Making Sense of America’s Regional Tastes
Not too long ago, the English writer Mark Dredge wrote to me to look over a list of the regional variations in IPAs. It included the classics, like West Coast IPA (super hoppy and bitter, brightly citrusy), East Coast (maltier, more European hop character), Northwest IPA (hop aromas and flavors dominate), Midwest IPA (balance, soft maltiness). Did I, as an American, approve of these categories and descriptions? I wrote back to agree that, yup, that looked about right to me, though I might add Colorado IPA (tons of caramel malt balanced by pretty aggressive bitterness and not so much aroma/flavor).
The more I thought about it, though, the more this whole scheme started to seem like a crock. It may have been true 15 years ago, when a few tent pole brands drove local tastes—Brooklyn Brewery and Dogfish Head on the East Coast, Bell’s Brewery’s Two-Hearted in the Midwest, Stone Brewing Co. and Bear Republic Brewing Co. on the West Coast. But then I was reminded that Harpoon Brewery’s IPA, largely in the West Coast mode, has been around for 22 years. I started to think of Fat Head’s Brewery and Surly Brewing Co. in the Midwest, and how Stone is now experimenting with hop bursting (no bittering hops). It’s hard to defend the notion of regional IPAs when there is so much diversity.
There are two trends working against regional IPA subtypes. The first is cross-fertilization. Tastes are becoming more nationalized as the bigger, formerly regional craft breweries push out across the country, often leading with their IPAs. Brewers hang out with each other, do collaborations, and share ideas and methods. Once, regions were isolated from the rest of the country and acted as incubators for local trends. That’s no longer true.
The second is the speed of evolution. If you look closely at the so-called regional subtypes, you might mistake them for transitional subtypes. The first IPAs were inspired by the romance of old English versions. Then they evolved into more American beers with a greater emphasis on local hops and barley varieties. As people clamored for flavor, they became extreme beers with lacerating bitterness. Finally, breweries became adept at infusing them with flavors and aromas. Those correspond pretty closely to the supposedly regional subtypes (East Coast, Midwest, California and Northwest). Styles change and evolve. What looks like regional subtypes may just be snapshots in time.
But maybe IPAs aren’t the best measure of regionalism. Last week I wrote that dark ales are dying out, and a bunch of people—mostly on the East Coast—told me I was crazy. Chip Jones at Lucky Town Brewing wrote in to say that a mild had become one of his best-selling beers. “If you’ve never experienced a Mississippi summer, it’s hot and humid here.” It’s the kind of place a 3.8% beer can sell. (Of course, Lucky Town also makes an IPA.) For all the love and attention breweries like Three Floyds, Bell’s, and Boulevard get for their specialty beers, they sell a ton of light wheat ales.
Deciding to tackle this issue from another angle, I wondered if breweries with large distribution see their brands selling in different patterns. Does Sierra Nevada sell a ton of, say, Kellerweis in some regions but not others? Maybe there’s a city where 1554 outsells New Belgium’s Fat Tire. I don’t have access to incredibly fine-grained numbers on all the country’s cities, so if Kellerweis or 1554 are dominating the Akron market, it’s lost to me. But in general, it appears that a brewery’s more popular brands sell well everywhere.
I spoke to Deschutes Brewery’s Gary Fish, and he confirmed that that was true of Bend’s finest, too. “I’ve asked some of our people if they see any, more empirical, indications of regional preference. However, in my experience (and opinion), there is no difference. People are people.” Dennis Kamper, Deschutes’ National Accounts Director, said his study of the numbers suggested that there might be local variations—wheat beers in the Midwest, bocks in Texas—but this was due to a different type of regionalism: the power of local breweries. Ah! Now we may be onto something.
Kamper’s best example of this kind of regionalism is the Lone Star state. “Bocks are most prevalent in Texas due to Shiner, but you can barely find the style outside the state.” It’s true; if you look at the best-selling beers in the Texas markets, you find several Shiner brands, something you don’t see anywhere else. Look at what’s selling in San Francisco, and you see names like Anchor, Lagunitas, and Bear Republic pop up. They drink Goose Island in Chicago and Great Lakes in Cleveland and Stone in San Diego.
So, if we think there’s a style effect going on, it’s more likely a brewery effect. They don’t drink a lot of Dortmund export in Cleveland because of some exotic local preference (I’d find it mighty surprising to see the Dortmunder style pop up anywhere else)—but because the favorite local brewery, Great Lakes Brewing Co., makes a great version of that beer. Here in Portland, one of the U.S. cities most famous for hops, our best-selling craft beer is a wheat ale. But that’s not because Portland is a wheat ale town (they’re pretty rare), but because Widmer’s flagship is Hefeweizen, and Widmer’s our hometown brewery.
What’s interesting is that the trend seems to be headed toward more localism. Mature markets like Portland and Seattle are dominated by local brands. Places that haven’t developed a strong local player, like cities in the South, have less of this local effect—there the national brands like New Belgium, Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams are most popular. But when the local scene starts to heat up, then local breweries starting to elbow national brands aside. Chicago’s a great example. Until fairly recently it was a one-horse town (or more properly, a one-Goose town), but now breweries like Revolution and Small Town have made inroads, and most interestingly, Lagunitas—which located a second brewery in the Windy City—is now one of Chicago’s best-selling breweries.
So no, there probably isn’t much merit to the idea that IPAs conform to regional subtypes, nor that certain parts of the country like different types of beer. What is true is that people are gravitating to local beer. So, as you travel around the country, that zingy American IPA you’re enjoying is likely to be made in the city you’re drinking it.