Thursday, March 27, 2008

Beeronomics: Local Tastes

The three readers of my blog will know that I enjoy both beer and the beer business. So when I travel, I always try and learn about local beers. A few months ago it was Abita in New Orleans, this month I am in Nashville Tennessee. Upon perusing the beer cooler in the local Harris Teeter I found (and was very tempted by) some Oregon brews: Bridgeport IPA and ESB, Rogue Dead Guy and Hazelnut Brown Ale and Widmer Hef. The only Nashville beer I could find was Yazoo. I had the choice of a pale, a hef and something called "Mexican Style Ale." I chose the pale.

This beer reminded me a lot of Abita products: mild and nondescript - very timid by Oregon standards. Being early in the microbrew revolution and having a competitive environment for brewers I think palates in Oregon evolved quickly and were also pushed by brewers experimenting with bigger and bigger beers as a way to get noticed. What we have arrived at in Oregon then are very intense, hop-forward beers as a signature style. I notice how far we have departed from the rest of the US and the South in particular when I taste a beer like Yazoo Pale. It has almost no hop aroma, pours a very light caramel and has very little flavor. Yuck.

To an economist, having such distinct regional styles makes sense when you think about the challenges of transportation and distribution. Tastes have not homogenized (and thank goodness for that). But you can buy Yazoo, Sierra Nevada, Bridgeport, etc. all for the same price, so this theory seems perhaps a little suspect. With all of these choices, why have tastes not started to converge? I think one reason is that a big part of the success of microbreweries comes from consumers who like to identify with their own regional breweries. I witnessed this as a graduate student when some friends of mine started the Ithaca Beer Company. The initial beer was pretty terrible (and contract brewed in Chicago), but local sales were very strong. People really bought into the 'local beer' idea, it was clearly part of their satisfaction form consuming the beer.

As more breweries start up in places like New Orleans and Nashville, it will be interesting to see if brewers get more bold in their recipes and if the west coast style will end up being more common in the south, or will it be a different distinct regional style? But for now a distinct style is completely absent. I think next time I am in Nashville, I'll buy the Bridgeport.

Tonight it is off to Boscos, a local brewpub which I have enjoyed on past visits, let's see if they are pushing the style envelope.

Update: I haven't gone yet, but this is seriously cool: I am a big fan of cask conditioned ales so I looked up what is on cask tonight and I found out that for four week-nights running they are serving the same IPA but with different yeast styles. Yeast is perhaps the most important ingredient in beer and is usually unappreciated by the consumer. This is a great way to show consumers what yeast adds to a beer's character. Kudos Boscos! Does anyone know if Portland brewpubs have done this?

Update #2: Boscos cask IPA was very good, lighter on the hops than would be acceptable in a Portland brewpub, but well-balanced and enjoyable. I wanted another, but forced myself to try something different and then I passed up the Oatmeal Stout for the "Irish Red." Oops. Why would you want to make a copy of Killians in a brewpub? Anyway, when at Boscos, try the IPA.


Dann Cutter said...

I am curious. When in New Orleans, did you make the trek across the lake up to the Abita brewery, or did you sample the in town fare? It's worth the trip north if you can.

Not being from the NOLA area, but spending some time pre-Katrina, I found that there was a considerable depth to the Abita brand. However, in some ways, Abita has moved farther down the market evolution than Oregon brewers. What I mean by this is that the market in LA doesn't lend itself to the heavy Hopsy beer we find in the cooler NW but the more American lighter fare (which pales in extreme tastes, but can contain unique and subtle intricacies we lose by having such bold beers).

In LA, many of the strong flavors we see popular in the PNW have gone by the wayside years back as the market has driven the taste to the lighter, even for similarly named styles. I think we have yet to see this happen in the PNW, as we seem focused instead on exploring all the potentials regardless of market conditions; nor am I sure that the climate will bring the same resulting choice in regional preference (an anecdotal observation to be sure). As well, our local connection to specific resources (hops) tends to defer the financial burden of such exploration.

I do think the Hops shortage may have some culling effect on this finally, as some of the smaller micros will finally have to make a market call on their production given a limited ingredient supply.

However, given your question regarding regional convergence, I think we do see a regional style highly defined in the south, just one far afield of what we get day to day in the PNW.

Patrick Emerson said...

I am no the run so have to be brief - but I wonder how much climate influences style. In the long hot and humid summers, the southern style might be light bodied and not too astringent - more of a session beer style.

I hope I was sufficiently clear about mhy bias: I love very hoppy beers.

Jeff said...

"It has almost no hop aroma, pours a very light caramel and has very little flavor."
Wow -- sounds like my style. Honest, no kidding.

"People really bought into the 'local beer' idea, it was clearly part of their satisfaction form consuming the beer."

Aha! My suspicion exactly ... it's not just about taste, it's the novelty of buying something locally made (oops, I mean 'crafted').

So the 'buy local' works well for drink, and it also seems to work well for food. But why not for other products .... like clothes, for example. I don't see 'Oregon' brand jeans for sale anywhere -- there's just a handful of clothing brands and styles at any one time, in all parts of the country (and to some extent, the world).