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Culture Clash: D.C. and Chicago

Since I’ve been in D.C. for a little while and met a lot of folks attending events and writing for DCBeer, I’ve learned more about the beer and brewing scene here. I grew up and went to college in Michigan, and then I spent a few years in Chicago before arriving here. While in Chicago, I volunteered for the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild and worked as a brewer at a brewpub in Lincoln Park.

I’ve noticed some differences between Chicago and D.C. since moving here, and I thought it would be an interesting exercise to discuss them. I see D.C. as a beer town on the upswing, and looking at Chicago, as an established beer city, might (or might not, as you’ll see below) have some clues as to where things might be headed for the District.

The Impact of Size

The first difference you obviously notice between D.C. and Chicago are their respective sizes. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not including the metro areas of Chicago or D.C. – just the cities themselves. Discussing population size is important because many of the observations I have revolve around it.

Chicago is home to approximately 2.7 million residents and geographically spans 234 square miles. The District, on the other hand, covers 68.3 square miles and has a little over 650,000 residents. This tremendous population and square mileage disparity surely has an impact on a number of facets of the beer culture ranging from institutional knowledge to governmental relations.

By my last count, Chicago has 32 breweries. D.C. has 11. Interestingly, while it is clear that Chicago has almost three times as many breweries, D.C. narrowly has more breweries per person. When I realized this, I questioned whether the beer scene in D.C. isn’t just a smaller version of Chicago or if there is actually a notable difference in the way the citizenry thinks and drinks. In actuality, while there are many, many similarities between these two cities, there are indeed also subtle differences that can be attributed to any number of factors that we’ll see below.

Age & Institutional Knowledge

Beyond population size, Chicago and D.C. differ widely in both the ages of their beer scenes and their levels of institutional (read: brewing) knowledge. I’ll do my best to leave the historical nuances to my DCBeer colleague Michael Stein, but it appears as though D.C.’s first brewery opened in 1796. Conversely, Chicago’s first brewery opened in either 1833 (when the city was founded) or 1835.

The oldest standing brewery in Chicago is Goose Island, which opened in 1988 – yes, they still operate both a brewpub and production facility even though some parts of the portfolio have been moved to Anheuser-Busch facilities. The oldest standing D.C. brewery is Capitol City, which opened in 1992. D.C.’s first packaging brewery since Prohibition is, of course, D.C. Brau, which opened in 2009 and many more D.C. breweries opened just in the past few years.

An underrated contributor to the beer culture in Chicago is Siebel. The Siebel Institute opened in 1872 and has been one of the pre-eminent brewing schools in the nation ever since. While many breweries have come and gone since its opening, Siebel has been teaching the art of brewing the entire time. The consistency and frequency with which brewers come and go through Chicago leads to a lot of institutional knowledge flowing through the city as well. It’s no surprise then that , the Cicerone® Program is also based in Chicago. The program, founded by Siebel instructor Ray Daniels, certifies students all over the world on beer styles, storage, tasting, food pairing, and more.

Institutional knowledge also comes from breweries themselves. When large breweries are in operation for a long time, there is bound to be personnel movement. I noticed this quite a bit in Chicago, where former brewers moved from one of the larger breweries, like Goose Island or Rock Bottom, to either start a new operation or work with a smaller brewery where they could have more artistic license.  There is similar movement between facilities here, but it appears different as a matter of scale. I suspect this is attributable to the ages of D.C. breweries  – some of which have only been open for 3 years – as well as the relative paucity of small operations. On the whole, the D.C. breweries haven’t been around long enough to grow to large enough to have a significant amount of turnover and employees moving on to new ventures. We are starting to see this sort of movement in the District, and I envision that the shuffling of personnel I observed in Chicago will increase more and more in the District – especially if more breweries continue to open.

Depending on your outlook, personnel movement can be viewed in different ways. On one hand, organizations want to keep their best and brightest around for as long as possible. On the other hand, when established brewers take their institutional knowledge from one successful brewery to another, the beer community as a whole wins because there are more breweries benefiting from that knowledge and practice.

The shared knowledge gained from moving from one brewery to another leads to a lot of friendships among the members of the beer community in Chicago. While I was there, collaborative beers were nearly ubiquitous, and almost every local brewer was collaborating with one another on new beers.  There have been plenty of regional collaborations with brewers in D.C. with those in Maryland or Virginia, but we just don’t see that many collaborations with brewers in the District.

Style Points Matter

Since there are so many different breweries in Chicago, not every new brewery can (or should) make the same types of beer, and new breweries are able to find a niche by focusing on particular styles. For example, Un Annee focuses on Belgian beers, Off Color produces mostly historical and obscure styles, and Metropolitan is a lager brewery. Each of these facilities, and others, fills a niche for the beer-drinking public and can stay in business not only because they are good brewers but because there is demand for their distinct products.

We see the stylistic differences starting to emerge in the District with Right Proper and Bluejacket blurring style lines and experimenting with different historical beers, but there are currently no breweries focusing on one particular genre. When I examine the beer scene here in D.C., I just don’t see a need for a brewery to focus on a particular style – not yet anyway. Generally, the public appears satisfied with the current portfolios, one-offs, and volume of the local producers. However, if we start to see more neighborhood brewpubs and production breweries open in the area, I suspect we will start to see these breweries opening with a particular genre or set of styles to focus on.

When examining portfolios, the actual quality of the beer breweries produce goes hand-in-hand with the styles they brew. In my estimation there is not a whole lot of room for more breweries to enter the D.C. scene, so it will be incumbent on those that do open up to ensure their quality is top-notch. In my experience in Chicago, it was clear that beer quality was not universally high.  This doesn’t exclude from the market breweries not producing to the highest standard, but the new breweries must learn their trade incredibly quickly in order to remain competitive after the initial enthusiasm for a new brand wears off.

Localized Focus

Speaking of enthusiasm, one of the things I really enjoy about the D.C. beer scene is how loyal the average D.C. consumer is to the local breweries and the sense of pride they have when discussing local beer. I’m not saying that folks in Chicago don’t carry a similar sense of pride, but it does seem different there. I think localized enthusiasm, like a lot of other parts of this analysis, stems from the difference in city size. Since there are seemingly bars on every corner in Chicago, there is a lot more room for breweries outside of the region to come in and establish a presence. By doing so, outside brands can build loyalty with comparative ease. People in Chicago have loyalty to their local breweries, but since there are so many options everywhere you go, as a consumer, it is easy to try new beers and beer styles.

In the District, while the gray laws allow for a lot of variety of breweries to make it into the market, I would imagine it would still be quite difficult to take hold and establish a large presence because there just aren’t as many bars or tap handles up for grabs. This is clearly an advantage for local producers who can more easily establish brand loyalty by providing fresh and limited-run beers.

Bar owners seem to understand the popularity of local beer. D.C. is a more expensive city than Chicago, but not by as much as I expected – except when it comes to the cost of a local pint. It is frustrating when a bar decides to price a local beer $1 or $2 more than a comparable beer from another region. On the whole, the opposite is true in Chicago – typically the local beer is cheaper.  I have two distinct theories: first, bar owners have realized that locals in D.C. will pay more for a local product.  Second, in Chicago, even though the number of breweries per capita is comparable (though slightly lower) than D.C., the sheer number of local breweries is higher.  Therefore, breweries and distributors know that they must price their products attractively to bar owners, who then don’t have to charge as much per glass.  

That said, the beer nerd/geekery also seems more pervasive here in D.C. Chicago is most definitely a blue-collar drinking town, and I don’t see D.C. in the same light. For example, a Chicago neighborhood corner bar (which exist on every corner) typically has between 4 and 6 taps. There is usually a Budweiser/Bud Light and Miller Lite/High Life, one or two local craft handles, and one or two other craft beers. I look for these low-key bars in D.C. at every opportunity, but they are few and far between. My observations are that if a bar in D.C. has craft, they often have a pretty robust list, and the macro labels, if present, are either in bottles or non-existent.

To me, in a lot of instances, D.C. is a white-collar drinking down with a lot of focus on wine or spirits, but beer’s popularity is rising. Since beer is becoming more and more popular, a lot of folks that would drink wine are migrating their appreciation to beer – or at least appear to be appreciating beer. Here, those appearances suggest a large percentage of people that want to drink beer look to find the rarer and strange beers for checking in on Untappd, not just for drinking on a patio.   I think a lot of the (in my opinion, misplaced) desire for rare beers can be attributed to why people move to D.C. in the first place. It is a place where powerful and influential people strive to be. Like it or not, a lot of people in D.C. work in highly competitive and well-paid professions where appearances matter – so it is only natural the competitive mentality would seep into discussions or arguments about which beer is best.

My theory is that there is a lot of enthusiasm for rare beers in Chicago, but it is spread out more and covers a larger geographic area, so it is simply less concentrated on a handful of locations. Furthermore, with huge alcohol warehouses, like Binny’s, all over Chicago, rarer beers are just a little easier to find.  I also suspect that the widespread presence of a beer/wine/spirits superstore contributes to a lot of the way people drink in different cities.  In my experience, superstore price-points are lower, there is a much larger selection of products, and more volume or rarer beers.   

The Governmental Puzzle

Lastly, I feel like governmental relations has an underrated impact on the differences between these cities’ beer cultures. The relationship between brewers and the city permeates all sorts of areas from locations to serving hours.

Here in D.C. I find it frustratingly difficult to get to production facilities like D.C. Brau or Three Stars. I would prefer to take the Metro (or even the bus), but these sorts of facilities are not reasonably close to main public transit veins. Conversely, even the largest brewery by volume in Chicago, Lagunitas, is on an L line, as are a few others like Revolution and Half Acre.

I have a couple of suspicions related to the D.C. government and breweries. First, the D.C. government may be reluctant to zone the areas near metro stops appropriately for brewery use. In my experience, breweries operate as industrial operations for zoning purposes – often light industrial. Many, though not all, Metro stops are in residential areas which are not zoned for industrial operations. Therefore, if a brewery is to open, they will need to obtain a zoning variance. If the city prefers to keep housing and light commercial businesses near Metro stops, they simply won’t grant a variance.

Secondly, related to housing, is the cost of property near Metro stops. We touched on the cost differences between D.C. and Chicago a little bit above, but housing costs are one of the largest differences I’ve seen. As most people who rent know, the closer to a Metro stop you are, the higher the rent. The same generally holds true for businesses. So, if you are a brewery that needs a fair amount of space to build your facility, not only do you need to spend the money for equipment, personnel, and set-up costs, but you will also need to pay a premium for space relatively close to the Metro.

Lastly, the D.C. city government imposes a great deal of restrictions on breweries that I didn’t see in Chicago.  This leads to a lot of headaches during construction or when setting hours. For example, under DC Code section 25-118, a production facility, like 3 Stars can only have a tasting permit which will allow pint sales until 9:00 pm. In Chicago, the Half Acre tap room and Revolution brewery tap room are open until 1:00 am and 11:00 pm respectively – the city does not impose the same restrictions as those in D.C.

At the end of the day, the size of the city, age of breweries, stylistic differences, consumer focus, and governmental relations have a significant impact on how a city’s beer culture is experienced, but ultimately, a good beer city is a good beer city. The important thing, like always, is to come thirsty and with an open mind when visiting somewhere new. I’ve come to really like the culture here in D.C. as I meet new people and try new things. I hope others will take a moment next time they’re in Chicago and try some of the great breweries there too.

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