What Makes Beer “Local?”

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Because of immense growth in the number of breweries across the country, the idea of “world domination” may not necessarily be a reality any more. Domination, like many start-ups’ distribution network, can be accomplished in a city, town, state or region.

Is it realistic for any new brewery to become the next Sierra Nevada or New Belgium these days? More importantly – does that matter?

Not necessarily.

One of the great things about our craft beer boom is that as breweries start small, many are staying “small.” Or, at least, staying committed to their hometown audience.

That’s good because in recent years, consumer behavior has shifted toward the “buy local” movement, especially those that emphasize the ideals and practices of “local” or “community” within their business. Essentially, if a business is good to its local, loyal customers, they’ll be loyal right back.

“From a business standpoint, local consumers are a huge component of a brewery’s fan base, and in many cases their bottom line,” said David Ackley, founder of the Local Beer Blog. “A brewery taproom offers a significant profit margin that can be especially useful, if not critical, to smaller breweries just getting off the ground. The local fans are also usually the first to spread the word about a new beer release or a special event, either over social media or by word of mouth.”

Local, dedicated business is important – no doubt – so what is it exactly that makes people think “local” when it comes to their beer?

There are varying opinions on what “local” means when it comes to food. One survey highlighted a 50-mile radius from consumers while another was as high as 100 miles. Of course, some respondents in both surveys thought anything created within our country’s borders could be considered local.

However, us beer lovers have it good – a majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery. Now that’s local.

This is important because this close proximity ideally creates stronger feelings of community. In recent years, that’s equaled sales for breweries. For local microbreweries to become regional, they need to increase sales, something that 94 percent of “regional” breweries did in 2010.

The “little” guys are doing well, so it’s only natural we’d have a party crasher.

Budweiser is now billing itself as “America’s Largest Local Brewer” because, you know, they’ve got a dozen production facilities across the United States. Just like every other local brewer.

You can even join the “Track Your Bud” campaign and plug in each bottle’s tracking information to find where it came from, the brewmaster who made it, the beer’s ingredients and more.

The ironic part of Budweiser’s attempt at showing it’s “local” roots is it opens this commercial with the question, “Do you know where your beer is brewed?” For millions of Americans, that answer is quickly becoming a resounding “yes,” but not in the way Budweiser wants it. It’s about those person-to-person connections you won’t get from smiling faces on the TV.

“It’s just cool to be able to go down the street to the local brewpub, see the equipment and talk to the people who make the beer,” Ackley said. “In that sense, local beer is part of the overall movement towards local food, towards people wanting to learn about where their food comes from the people who produce it.”

That’s the local I want.

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26 thoughts on “What Makes Beer “Local?”

  1. Another great question regarding “local beer” is contract brewing. Here in Cincinnati we’ve got both sides of the coin. A “local” Cincinnati brewery, Christian Moerlein, brews and bottles most of their beer in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile Boston Beer Company brews most of Sam Adams and Angry Orchard in downtown Cincinnati.Does that make either of them local?

    • We have a “local” brewer in Baltimore known as Stillwater Artisinal Ales. It’s local beer because he’s from Baltimore, but he rents out spaces and uses products from all over Europe. I’m not hating on the beer (I like it), but the definition is surely fuzzy at times.

      • There was a line from my original draft of this post that got edited out: “Local is in the eye of the beholder.” From what I found searching online, the idea of “local” is most definitely subjective, but also a powerful marketing and community building tool. I suppose it’s just a matter of determining what your audience believes “local” is and go from there!

  2. There are so many sides to this discussion, it can make my head spin. Different people will have different reasons for buying local beer. Some may want to support the local economy, some want their beer to have a lighter carbon footprint (even though a lot of breweries get malts/hops from overseas), some think buying a local brewers beer is guaranteed fresh (not always, especially if you buy from a liquor store).

    All of this is quite important I suppose. Myself, I go through phases where one month I want all local beer, and the next month I realize I am severely limiting myself to the great beers that are brewed farther away. Everyone just needs to drink what tastes good to them. If you prefer the DIPA from the other side of the Rocky Mountains, then so be it!

    As a sidenote, I actually think the Track Your Bud feature is kind of neat. Would be nice to see that on some “craft” beer bottles/cans, especially as breweries are expanding and opening >1 location (I’m thinking Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada, Green Flash, Lagunitas, Sam Adams, New Belgium…)

    • All very good points!

      I agree the “tracking” aspect would be great for other breweries aside from one like Budweiser that’s simply trying to showcase it’s “local” roots. I think the best feature could be knowing when your beer was bottled, something that is severely lacking for many companies.

      • Also, if I were to use that Track Your Bud feature, and I find my bottle was made in the Newark, NJ plant (I’m not even sure if that plant is still brewing), then shouldn’t I still consider that local (since I’m from NJ), even if they are using it as a marketing ploy? There’s tons of marketing/branding ploys going on in the “craft” sector, from labeling beers as session to abusing the IPA style-name.

      • It certainly would be local – but I suppose I’d still take issue to the idea of it being a ploy.

        It’s all relative, really. If Multinational Conglomerate Inc. made shoes down the street from me, I’d consider the people that work there local, but would I consider the shoes locally made? I don’t know.

        Mom and Pop Inc., on the other hand, source local businesses for their shoe parts and rely on local consumers. I’d intrinsically apply the “local” tag to them.

        Then again, as you pointed out, there are tons of sides to what “local” ultimately might mean.

        Perhaps “session” and “IPA” are for another day…

    • Love it.

      I always think having the ability to actually meet the person who made the beer is a great – and surprisingly easy – way to make something feel local.

      Thanks a bunch for adding to the conversation!

      • Having only 8 breweries in houston, it is easy to meet the owners and brew masters at events. I have met Brock Wagner, the godfather of houston beer from St. Arnolds and Karbach is 4 miles from my house. We bike ride to the brewery on Saturdays. I have met jim koch, sam calagione, jeremy cowen, garrett oliver. I have never met any of the bushes, coors or miller lite owners. Being at the Craft Brewers Conference in DC back in March was really cool.

      • That’s awesome stuff. I very briefly chatted with Calagione at a festival a few years ago and he seemed as great in person as he does anywhere else.

        I long for the day when I can ride a bike back and forth to a brewery essentially down the street. You’re lucky!

  3. Nice post, Bryan. I think all beer consumers, both professed ‘beer geeks’ and M/B/C drinkers need to be conscious of local production. A good discussion with many ramifications. If you do a follow-up, make sure you check in with Roger Baylor of New Albanian Brewing Company (@NewAlbanian). Cheers!

    • Thanks for the kind words – and the suggestion. I’m thinking some sort of follow-up may be in order, so that’s a good recommendation.

  4. A great follow-up here would be about local ingredients. How local are beers made with malt from the midwest and hops from the Pacific NW or Europe?

    Personally, I love the trend of micro malsters, local hops growers, and even people harvesting local yeast. There’s some of it taking place in NC, but I think there’s a lot of room to grow on that front.

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