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February 5, 2015

Beer war: Vermont vs. Oregon

Beer war: Vermont vs. Oregon

It is well-known that Vermont produces some of the best beer in the universe. With no out-of-state distribution, the Waterbury-born IPA Heady Topper (by The Alchemist) has maintained its place as the top-ranked beer in the world on the popular website BeerAdvocate for quite a while now: everyone who comes to Vermont to experience Heady knows this, and yet, for all the hype, virtually no one walks away disappointed. Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Warren and Hill Farmstead in Greensboro Bend are almost equally acclaimed. In order to promote Vermont’s vibrant beer culture, local and national media sources have often cited a particular statistic, which claims that Vermont has more breweries per capita than any other state—a point of pride in the Green Mountains, and a source of tourism revenue. (If beer is the new wine, what region wouldn’t want to be the new Napa Valley?)

This statistic seems to make perfect sense. Vermont has very few people; it clearly has a lot of microbreweries. The only problem is that Oregon has been making the exact same claim that Vermont has. Obviously, we need to figure this out once and for all.

Our national Brewers Association ranks Oregon first in breweries per capita and Vermont second—their methodology, unlike most others, restricts its unstated, unsourced population figures to adults aged 21 or older, but there’s not a big enough discrepancy between these two states’ adult-to-child ratios for this to matter (I looked at the numbers), so we’ll set it aside. The study does, however, state up front the other figure that produced the statistic—i.e., the total number of breweries in each state: 181 for Oregon, 29 for Vermont.

In truth, with the craft beer boom still surging, keeping track of the number of breweries in all 50 states would be a full-time job—which I doubt the Brewers Association employs anyone to do. For a more accurate, up-to-date count, we had better look to locally sourced data. BeerAdvocate—whose rabid, nationwide user-base will typically register anything that resembles a brewery within moments of its opening—contains probably the most liberal count for each state: 188 for Oregon, 46 for Vermont.

We can surely deduct a few from each of these totals. Oregon’s list, for example, makes room for Deschutes three times—once for its brewing facility, once for its tap house in Bend, once more for its tap house in Portland—and also accounts for the corporate-chain brewpub Rock Bottom, headquartered in Tennessee with a single Oregon restaurant. Vermont’s list erroneously includes Wilmington’s Maple View Tavern, which still exists but no longer brews; the Just Beer Project, a Boston Beer Company subsidiary whose offices are in Burlington but whose beer comes from Pennsylvania and Ohio; Grassroots Brewing, a Hill Farmstead side project; and Killington’s own Roaring Brook Brewing, whose recent, admired debut (the Arctic IPA) was contract-brewed at Morrisville’s Rock Art Brewery, which has its own listing.

Oregoncraftbeer.org, the website of the Oregon Brewers Guild, also asserts that Oregon is number one in breweries per capita and puts the total at 185, which, as the median (in a fairly small range), seems safest for us to adopt as our “official” number for the state. The Vermont Brewers Association lists 38 active, verifiable members (and one inactive member that has yet to disappear from the roll); however, according to my own research, it neglects at least four currently operating craft breweries in Vermont (three of which are quite new). These are Paine Mountain Brewing, which operates within Northfield’s Knotty Shamrock Pub; Hermit Thrush Brewery in Brattleboro; Bent Hill Brewery in Braintree; and Brewster River Pub and Brewery in Jeffersonville. That brings Vermont’s total to 42—the Brewers Association’s tally was nowhere near right.

According to the 2014 census estimate, Vermont has 626,562 residents, which means that, with 42 breweries, Vermont has 6.70 breweries per 100,000 residents. Oregon has 3,970,239 residents, which means that, with 185 breweries, it has 4.66 breweries per 100,000 residents. Frankly, it isn’t even close.

You might argue that I put more effort into unearthing “forgotten” breweries in Vermont than in Oregon, but you’ll notice that the total for Vermont is still less than BeerAdvocate’s total, which in virtually any situation is likely to be the highest count around. Besides, even if we employed BeerAdvocate’s presumably inflated total for Oregon (and kept my own more conservative total for Vermont), Vermont would still win.

There are, to be fair, a few Vermont breweries that I might disqualify from my count on Oregon’s sad, pleading behalf—Magic Hat, which brews in South Burlington but is owned by a Costa Rican company; Harpoon, which brews both in Windsor and in Boston; Backacre Beermakers, which ferments wort on site but does not produce it; and Long Trail, which in 2006 was “acquired by a Massachusetts-based private equity firm” but continues to brew in Bridgewater Corners (this exclusion would strike me as especially unjust). Yet, even with these subtractions, Vermont wins handily over Oregon.

The question as to which state produces better beer is, of course, less clear-cut. Certainly Vermont doesn’t have a mega-microbrewery on the level of Deschutes, which, even as the sixth-largest craft brewing company in the nation, sustains an evident commitment to quality. And Cascade Brewing makes perhaps the country’s best sours in Portland, a city whose countless neighborhood brewpubs I’ve enjoyed on two separate visits.

I’d still vote for Vermont on quality, but you can make up your own mind.

By Brett Yates

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