear local brewers, distributors and sales guys throwing around numbers like 15% and 18% as if they know it to be a fact. Whatever the case, we consume a lot of craft beer compared to the national average.
I’ve talked to a number of people in the Washington beer industry about the increasing number of out-of-state breweries entering the local market. Their opinions are all over the map. Some industry insiders think that out-of-state breweries contribute to the overall richness of the beer landscape. It seems to be a “beer begets beer” attitude. How can more craft beer, local or not, be a bad thing? As more craft handles replace the “big boys” down at the strip-mall sports bar, a local brewer’s chance of getting one of those handles increases. They argue that increasing the overall presence of craft beer helps everyone.
As a craft beer drinker it is hard to disagree. More beer is better. I must admit, my personal beer drinking life is much richer because of Russian River’s Pliny the Elder and 21st Amendment’s Monk’s Blood.
I’ve talked to other people in the Washington beer industry who are not so welcoming. They feel that the influx of out-of-state breweries threatens to take handles away from our local brewers. They feel that our local industry is under attack and that out-of-state breweries are taking advantage of a vibrant craft beer market that they have worked hard to build. What’s more, they feel that the playing field is not level and out-of-state breweries enjoy competitive advantages because of how the Washington State Liquor Control Board does, or does not, enforce certain laws. I know one person who will tell you, “Certain breweries get away with murder because they know that the LCB won’t bother going after them the way they would a Washington brewery.” (I am not crediting him directly, although I’m sure he’d say I should.) Because I am not in the industry, I won’t pretend to fully understand the depth and details of their position. I just know that they have it.
Whether that is all sour grapes or not, I don’t know. Regardless, there is a great deal of validity to the “drink local” argument.
As a crow flies, there are about a dozen breweries within five miles of my house. Those businesses contribute to the local economy. My neighbors work at those breweries. They shop at the stores and eat at the restaurants where my other neighbors work. And then there is the whole carbon footprint argument. While New Belgium’s brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado stands as a fantastic monument to the power of green technology, the trucks and trains they use to transport the beer from Colorado to Washington are not powered by wind.
Here is a depressing fact that many people don’t know. In Washington, Washington-brewed craft beer is not the leader in terms of sales. According to Heather McClung (President of the Washington Brewers Guild), California, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska all sell more beer in Washington than our local producers. (I admit, I’m not sure of the order.) How, you may ask, can that be? Instead of thinking of it as four states, think of it as four beers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, New Belgium Fat Tire, Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale, and Alaskan Amber. We certainly are not as provincial as Oregon, where 11% of all beer consumed is produced in Oregon, but it is sad that Washington beer is in fourth place. In itself, that is not a simple issue. Packaging and distribution, for instance, have as much to do with it as anything else.
Regardless of the merits of the drink local argument, I go back to the fact that more beer is better. I get excited when I hear that there’s going to be something new on tap down at the pub: it thrills me to finally get to sample an out-of-state beer that I’ve only read about. When I learned that I was actually going to get to drink Firestone Walker Union Jack at my local pub, I was giddy. It was stupid and a little bit embarrassing.
And then I feel guilty.
Drink local or drink at will? We all have to make our own choices. At the end of the day, you answer to no one but yourself.
Here’s how I deal with it. I drink local the vast majority of the time. If anyone asks, I’ll tell them that my favorite brewery is Elliott Bay Brewery and Pub in West Seattle. It’s the brewery closest to my house and I’m fortunate that they make such good beer. Most of the time I will elect to drink a beer that is more local than not; however, I will not deny myself the pleasure of a beer that came from out-of-state or overseas on occasion.
While that conclusion may seem to contradict my defense of the drink local argument, I did not write this article merely to convince people that they should drink local beer. This is all just food for thought. When trying to do the right thing, we constantly face decisions. Personally, I must weight my love of all beer against my love of local beer. I do the best I can to drink local, probably more than most, but I’m not perfect.
Most importantly, I never let myself forget how lucky I am to live in a place where the notion of “drink local” means that I get to drink some of the best beer in the world. Sure, the last beer I ordered in a pub was from California, but my fridge is stocked with beer from Dick’s Brewing in Centralia.
I’m always curious to hear what other people think about the idea of drinking local. How concerned about it are you?