Myth: You should drink local.
On the one hand, drinking locally brewed beer does make some solid sense. I’ll leave the environmental considerations to another post, or to the comments section below, and attend to the character of the beer, which in many cases can certainly benefit from being consumed closer to its place of origin. Long ago I grew tired of popping oxidized—or even flat-out infected—bottles, and turned to local sixers, whether in D.C. or while traveling about. And this decision went beyond the more obvious flavor flaws I’d encountered; sometimes, the well-traveled brews I sampled were actually quite good, just not as great as they would have been if consumed in their home markets.
There was just one problem with this reactionary approach: a lot of local beer is bad.
Doing the "right thing" for the relative quality of the brew had led me to eschew beers that might be a shadow of their fresher selves, or worse. But what often times remained was something exceedingly fresh…but just not good.
And that is the real danger of the drink local mania that has, and continues to, sweep the nation. Somewhere along the way local became synonymous with high quality and ultimate desirability, engendering an often myopic mission to source and serve only that which is fermented within 30 miles of the bar, restaurant, or beer shop (and that is another topic for another time…what are the real distance parameters for local beer to be local?). But what if that local ale is just not that tasty? Then what?
Another issue that stems from drink local mania is the homogeneity of style that pervades. Almost every brewer tends to craft something hoppy, and this Pale Ale or IPA is—more often than not—the biggest seller from that brewery’s arsenal, and often the highest-rated on beer websites. So when a bar or restaurant decides to turn over its taps to locally-brewed beers, a hophead pileup can ensue (this is particularly apparent in bars and restaurants who are flipping their beer programs for a craft-beer angle and feel compelled to stock locals first and foremost; notions of covering various flavor profiles too often become secondary to the all-important local designation). Case in point was a nice Indian restaurant I visited about a year ago. The wine list paid special attention to Rieslings; an obvious nod to that varietal’s pairing prowess with Indian cuisine. The beer list had its own focus as well…you guessed it: local! No determinations based on pairing possibilities, just locally sourced brews—90% of which were at the very least hop-forward and, sadly, worked poorly with the food.
Now there are certainly some amazing local brews out there; after all, all beer is local to some place. Seeking out the locally-brewed beers when visiting new locales can yield some mind-blowing experiences, especially when those local brews are not available anywhere else and happen to be world-class (Alpine Beer Company and Lawson’s Finest Liquids are two that come immediately to mind). And I will admit that crisp refreshing brews, like Kolsch and Pilsner, as well as hop-forward brews like IPAs and Pale Ales, require extreme freshness to achieve their full potential. To that end, I no longer stock imported bottles of these styles, knowing that the four to five week travel time—at the very least—from brewery to retailer robs the brews of their flavor essence. Draft versions, on the other hand, can travel quite well, as long as the many hands that touch the kegs throughout the pipeline are committed to its care. I tend to view non-local domestic craft in the same way, and thus the beer lists at my restaurants showcase far more crisp and hoppy brews by percentage on draft than they do in bottle; my bottle lists gravitate much more heavily toward brews that withstand—or even benefit—from some aging: stronger beers, sour ales, etc. Special attention is also paid to bottle-conditioned ales from afar, since those brews are naturally prepared to stave off immediate oxidation.
In the end, a beer list of balance is achieved: a myriad of flavor profiles, ABVs, and brewing locales all earning balanced representation. One principle question guides each decision: Am I serving a high quality brew that yield memorable flavor experiences? The local brews that are up to that task are necessarily celebrated, and I often arrive at that conclusion by considering whether or not I would encourage a colleague in another, non-local market to purvey one of my locally-crafted brews.
This determination also leaves plenty of room for the other domestic and international craft beers that deserve our attention. And some of those brewers—think Belgians, for instance—may even lack the local market necessary for their survival, let alone growth. By supporting the styles suitable for export from their portfolios, we actually end up keeping local alive in areas where local is far less celebrated.