Schrödinger’s Brewery, or The Existential Difficulties of Counting Breweries
Earlier this week, blogger Ron Pattinson posted a table containing brewery counts of the different countries of Europe. Almost immediately, commenters rang in to report errors. It’s not that the source was bad, either—he got it from the Brewers of Europe, a trade organization sort of akin to our Brewers Association and the best source for these figures.
Cities also boast about the number of breweries they contain, like my hometown of Portland, Oregon, which claims to have the most breweries in the world. But then London, which as recently as five years ago had a dozen breweries, now claims 74. Portland only has 58, though, so which city is actually the most-breweried? Perhaps the issue can be resolved with a bit of fudging—Portland’s metro area has 84 breweries. But that opens the door to San Diego, which declares a staggering 117 in the admittedly enormous region it calls home.
If you’re like me, you suspect there’s an actual number of breweries in these locations, one that is knowable and countable, and if everyone adhered to the same rules, we could tot them up officially. We know quarks exist, for god’s sake; surely the number of breweries in London, England can’t be beyond our ken.
It kind of is. Here we drop into something like a quantum state, where arithmetic may no longer suffice. There exist what we might call Schrödinger breweries, entities that can simultaneously be said to exist and not. I’ll describe the difficulty by way of example. Let’s go back to my hometown of Portland; I’ll give you four scenarios and you tell me how to count these numbers.
- Scenario 1: The Lucky Labrador Brewing Co. started with a brewpub in Southeast Portland and then opened a pub (sans brewery) on the West Side, then opened another brewpub (avec brewery) in Northwest, and finally a pub in North Portland. Is the Lucky Lab one, two, or four breweries?
- Scenario 2: The Widmer Brothers have not only Portland’s largest brewery, but a little test brewery in the Rose Quarter (where the Trail Blazers play) for small-batch beers and recently completed another small brewery at the site of the big brewery. One, two, or three breweries?
- Scenario 3: The Commons Brewery recently relocated to a new site a few blocks from its old site so it could install a larger brewery. But it also decided to bring along its old brewery, which it now uses in the same building as the bigger brewery. One or two breweries?
- Scenario 4: Breakside Brewery opened a brewpub in Northeast Portland and then expanded by opening a production facility in the neighboring suburb south of Portland. One or two breweries?
You can set up rules to govern the way you score these things, like saying only separate, functioning breweries count, not pub outposts. The problem is that you soon run into a situation where you’d have to say the Commons is two breweries, which basically no one would say passes the smell test—but then no matter what you decide there, you will confound the counting of the number of Widmer Brothers breweries. Finally, there’s the matter of the McMenamins, a chain of breweries and brewpubs that sprawl over the city. At last count, there were 36 pubs and nine-ish breweries. Why nine-ish? Because some of them are not in Portland proper—but wait!, some of those breweries exist to supply beer to the Portland pubs.
The trouble is that the semantic and existential criteria don’t line up. We’d love to use a version of Judge Potter Stewart’s famous prescription (“I know it when I see it”) to make these calculations, but I’m afraid there’s always going to be a level of ambiguity. For example, by my count there are 64 breweries in Portland, not 58 nor 84. Sometimes a brewery is just not a brewery. But then again, sometimes it is.