How Charlie Should Really Designate Beer City USA

As John Foyston observes, Asheville did one thing right in winning--outright, I certainly hope--it's second BeerCity USA online poll: it excited the netizens.

I expected this year's competition to die the painful death of embarrassment--after last year's debacle, surely the craft beer world would have seen the absurdity of the exercise. (In the '09 edition, Portland rallied in the final moments, but host Charlie Papazian wouldn't offer the Rose City sole possession of the title; like a kindergarten teacher, he allowed Asheville to share the win.) Charlie Papazian is a giant in the beer world, and I celebrate his contributions with gusto. But holding an online poll to identify an annual "BeerCity" is not among his greatest achievements. He held the poll open for two months last year, and a paltry 15,000 people voted. A city like Chicago could sneeze and produce more than 15,000 votes. Obviously, this ain't a big deal among good-beer folks.

And therein lies the rub: it could be. Charlie has done a great job of promoting craft beer in the US, with impressive promotions like the just-completed Craft Beer Week. It creates a focal point for breweries to host events and raise awareness about craft brewing. In other words, during Craft Beer Week, the rest of the country does it's best Beervana impression. That's good.

However, one of the biggest functional barriers to the psychic growth of craft brewing is that it remains a mostly local phenomenon. For cities where there isn't a lot of brewing activity, Craft Beer Week doesn't provide an opportunity for much juice. So instead, Charlie should designate a different city BeerCity USA every year. Then, in the months leading up to Craft Beer Week, that city would be the object of a lot of national attention. The designee, working in conjunction with the Brewers Association and other breweries nationwide, could create a slate of events that really showcased craft beer. The local papers would get behind it, the mayor could make a show of it, and so on.

Such a system would have the side benefit of showcasing that city to the rest of the country. I know Philly's a great beer city, but I don't really know why. If it were BeerCity USA (or better yet, Beer City), I'd hear a lot about it in the weeks leading up to Craft Beer week. Every town has its idiosyncrasies, and this would allow us to learn them. Over time, we'd have a far better sense of the country's local scenes.

Despite how silly I think the current poll is, the virtue is obvious: Asheville, a city on exactly no one's radar 18 months ago, is now known to have a hardcore fan base for its nine breweries--a critical threshold for a strong beer culture. Going forward, I'd like there to be a new Asheville every year. And I'd really like to see the poll die.