Schrödinger’s Brewery: How Do We Count These Damn Things?

The magazine I used to write for, All About Beer, officially died when owner Christopher Rice filed for bankruptcy last month. To preserve some of the content I've contributed over the years, I'm reposting some of my favorite pieces here. This article was published on the website on January 7, 2016, and has been updated with current examples.

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 twenty or so breweries, now claims over a hundred . Portland only has 77, 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 117 breweries. But that opens the door to San Diego, which declares a staggering 130 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 once operated their big brewery on Russell St, a test brewery across the street, and another test brewery in the Rose Quarter. In this scenario, Widmer should therefore be counted as one, two, or three breweries?

  • Scenario 3: At one time Culmination and Ruse had an alternating proprietership, sharing a brewery facility and space. Speaking of which, how do you relate to contract breweries? How about vagabond brewers?

  • Scenario 4: Breakside Brewery opened a brewpub in Northeast Portland and then expanded by opening a production facility in the neighboring suburb of Milwaukie. One or two breweries? If you say one, how do you feel about the city of Milwaukie also counting Breakside for the purposes of their tally? Given that most Breakside beer is brewed there, that would seem eminently reasonable, but…

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 rules become contradictory. Facilities and brewhouses and brands all begin to coagulate in a confounding gel. 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. Sometimes a brewery is just not a brewery. But then again, sometimes it is.

Jeff Alworth2 Comments