Too Many Beers

Over the past week, I've been working my way through a review copy of Andy Crouch's new book, Great American Craft Beer. The goal of the book is to offer a survey of American craft beer and includes a long section of beer descriptions organized by categories--I'll explain it more when I do a review. As I always do with these things, I ran a quick reliability test: under Double IPAs, Pliny the Elder; Black Butte with the porters; Ommegang Hennepin among the saisons; and Cascade in the American Wild Ales (the Cuvee, though, as dark horse selection). It all checks out. I have no reason to doubt that Andy's done a fine job selecting these beers and that, among all the style categories, one couldn't quibble with more than a tiny fraction.

Then I checked the index to see which Oregon breweries made the list (10) and noticed that the beers of Andy's New England home region seem to be over-represented. Six Connecticut breweries get a mention, but just three from Washington state. In all, Crouch highlights thirty-four New England breweries. Is this a case of bias, or is there another explanation?

Let me make the case for "other explanation." Consider these numbers. As of the end of July, there were 1600 American craft breweries. If we do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, assuming an average of ten beers per brewery, that would mean these breweries produced 16,000 beers in the past year. (With seasonals, one-offs, and special releases, the average is probably substantially higher.) Even in a state like Massachusetts, with a modest number of breweries (38), that's hundreds of beers to keep track of. By these numbers, the West Coast alone produces 5000 different beers--half that in the Northwest.

When you begin sorting beers by style, you have a staggering list to wade through. Any writer limiting herself to six American beers per style is necessarily going to leave out--what, sixty?--good beers. Thanks to the internet, we share a psychic national space. Brewing, however, remains almost exclusively a local or, at best, regional phenomenon. I always have this wish that I could climb the craft brewing mountaintop and survey the entire landscape, comparing all the country's breweries. It's a fool's errand, though. Hell, until last week, I hadn't even tried the beers of our new crop of nanobreweries here in Portland. It's frustrating, but also true: no one person can ever fully wrap his head around the variety of beers brewed in the United States. There are just too many of them.