It’s a good time to be a beer lover in North America. The United States now boasts more operating breweries than any other country in the world. North of the border, the number of breweries in Canada grew by nearly half in ten short years. Craft beer in both countries attracts growing and more sophisticated audiences.
And then there’s the Pacific Northwest. Despite the continent-wide enthusiasm for better beer, it is undeniable that there is something unique about the beer culture of the west. Oregon, Washington and British Columbia are home to many of the best and most innovative craft brewers in their respective countries. And, despite an already healthy appetite for good beer, things only seem to be getting better.
So what is it about this area that has allowed such a thriving beer culture to develop? Why can brewers in this area mash to the beat of a different drummer?
The strong beer culture of the Pacific Northwest region is, no doubt, built to a certain extent on the climate and resulting agriculture. Depending on the year, Washington state itself can grow as much as seventy-five percent of the entire U.S. hop production, with Oregon accounting for up to another seventeen percent. While the Canadian hop industry has all but disappeared, British Columbia was historically Canada’s largest hop-growing area.
Meanwhile, the cool, dry summers of the Pacific Northwest and the BC interior are also ideal for barley production. Together, they form the western edge of North America’s barley-growing heartland. In fact, Washington state ranks fourth in the nation for barley production.
Although access to good ingredients may have supported a fledgling beer scene in the early days, today’s access to easy, efficient means of shipping allow brewers everywhere to enjoy fresh, quality ingredients. So, access to ingredients makes possible but does not explain the Pacific Northwest’s beer culture.
A Thirsty Public
At the risk of propagating stereotypes, West Coasters are simply more open-minded and receptive to new ideas than those in other regions. The West Coast is where a number of trends have found their beginnings, or at least their beginnings in North America. Being early embracers of gourmet coffee, grunge music, organic foods, sushi and yoga, the West Coast is always willing to look at the world a little differently. While beer certainly isn’t a new idea, in the formative days of the craft beer movement, the idea that beer could be a flavorful, sophisticated beverage was pretty far out.
The reason for this West Coast open-mindedness is that, at least historically, the West has been isolated from the rest of the continent. Not having access to the same amenities available to others had two effects on the people of the West Coast. First, the people did what they wanted, irrespective of what might be happening elsewhere. Second, they were forced to do it themselves.
In the context of beer, this has resulted in a long history of brewing your own. Even before President Carter legalized homebrewing in 1978, those in the Pacific Northwest were making their own beer in their basements. So, the people in the region never really embraced the mass-market lagers and were more receptive to beers with different flavors when craft brewing finally found its renaissance.
The weather has also played a role. With a climate similar to that of the British Isles, with its cold and dreary winters and mild summers, the Pacific Northwest has a strong pub culture. Despite the natural beauty of the region, it’s always okay to be indoors, so this pub-bound population simply drinks more beer than other regions of the country.
But why does this thirsty population insist not only on the best beer available, but also on a wide selection?
Champions of Beer
In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell examines what causes hot trends. A good product is not sufficient. A willing market is not sufficient. Rather, a few key, influential individuals are needed to spread the word.
And so it is with craft beer. While small, craft breweries have existed for decades throughout the United States and Canada, it was a handful of charismatic, dedicated beer-loving individuals who helped anchor the trend and educate the population about beer throughout the Pacific Northwest. Gladwell refers to such people as “mavens” and “connectors.” I prefer to call them champions.
In Portland (a.k.a. “Beervana” and “Brewtopia”), beginning as early as 1888, early brewing pioneers like Henry Weinhard ensured that beer would course through the veins of local residents. In that year, Weinhard offered to pump beer through the city’s Skidmore Fountain on the day of its unveiling. While the offer was declined, Weinhard helped to lay the foundation of a beer culture upon which craft brewing champions almost a century later could build.
Champions like the Widmer brothers and the McMenamin brothers worked hard to have legislative changes enacted. In 1985, they were successful in having the Oregon Legislature allow craft brewers to sell their beers directly, either through a pub or a retailer. No longer were craft brewers in Oregon dependent on wholesalers, who had no interest in representing small brewers from whom they could earn little money; these craft brewers could finally go out and find their own market. Supporting them along the way was Fred Eckhardt, who wrote educational columns on beer for the local newspaper, The Oregonian, and to this day, still represents the face of craft beer in Oregon, if not all of the United States.
In Seattle, Charles Finkel, who founded beer importer Merchant du Vin in 1978 with a desire to bring variety to Washington beer lovers, was key to the growth of beer knowledge in the area. By importing a vast array of flavors, from Britain, Belgium and Bavaria, he helped build a market for upscale imported beer that could be backfilled by skilled, local brewers like Paul Shipman, who founded Redhook Brewery in 1981, and Bert Grant, who founded Yakima Brewing in 1982. Finkel still regularly hosts beer dinners to further the cause of good beer.
North of the border, Paul Hadfield, who opened Canada’s first brewpub in 1984, played a similar role. He lobbied long and hard to have laws changed to allow on-premise brewing, paving the way for future brewpubs and craft brewers. Meanwhile, John Rowling was the public voice of good beer. Founding an affiliate of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in 1990, he educated the public with What’s Brewing, the CAMRA newsletter, and continues to champion good beer 16 years later in local publications.
Building on the success of these early pioneers, craft breweries started cropping up in Vancouver, with early craft brewers like James Walton of Storm Brewing leading the charge. He and other local brewers formed the “Brewer’s Mafia”, a supportive group aimed at sharing ideas and bringing a level of sophistication to beer. This allowed early brewers to experiment with spontaneously-fermented “lambics” and outrageously flavoured beers, confident that they would find support within the tight-knit, though ever-growing, beer loving community. This spirit of cooperation, rather than excessive competitiveness has resulted in the city of two million people supporting 15 breweries and brewpubs.
The good news is that, like some infectious disease, the lust for craft beer is spreading. Walton himself admits that the beer culture in Seattle is more sophisticated than in his home town of Vancouver. But it was during a visit to Seattle in 1992 that Walton tasted an unfiltered wheat beer from Redhook. It was, as he describes it, a “religious conversion”. He returned to Canada determined to bring that sort of flavor-filled beer to Vancouver. That sort of conversion is now happening throughout North America. As people from around the continent visit Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria, they are inspired to either demand that their local brewers and pubs improve their offerings or to take the plunge and go into business themselves.