East vs. West: Recognizing Differences in Craft Brewing

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was lucky enough to spend a week in April attending the 2017 Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, D.C. From my time this trip and two earlier in the year to New York City and Philadelphia, respectively, I’ve started to grasp some coastal distinctions. As more regional breweries like Stone and Sierra Nevada open facilities on both coasts, I wonder how common it will be to find truly regionally distinctive beers in the future. Smaller breweries and brewpubs are the sturdy backbone in this conversation. They brew smaller batches often with innovative focus for specific local consumers. Noticing the smaller differences in craft trends can say a lot not just about the demands of a market but also an area’s history. For nearly all my beer drinking years, I’ve been situated on various points along the West Coast. I’m spoiled for choices and hops are queen here (ahem, hop plants that produce useful products for beer are female). You know my biases now. Given those, I wanted to highlight a few noticeable differences in craft beer, East Coast vs. West. 

1. Emphasis on different styles. You can find many many styles of beer here in the West, but overwhelmingly the focus is on IPAs and hop-forward ales. Ambers, lagers, blondes, witbiers and dry stouts exist, but they’re frequently relegated to the small area of a tap list some would consider “entry-level” beers. It’s sometimes as if here we think anything under 60 IBU and 7% ABV is for wimps and novices. I detest this thought process (though for the record I really, really enjoy a good double IPA) because I think beer is beer. Drink what you like, what you feel like at the moment, and don’t get shoved into thinking there’s only one or two “legit” styles. I enjoyed the generous selection of cream ales, wits and amber lagers on the East Coast. You could see easily that they sell well. Maybe it’s a lingering connection to the earliest of craft brewing (pre-Prohibition) styles, or a closer connection to European heritages, but I was excited to see a more equal representation of styles across the board. How many amber lagers I want to drink–now that may be a different question entirely.

2. Water quality matters. The chemistry of brewing water can have a huge impact upon finished beer taste and quality. Hardness and mineral makeup can change how hops taste, how darker malts come across, and what a “balanced” beer means. If you know anything about water chemistry, this is old hat to you, but if not, I can’t press the idea strongly enough. One recipe brewed with Portland water vs. Philadelphia water vs. London water will be three distinct beers. This can not only affect consumer preferences but also brewing choices in general. From a light level of research, I’ve found that much of the water on the East coast is harder than Seattle’s, for instance. In general, I didn’t find hoppy beers brewed on the East Coast to have the bright, fresh and lovely hop bitterness and flavor that I’m used to here. There are other things at play, but my first and best guess is differences in water. I am not sure I could give up access to the Pacific Northwest’s softer-water-brewed, super-bright, hop-forward beers. Nope. Not a chance.


3. Beer largeness. No, I’m not talking about liter glasses (those can be found on both coasts), but total IBU and ABV levels, especially in IPAs. While I was in D.C. I had an IPA that was 5.3% ABV and less than 40 IBU. Here we would call that a pale ale, and it might not sell very well (of course, you could call it a session IPA, and then it might sell better). I have no problem drinking a beer of those numerics (in fact, I often prefer to), but it just serves to underscore the major upward creep over here. I’d like to blame San Diego’s monster IPAs, but it’s an allover occurrence now. Again, I love a good double IPA, but I have concerns that other ranges and styles are consistently being overlooked and minimized. 

The takeaway for me in comparing and contrasting trends and small details bi-coastally is grasping how complex craft products are in general. A delicate and ever-changing consumer demand must balance and thrive alongside the restrictions and emphases of the environment, from water to ingredient availability and more. And ultimately, these fine balanced crafts are what give regions lasting character and real identity. 

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