When I first embraced the craft beer world in the late 2000s, the scene still contained a decidedly “underground” feeling in many locales. Granted, these were the last, fleeting remnants of an earlier era when “craft” beer truly was a novel oddity—by the time I turned 21 in 2007, almost any package store would have carried at least a motley collection of craft brands, although the selection would seem very quaint to the drinkers of today.
In terms of locally produced beer, though, one’s options were still often fairly limited. Bottle shops routinely stocked dusty, near-expired bottles of vintage British ales and Continental lagers for the sake of variety, at least partially because in many cities those types of beers simply weren’t being produced by any of the local brewers. Many cities, in fact, didn’t have local brewers to call their own. Case in point: Between the years of 2010-2014, I lived in the small, extremely average Central Illinois city of Decatur, Illinois, population 72,000. Writing for the local newspaper, I frequently bemoaned the fact that neighboring cities all had local breweries to call their own, but Decatur (a more sleepy, rural community) had none. Flash forward to 2021, and even Decatur, Illinois has three different, thriving local breweries.
This thought, along with a writer’s curse for not being able to discard hypothetical questions I encounter online, has continually led me back to a question I first saw posted on reddit a couple months ago: Has every city more or less become a “beer city”? Has the craft beer movement been normalized to such a degree that you can reasonably expect to find a quality beer source in just about any city one might visit, regardless of the size or demographics? The more research I do, the more I find myself thinking that the answer is “pretty much, yeah.”
And that’s a pretty notable thing, when you remember how things were in the 2000s. When I was getting into beer at age 21, you certainly couldn’t describe most cities as “beer cities,” in the sense of “this is a good destination for local beer.” Even some of the country’s biggest cities, in fact, had very limited options at the time. Places like Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, and even NYC and L.A. were way under-indexing on quality beer as recently as the mid-to-late 2000s, but all experienced craft beer renaissances at the dawn of the 2010s. Within a few years, they were being included on beer geek lists of solid “beer cities”—lists that had previously been defined by locales such as San Diego, Portland (Oregon or Maine, take your pick), Denver, Grand Rapids, Burlington or Asheville.
I remember the reverent, almost mythological way that beer geeks talked about these types of cities back then, a little over a decade ago. “Beer cities” were oases of refreshment, experimentation and discovery among a sea of other towns and cities where the craft beer revolution hadn’t quite arrived yet. A proper “beer city” had the importance of something like a holy site, and was equally worthy of a pilgrimage, because the breweries in these places were doing things you literally couldn’t taste anywhere else. In the early 2010s, this led to me making trips specifically so I could drive around places like Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Denver and Fort Collins in search of great, emerging breweries.
If the emergence of those locales as renowned “beer cities” was widely acknowledged, though, the slow trickle of more quality beer into less famed cities was perhaps easier for most of us to miss. We shouldn’t really be surprised by this—in the 2010s, the craft beer scene increasingly revolved around a hype cycle for specific styles and breweries, and the types of everyday, quality breweries emerging in small towns and cities weren’t often the kind of businesses producing the cutting edge beer styles drawing notice. The latest trends in IPA, barrel-aged stout and wild ales weren’t often coming from say … Lincoln, Nebraska … but if you look there today, you’ll find at least 10 breweries, plus a company specializing in brewing equipment sales, installation and maintenance. And yet, you’ve probably never heard someone venture Lincoln, NE as a notable “beer city,” right?
Curious how this would play out with a somewhat larger sample, I looked up some lists of cities considered the most demographically “average” or nondescript in the U.S., which yielded names such as Lynchburg (VA), Jacksonville (FL) and Redding (CA). And in each location, you’ll find an embarrassment of breweries, many of which are highly touted for their quality by the locals. In Jacksonville, Florida alone, in fact, there are at least a dozen breweries operating today. In two of those locales (Jacksonville, Redding) there was also a dedicated homebrew supply shop, indicating that the next generation of homebrewers is quietly fermenting away at the same time.
This is all to say the following: The more I look at it, the more dated the concept of the “beer city” now seems, as we once understood it. There are of course locales that are defined by the concentration and passion of their beer cultures, and these places will always remain meccas to the craft beer faithful. It’s not that the country’s great beer cities have in some way regressed. Rather, it’s the country’s small towns and less-touted cities that have slowly but surely developed quality beer sources of their own—and likely underappreciated ones, at least on a national or regional level.
The point is, we now seem pretty far removed from the time when a road trip was necessary to visit a city with great beer. Odds are, you may already be living in one. And that seems worth a toast, doesn’t it?
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.