Beer and Blue Collar Cities

Portland shipyards during WWII.

Some cities have a greater affinity for beer than others--you only have to compare (either) Portland and Houston to see that. I've been digging through my Carl Abbott collection the last few days to understand the city of Portland in the 1970s and 80s for my Widmer project. (Abbott is a professor at Portland State who has written more about Portland than anyone around and was the moving force behind establishing the university's vaunted urban studies department.) In 1983, he wrote a wonderful history of the city, and I was struck by this passage:

River cities are usually working cities, and Portland is a city built around a working river. A lake port like Chicago can beautify its waterfront with beaches and boulevards and hide freighters and barges behind its back alleys... Portland’s front door still opens on to the lower twenty miles of the Willamette River that gave it birth. Its open acknowledgement of the world of hard work and heavy loads separates Portland from other western cities just as surely as its misty climate and dark green hills. Its first cousins are not glamour cities such as San Francisco or Denver. They are other solid and sober river cities of middle America, from Pittsburgh to St. Louis.
— Carl Abbott, "Portland," (1983)

When you start thinking about the American cities that were famous for beer, they were mostly working cities. The industrial cities of the Midwest leap to mind first--Abbott mentioned St. Louis and Pittsburgh, both brewing cities, but add Detroit, Milwaukie, and Cincinnati. But in early generations, New York and San Francisco had amazing brewing scenes at one time, back when they were also grubbier working towns.

When Abbot was publishing his book, one Portlander had already tried and failed to launch a brewery, and two others were in the planning stages. The world now knows Portland as a town feted for its culinary scene and uber-craftiness (beer, wine, coffee, spirits, chocolate, etc.), but it remained that blue-collar, flannel-wearing city up through the end of the century--or precisely the time it was still that working town.

Abbott calls Denver a "glamour city" (not what I would call it), and it went on to be one of the three or six beeriest early cities. But look at the others, like Portland, Maine, Philadelphia and San Diego; they're pretty blue collar. Eventually bigger, more glamorous cities finally caught up, but for decades San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Boston were just crap for local beer.

Craft beer has had to fend off charges that it was a gentrified art for literally decades. I remember the "yuppie" charges being leveled at it in the 1980s and 90s. The slur has evolved; it's now "hipster," but the criticism is the same. And yet, when you look at the places where beer is popular and see who's drinking it, that class association doesn't really hold up. Beer has been a working-class drink forever. You can still spend ten bucks a glass in some pubs in some cities; but in others pints go for half that (or less) and draw a far less hipster clientele.

This may be something to think about as we consider the trajectory of the beer market. There is a lot of money in wax-dipped bottles selling for 75 cents an ounce, but that has never been the heart of the market, and it probably never will be.