Men’s Journal’s Top Five Beer Towns = Fail

October 6th, 2009 · 30 Comments · Notes, Washington Breweries

First of all, writers and publications are obviously allowed to state their opinions. But, sometimes…opinions are just wrong.

I try to leave rankings, lopsided polls, and the such alone…but yesterday’s article in Men’s Journal calling out the top five beer towns in the US got under my skin. Here are their top five:

1) San Diego
2) New York City
3) Portland (OR)
4) Philadelphia
5) Chicago

Before I get into it, this commenter gets it right:

Take it with a grain of salt, I’m glad SD is #1 (yes, I’m from SD) but I’m sure there will be an article soon saying that another city is # 1, oh well, it is just ratings… As long as you are happy with your local beer and have plenty of it, what’s the problem.

He is for sure correct. There are polls/lists like these everywhere that I don’t agree with. But, like I said…this one got under my skin for some reason.

Are all of those very good beer cities? From what I’ve heard, they sure are. I’ve never been to San Diego at all, and I’ve never been to NYC for an honest-to-God “beer trip”. I’ve spent just a couple of weekends in Philly. But, I grew up around Chicago and lived downtown for several years, and I’ve been to Portland quite a few times (going again this Friday!).

In my humble opinion, there are two big things wrong with this list:

1) Portland should be #1. The blog “Dave Knows: Portland” has a piece on exactly what stats the article took liberty with and got wrong. Like I said, I’ve never been to San Diego…I have a friend who just moved there, and I’m highly looking forward to visiting. The SoCal area churns out tons of great beer, no question about it. But, when it comes to “beer culture”, all the article states is the # of breweries (which, they got wrong).  There is a lot more to beer culture than that. Portland breathes beer, and it’s obvious just about anywhere you go…not just in certain focused beer bars. When looking beyond stats, I just don’t get how anyone that has been to Portland can say that anywhere else in the country (including my beloved Seattle) has a better beer scene.

2) Seattle should be in the top five. Yeah, I know…I’m biased. But, Chicago? Come on. I can’t make a comment on NYC, but I’d put Seattle just behind Portland and up there with Philly. I love Chicago as a city. I miss the hell out of it. But, beer culture? Breweries? Still far behind Seattle. I hear it’s getting there…but Seattle kicks Chicago’s ass with our hands tied behind our backs. There are some great, great beer spots in Chicago…Map Room, Piece, Hop Leaf, Goose Island, and Sheffield’s are all top-notch. But, not even close to the volume Seattle has…and Chicago is just a wee-bit larger of a city. Also, please tell me which 20 breweries and brewpubs are located in Chicago as the article claims? I can think of Goose Island (2 locations), Piece, and Rock Bottom (one of the better ones in the country). Where are these magical 15 some breweries that I can’t think of?

If I had to sum up why Seattle should be included in the top five:

Seattle’s mix of outstanding local breweries and world-class beer bars put it in the top five conversation not even taking anything else into consideration. About 20 breweries/brewpubs are located within the city limits, and if you extend the count to the Puget Sound area (as the Men’s Journal article seems to do for Chicago and SD), then we’re talking probably twice that. Brouwer’s Cafe, Uber Tavern, Collins Pub, Stumbling Monk, Naked City Taphouse, Beveridge Place Pub, and The Dray are just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to great beer bars in this city. As far as beer awareness and overall preference in Seattle, there are more tap handles for Mac & Jack’s African Amber than for any other beer. Most bars don’t even bother to carry a tap for any “BMC” beers. Even most high-end restaurants in Seattle have figured out that people want good, local craft beer. Beer festivals? Yeah, we’ve got tons of them. Bottle shops? I can think of at least five in Seattle that pretty much sell nothing but great beer (and a little wine); not to mention our grocery stores even have outstanding selections (Thriftway, QFC, Whole Foods come to mind). Moving to Seattle opened up my eyes for craft beer, living in Chicago… I barely even noticed the scene was there.

Anyone have anything to add? Reasons why I’m wrong?

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30 Comments so far ↓

  • Fleck

    Long time reader, first time contributer…

    Not trying to defend Chicago, but my assumption is that they are looking at the Chicagoland area:

    Metropolitan Brewing
    Half Acre Brewery
    Revolution Brewing Co (opening the Fall)
    Three Floyds
    Walter Payton Roundhouse
    Two Brothers
    I think there may be a couple suburban Rock Bottom breweries as well

    Anyway, there may be more.


  • Kaiser

    Ha! Goulet!

    Yep, I figure they are talking Chicagoland area…which is kind of BS when talking about the “top 5 beer cities”. Sorry, but Chicago shouldn’t get places like 3F that are at least a 30 minute drive down the interstate.

    If we’re looking at “top 5 beer regions”, the Puget Sound around Seattle would be a top 5 no questions asked.

  • gcm

    feh, these writers don’t seem to be beer people, between these rankings and their associated ‘America’s Best Beers’ article. Looks like they probably sat down with 25 beers to review, got drunk, figured out how to rank them, then googled some info on 5 cities that have beer.

  • beerinator

    They’re definitely counting the “Chicago-land” area (Chicago and surrounding suburbs) and there are 20+ breweries/brewpubs in that area. And since they’re counting 30+ breweries/brewpubs in San Diego, I guess it’s fair, because those definitely aren’t all within city limits.

    Chicago proper has Metropolitan, Half Acre, 3 Goose Island locations (2 brewpubs and the Fulton production brewery), Piece Brewpub and Rock Bottom – Chicago. In the next few months a new brewpub called Revolution will be open (Fleck covered this).

    I’m not sure about their New York pick, and I would put San Francisco on the list above both Chicago and NYC, but this is Men’s Journal and we’re lucky they didn’t pick St. Louis and Milwaukee…

  • Patrick

    I agree.
    Also worth noting is that one thing that makes Portland and Seattle such great incubators for beer is that they’re near Yakima Valley, where 70% of the US hop crop is grown. Philadelphia certainly can’t claim that local influence. And I think it does make a difference on the local beer culture and the quality/diversity of our beers.

    Not sure why Philadelphia is on that list. Pennsylvania has some of the most backwards and restrictive alcohol laws in the country. You can’t buy beer in grocery stores, or convenience stores. You have to go to a beer distributor, which has a limited selection and can only sell by the case (hmm, so if I want one bottle of Dogfish Head 120 Minute I have to buy 24 bottles? No thanks… oh wait, they don’t sell 120 Min in PA anyway).

    Anyway, I’m not sure anyone actually reads “Men’s Journal” anyway…

  • Beer Retard

    Patrick–not really true about Philly. I know the Pennsylvania liquor laws are crazy, but I’ve been to a place in Philly called The Foodery that has an amazing selection of beer and they sell singles. Not sure how that works, but they do it.

    Kaiser–I haven’t been to Chicago and it’s been years since I’ve been to NY, but Philly definitely belongs up there with SD & Portland. I think Philly has something in common with Seattle. They’re not as strong as SD or Portland in terms of breweries/brewpubs, but up there in terms of quality of beer bars. Philly’s actually better than Seattle for beer bars. I’d say Philly probably has more cool bars with good beer than any city other than Portland.

    I feel like the first tier is Portland-Philly-SD and second tier would be SF Bay Area, Seattle…and probably places like NYC, Chicago, Boston.

  • Kaiser

    I’m sure my friend Pollack will chime in, but I believe places in Philly can sell singles if they have a bar license…and it’s usually at higher prices (similar to Uber). Your standard beer retailer is case only.

    I don’t mean to cut Philly down…I’ve heard nothing but great things. I’ve done two beer trips there, and had a blast, but I didn’t get a great feel for the overall city.

  • derkruk

    I remember reading a few years ago how Chicago was supposed to be such a great beer town. But when I went there in 2006 (granted, 3 years ago) all I encountered were few dedicated beer bars selling American wheat beers (it was July) surrounded by bars and restaurants that, if they had a craft beer tap handle, poured Sam Adams. Maybe that’s changed.

    Meanwhile, I’m headed to SD this weekend where I plan to check out some great places I’ve never made it to (Hamilton’s Downtown Johnny Brown’s, Blind Lady, Small Bar, etc.). In my previous visits I’ve felt the one thing SD was missing was a concentration of great beers bars similar to Seattle and Portland. It looks like that’s changed once and for all.

    And for what it’s worth, most of the bars I’ll be checking out in SD have been open for 3 years or less.

  • Craig

    What are the top 20 restaurants in Seattle (in any order)? If only Seattle residents who’ve lived here for more than 10 years could answer that, I bet they’d still only have 3 or 4 restaurants in common.

    Ranking beer cities is a crazy thing to even try to do since you have to live in a city for at least 2 years to even have a clue. I bet not one beer lover has ever lived for at least 2 years in each Seattle AND Portland AND Chicago AND San Diego AND Denver AND New York AND Philly, etc.. Nobody is qualified to rank cities on beer or anything community-related.

    I know that I love Seattle beerness, and Portland is awesome and only 3 hours away. That’s a nice cluster. There probably isn’t another set of good beer cities that close together, so living in the NW is pretty nice.


  • Kaiser

    Yep, Craig, you’re right. Rankings like this are crazy and can’t be validated…but when people put out these lists, dumb people like me tend to get a bit riled up at times:-)

    I think everyone would agree that Seattle is a hell of a place to live if you love good beer. I should just learn to leave it at that and ignore rankings such as these.

  • Kaiser

    FYI, for details on the PA alcohol distribution laws, you can visit Lew Bryson’s dedicated blog focused on taking down the current PA Liquor Control Board.

  • Elvis

    you’re trying to rationalize crap printed in Men’s Journal? really?

    the philly thing made me shoot a triple cascade dry hopped double imperial IPA fed through a randall out of my nostrels.

  • Kaiser

    nicely played, Elvis.:-)

  • Josh

    i live IN LA right now and i can tell you that there is NO beer culture here. the “hip beer bars” down here would be middle of the road to bad in the Pacific Northwest. i even went to the LA Craft Beer Festival a few months back and the panel of all the master brewers from around California (like form Sierra Nevada, etc.) ALL said that the BEER is here, but NOBODY CAN GET TO IT! there’s no awareness. you have to TRAVEL to the breweries (none of which are super close to each other! i’ve heard San Diego is good for beer, BUT i do know that some of the breweries they talk about are technically in another, nearby, CITY! (i moved here from Seattle and have been MISERABLE due to the COMPLETE LACK of a good “beer culture”-a REAL ONE-like my beloved Seattle.)

  • Lew Bryson

    As a non-impartial observer…
    I haven’t been to Seattle for beer. It’s #1 on my list right now, above London, above Brugges. But I have been to the other towns, and a bunch of others as well.

    That said, even with that lack of first-hand experience, I’d put Seattle over NYC. New York’s put on a hell of a push in the past three years, it’s impressive and they have an excellent cask ale scene, but it’s not top 5.

    But you’re overlooking something with Philly, Chicago, AND New York…lager. We’ve got it, you guys don’t, not really. Chicago has a ton of German joints that get really fresh draft German beers. New York has Brooklyn and a surprising number of German joints as well, and Philly? We’re the main market for two of the best craft lager brewers in America — Victory and Stoudt’s — and the most common tap in town isn’t Bud, Miller, Coors, or Pabst: it’s Yuengling Lager. Yeah, I know, it’s not craft, but it’s independent, it’s regional, and it’s not BMC. That counts for something.
    But the main reason Philly is in the top 5 is variety. We’ve got IPAs, double IPAs, ambers, porters, stouts, all that jive (and some of it we bring in from your area, although our “hefeweizen” is proper, not unfiltered water-wheat), but we are also the biggest market for Belgian imports in the country, our brewers make a wide variety of styles right here — not just ‘hoppy, dark, and hoppier’ — and new, excellent beer bars keep opening so damned fast I literally cannot keep up with them. Our fine dining restaurants are all putting in good beer lists; pizza joints are doing it. And the case law? Unexpected consequences: it’s made for a great draft scene (and not those damned 80-tap monstrosities; we prefer carefully chosen selections of 20 or less that actually turn over and stay fresh), and there’s no light damage in sealed cases. It’s not great, but it’s no disaster. Now…our spirits and wine retail situation…that’s a disaster. We could use a lot more brewpubs, too, I’ll admit that, and have in the past. But it’s really easy to find good beer in this town.

    Portland? Yeah, they should be #1. Philly? Definitely top 5.

  • Marge

    Absolutely, Portland should be #1! I have been to San Diego, and they would not rate in my top 5. Everytime I been to NYC, I’m usually offered either a Redhook or a Sam Adams. I think it shouldn’t be based on the actually number of breweries, rather they amount of tap offerings you would find in an avaerage bar. By that standard Seattle would be #2.

  • Kaiser

    Hey Lew – I completely agree that Philly belongs in the top 5; my limited experience there plus opinions of people I trust tell me that much. I look forward to visiting again one of these days.

    But, in my opinion Seattle is right there with you.

    Of course, as someone else pointed out, this is an impossible discussion. You really can’t get to know a city’s beer scene unless you live there or visit frequently.

    If you’re looking for lagers, make sure you get some Chuckanut when you’re out here:-)

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  • Brent

    I live in Seattle and I have traveled a lot in the past ten years and almost every trip is built around beer, music and food. I love West Coast style IPA’s and was just down in San Diego a month or so ago for Street Scene music fest. Try getting to your favorite breweries down there without a car. Alpine, Port, green flash, ballast point, etc. Not going to happen. 10 to 30 miles here or there. Over on 30th Ave (bus) you do now have Hamiltons (Alpine double IPA!) & Toronado but in Portland (especially) and Seattle I could set you up on 4 different pub/brewery crawls on 4 consecutive days that you could probably WALK. And after 8 hours I could send you home with great priced growlers of fresh beer. That is especially what I value in Seattle, having easy access (every major neighborhood has a place) to fresh half gallons of beer that I can take to gatherings, parties or have at home. Usually for around $10 too. In summary, I agree Portland is #1. It’s the smallest city on the list but has the most beer density.

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  • WillB

    When I moved to Seattle in 1987, from downtown Chicago, my eyes were opened up to the concept of ‘microbrew’. Chicago had exactly one at the time and that was new! Over the past two decades Seattle’s Pioneer Beer Culture kept growing and Chicago, well I guess it’s trying to keep up, but that culture is completely sold on “kraeusened” Old Style pilsner…PERIOD. Native’s can’t stand ales and frankly don’t get it….Get real Mens Magazine (and do your research).

  • Mike

    I lived in San Diego for 3 years, Seattle for 20 and the Bay Area for 17. I still travel to San Diego a lot to visit my parents. My Dad and I enjoy nothing more than discovering new breweries and bars and drinking beer. We love to drink beer so much we have gone to Oktoberfest in Munich, twice! It’s an absolute joke to consider that San Diego is America’s number one beer town. Why it’s nice to visit all of the Karl Strauss locations and they have some nice bars and breweries, they don’t even come close to anything Seattle, Portland or San Francisco have for that matter when it comes to beer culture. I’m sure you’ll find the results that are far different in more respected magazines and organizations to conduct such a rating then Men’s Journal.

  • Lisa

    I live in San Diego and I love the beer here, but I’m a hophead. San Diego skews higher if you consider the hops. It’s true that you can’t really get to all the breweries without a car. San Diego county is big: it takes almost an hour to drive from one end of it to the other. But there are several companies that do brewery tours making stops at a number of breweries. Check them out if you visit. If you can only get to one brewery in San Diego — make it Stone. It’s way out in the boonies of Escondido, but it’s worth the trip.

  • Peter

    I am not sure that the writers for Men’s Journal took into account a beer tradition. I mean, 20 years ago, how many craft brews were available on a widespread basis in Philly, New York, and San Diego? 20 years ago in Seattle you could get all kinds of great micros – Hales, Thomas Kemper, Red Hook, Pyramid, Grant’s, to name a few while New York, Chicago, and Philly were drinking Michelob. National magazines like Men’s Journal have an obvious East coast bias. Portland is impossible to ignore as a beer city, but Seattle is a close second.

  • Pat

    San Diego is definitely deserving of No1. One of the 3 most important brewers in the craft brew revival (pizza port, the other two are russian rivers and sam adams) is from there and stone, ballast point, alesmith and green flash all are great brewers. Not to mention is almost hte same level of beer culture as Portland, SD is just a notch above Portland with its breweries

    Portland should be second.

    I’m sorry seattle (i just moved here about 6 mos ago) but youre nowhere near those 2 cities….since ive been here ive seen the pike brewing guys pouring bags of granulated sugar into the brew kettles, georgetown makes good beer but they only have 3 beers, mac and jacks is ok but nothing special, i would love some tips becuase im just not seeing it here

  • Angelo De Ieso II

    Is anyone surprised that Men’s Journal is clueless about craft beer? Where does San Diego get its hops from? Here’s the true top five beer towns in the United States:

    1. Portland, Oregon
    2. Denver, Colorado
    3. Seattle, Washington
    4. San Diego, California
    5. There really isn’t a fifth that is in the league of these four. Some people actually think it is Ashville, NC. Ha ha!

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  • richfromjersey

    Being from the East Coast and having only recently moved to Seattle, i have to stick up for NYC. Yes they don’t have a large # of local brewpubs and breweries, however they do have great beer bars.

    I suggest you go and check out lower manhattan and brooklyn. The east/west village has Hop Devil, DBA, Blind Tiger and many others.

    Next time you see an Ale Street News or Mid-Atlantic Brewing news grab and and check out the NYC artivles and bar advertisements.

    NYC is definetly worth a visit and one of my favorite beer drinking towns.

    One final thought that makes NYC, Philly and Chicago great beer drinking towns is the subway and an abundance of cabs, somthing Seattle, San Diego etc. lack.


  • Mark

    I have to let you guys in on a secret, Burlington, VT is in the top 5 for beer towns. If you allow the Chicago-land area, you can include most of Vermont. There are more breweries and brew pubs than any of your big cities. Magic Hat, Otter Creek, Woodchuck, Harpoon, Longtrail, Rock Art, Shed and Switchback to name a quick few.

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