Why Vermont?

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from Will Gordon, a writer for Men’s Journal. He had a very simple question – why did the state of Vermont have the largest number of craft breweries per capita? According to data provided by the Brewers Association The Green Mountain State has 10.8 breweries per 100,000 residents – more than any other state in the country. Will was writing an article about Vermont’s craft brewing industry, and wanted an answer to this question. In his e-mail, Will asked if I had time to chat with him on this topic. I responded that I would, and we agreed to chat the next day. This gave me less than twenty-four hours to come up with an answer to Will’s question. I had some hypotheses, of course, but some research would be required to verify (or refute) those.

My first thought was that perhaps Vermont has a large millennial population. There is a considerable body of research suggesting that the popularity of craft  beer is driven primarily by the millennial demographic.  While there is no universal agreement on what constitutes a millennial, the Pew Research Center defines this cohort as comprising individuals born after 1980. According to the website overflow.solutions, 25.9% of Vermont’s population are millennials. This places Vermont forty-fifth out of fifty states – not a particularly high rank;  suggesting that Vermont’s love of craft beer may not be driven by this particular cohort.

After refuting the millennial hypothesis, I decided to look at per capita beer consumption in Vermont. How did the state measure up on that particular measure? According to an article in the 24/7Wall Street, Vermonters (aged twenty-one and over) drink an average of 35.7 gallons of beer per capita. This places them fifth in the country. When it comes craft beer, Vermont ranks even higher. The 19.5 gallons per capita that its drinking age population consumes makes Vermont number one in the country. So Vermonters drink more craft beer per capita than the residents of any other state – this may go a long way to explaining why is has so many craft breweries.

My next line of thinking led me to examine the concept of neolocalism – the preference of some Americans to consume food (and perhaps beer) that is produced locally. Some scholars, such as the geographer Wes Flack, have suggested that part of the reason for the popularity of craft beer is this demand for locally-grown and locally-manufactured products. We see evidence of this demand in the increasing number of wineries and farmers markets across the country. The number of wineries in the United States increased from 1,755 in 1996 to 11,496 in 2016. Between 1994 and 2014, the number of farmers markets increased from 1,755 to 8,268.

But what about Vermonters? How does their demand for locally-produced products compare with other states? One way to measure such demand is to look at things such as the number of farmers markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) in a state. With its ninety-six farmers markets and 149 CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) Vermont, on a per capita basis, ranks number one in the country. On a per capita basis, it also has more hospitals that are pledged to purchasing local food than any other state. Indeed, on seven variables that measure a state’s commitment to purchasing and eating locally-produced food, Vermont ranks first on six of them. So it seems that the neolocalism movement is alive and well in Vermont. Vermonters, more than the residents of any other state, love to purchase locally-grown food. If they feel that way about purchasing local food, I would argue that there is a pretty good chance that they may feel the same way about purchasing locally brewed beer. This commitment to purchasing local products, along with Vermonters love of beer (and craft beer in particular), is the key driver behind the state having the highest number of craft breweries per capita.

There is one more piece of the puzzle, however, and that relates to the quality of the beer being produced by Vermont’s breweries. In general, craft beer drinkers tend to have high standards when it comes to beer quality. Breweries producing a sub-standard product are unlikely to survive in the market place. When it comes to having access to high quality beer, Vermonters have nothing to worry about. According to the beer rating site, RateBeer.com, ten of the one hundred top-rated beers in the world in 2016 were brewed by two Vermont breweries – The Alchemist and Hill Farmstead Brewery. Only Massachusetts and the country of Belgium, each with fourteen brews, have more beers in the top one hundred. Moreover, in the same year, Hill Farmstead Brewery was rated as one of the top ten of breweries worldwide. Since 1983, nine different Vermont breweries have won medals at the annual Great American Beer Festival. All of this suggests that Vermont breweries are producing beer that is of very high quality, both in the eyes of the craft beer drinker and expert judges. Vermonters, it would appear, have access to some world-class, locally-brewed, beer. Vermont breweries also have a reputation for innovation and creativity. They are, for example, credited with developing a new style of beer – the New England IPA.

The iconic Heady Topper

A couple of Vermont breweries, and the beers they brew have something akin to a cult following in the world of craft beer. For example, Heady Topper is a Double IPA (8% ABV) brewed by The Alchemist at their brewery in Waterbury, VT. Distribution of Heady Topper is limited to a twenty-five mile radius of the brewery. The Alchemist have a second brewery, eleven miles up the road in Stowe, VT. As the Waterbury brewery is not open to the public, Heady Topper is available for purchase at the brewery in Stowe. Visit the brewery in Stowe, however, and you will (along with everyone else) be limited to purchasing no more than two four-packs of Heady Topper per day. There are a small number of retail outlets in the immediate area, where Heady Topper can be purchased. But such is the limited supply of this much sought-after brew, most outlets only have it available for sale on one day of the week. So, for example, if you go to Alpine Mart in Stowe make sure it is a Monday, as that is the only day they have Heady Topper in stock. If they happen to be sold out when you get there, you can always wait until Tuesday and go to Bessary’s Quality Market in Burlington, VT to get some. Even those stores that receive shipments of Heady Topper often sell out within an hour. This means that to get your hands on some Heady Topper, you can expect to stand in line for an hour or so before the store has opened. And when you do so, there’s a decent chance that the person standing next to you has driven a couple of hours for the privilege of doing so. Heady Topper is not one of those seasonal or limited-release beers; it is brewed year-round, but there is simply not enough produced to keep up with demand. As for me, I have tasted Heady Topper once in my life; this past February in Santa Fe, NM of all places. I was in Santa Fe for a conference and my colleague Rachel Franklin, who teaches at Brown University in Providence,  RI was nice enough to put a can in her suitcase for me.

And so, I raise my glass to all those Vermonters who eat locally-grown food and drink locally-brewed beer. Their support of and commitment to their local food system is to be admired and commended. And to them I say Cheers.

Additional Reading:

Flack, Wes. 1997. American Microbreweries and Neolocalism: “Ale-ing” for a Sense of Place. Journal of Cultural Geography, Volume 16, Issue 2, Pages 37-53.


Ohio City and Duck Island

For some time now I’ve wanted to visit the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland. In my academic research on the role of craft breweries in neighborhood change I had read a lot about Ohio City, particularly the catalytic role of the Great Lakes Brewing Company in that process. But while it is only a two-hour drive from my home I had, until last month, never been there. The opportunity to visit came when my wife and two friends were on our way home from a three-day weekend at Geneva-on-the-Lake. Geneva-on-the-Lake is in the heart of Ohio wine country. We had went there to visit some of those wineries. Our journey home took us through Cleveland and so we decided to stop off in the Ohio City neighborhood for lunch, and also visit a couple of breweries.

The Great Lakes Brewing Company played a catalytic role in the revitalization of the Ohio City neighborhood
Today Ohio City is a bustling neighborhood with lots of bars, restaurants, and other retailers

Ohio City is located just a couple of miles west of downtown Cleveland. It is home to around nine thousand people. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ohio City was a vibrant industrial neighborhood. Mills, foundries, distilleries,  and other manufacturing facilities provided employment for local residents. By the mid-twentieth century, however, like many similar neighborhoods across the Midwest, Ohio City started to experience plant closures and out-migration. In 1968, the Ohio City Redevelopment Association was established to address the dual issues of blight and neglect. Thirty million dollars were invested in the neighborhood and structures such as the West Side Market and St. Ignatius High School were refurbished. By the late 1970s, over one hundred buildings had been renovated. But the neighborhood still needed additional investment. Enter, stage left, brothers Pat and Dan Conway – two Clevelanders who decided to revive brewing in their hometown. The city’s last brewery, C. Schmidt & Sons, ceased operations in 1984. In 1986, the Conways opened the doors of the Great Lakes Brewing Company (GLBC). There was not much in the way of commercial activity in Ohio City when the Conways opened GLBC. In fact, one local business owner described the brewery as an “an oasis in a desert of ghetto.” The arrival of GLBC is considered by many to have played a key role in the neighboood’s subsequent revitalization. Today, Ohio City is a bustling neighborhood where bars, restaurants, and other retail establishments provide residents and visitors alike with a variety of dining and shopping options. Included in these businesses are six breweries – Bad Tom Smith Brewing, Great Lakes Brewing Company, Hansa Brewery, Market Garden Brewery, Platform Beer Co., and Nano Brew. A number of metrics illustrate the success of the investment in Ohio City. Between 2005 and 2013, the crime rate in the neighborhood fell 24%, while real estate values more than doubled. Development of the neighborhood is overseen by Ohio City Incorporated, whose mission is to “lead the development of Ohio City by serving a diverse community of committed people, driving new investments in and preserving the history of a unique place, and promoting an authentic urban neighborhood”. Ohio City is demographically diverse; fifty percent of its residents are  White, 34% African American, and 23% Hispanic.

Unfortunately, our visit to Ohio City was on a Sunday; the only day of the week on which the Great Lakes Brewing Company is closed. We were, however, able to walk past and catch a glimpse of the Ohio City Farm. Opened in June 2010, this six acre farm is located just around the corner from GLBC. The farm started as a partnership between Ohio City Incorporated, The Refugee Response, and GLBC. Today, five entities have plots on the farm – Central Roots, Cleveland Crops, CMHA Green Team, GLBC, and The Refugee Response.

Ohio City Farm

Each of these  entities utilize their farm plots for a different purpose. 1) Central Roots are a for-profit venture who grow chemical-free fruits and vegetables; 2) Cleveland Crops is a non-profit affiliate of the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. The adults working on their plot have developmental disabilities. Farming provides them with valuable skills; 3) Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Auhthority (CMHA) Green Team provide seasonal jobs, discounted food, and educational programming about healthy food for its public housing residents; 4) Through its Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program (REAP), The Refugee Response provides agricultural-related training for resettled refugees; and 5) Great Lakes Brewing Company grows vegetables and herbs for their brewpub, as well as hops for their beers. Ohio City Farm is one of the largest contiguous urban farms in the United States and  in 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized Ohio City Farm as a national model of successful urban agriculture. It’s existence and  success owes a great deal to the vision of Pat and Dan Conway.

Ohio City Farm with the Cleveland skyline in the background

While the Great Lakes Brewing Company was closed when we visited Ohio City, a number of other breweries were open. We visited two of those – Market Garden Brewery and Nano Brew. Market Garden Brewery was our first stop and we had an enjoyable lunch at their brewpub. The brewpub opened in 2011. In 2016, in close proximity to the brewpub, a thirty-five thousand square foot production brewery was constructed. After lunch, we stopped by the production Brewery and visited its gift shop. Next, we took the short walk to Nano Brew, a brewpub that is also part of the Market Garden family of breweries. We had dessert at Nano Brew  – deep-fried Oreos which were really tasty, and reminded me of deep-fried Mars Bars from my time living in Scotland. One of the noteworthy aspects about Nano Brew is that some of their fruits and vegetables are sourced from The Refugee Response at Ohio City Farm.

Nano Brew

After Nano Brew we ventured to Forest City Brewery. While only a ten minute walk from Nano Brew, Forest City is beyond the borders of Ohio City. It is actually located in Cleveland’s Duck Island neighborhood. The name Duck Island has nothing to do with ducks apparently; rather, the popular conception is that it got its name during Prohibition because it developed a reputation as a place where bootleggers would “duck” the law. During the nineteenth century, Duck Island was a proud manufacturing neighborhood where steel mills and other factories employed local residents. By the 1970s the neighborhood found itself in a downward spiral as mills, factories, and other businesses closed, and residents started to move out. Today, the neighborhood is undergoung a renewal, with leadership of the this process being led by the privately-funded Duck Island Development Collaborative.

Forest City Brewery is on the site of the 1865 Atlantic Beer Garden

Forest City Brewery opened in 2016, is part of the renewal that is taking place in Duck Island. It takes its name from the original Forest City Brewing Company, which existed in Cleveland between 1904 and 1930.   The brewey is also home to what is possibly the oldest beer garden in the state of Ohio (there is a beer garden in Cincinnati that may be older). The Atlantic Beer Garden dates from 1865. I spent a very pleasant half hour in the beer garden, while enjoying a Forest City Duck Island Amber Ale. The brewery shares its twelve thousand foot building with four other businesses – a dance studio, coffee company, meadery and cycle-touring business. Also, Forest City has a Toledo connection; one of the co-owners Jay Demagall has a degree in history from The University of Toledo.

The beer garden at Forest City Brewery

So while I did not get to visit Great Lakes Brewing Company, there were still plenty of other wonderful breweries to visit in Ohio City. I still want to go to Great Lakes though. I’ll make sure that my next visit to Ohio City will be on a day when the brewery is open.