Monthly Archives: July 2020

Walking North in Search of Innovative Beer

As I march north across the 14 Appalachian Trail states, I cross through states that have been pioneers in the brewing movement, and states that have been laggards. While walking there’s plenty of time to ponder the patterns of brewing across the states. I’m a professor of public policy at Georgia Tech – and I once collected a whole bunch of data on beer and innovation for a project that got sidelined… but this is the perfect venue to share some of the things I learned doing this research that might not have otherwise seen the light of day. Interestingly, as I walk north, I’ll walk to more intensive brewing states. The figure below shows the number of breweries per 100k residents of a state, as of 2015. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine look like the Mecca of brewing in the US… at least for the Eastern US. To help understand how this came to be, I’m going to give a brief history of beer in America.

The colonial era through late mid 1800s were a time of heavy drinking in the U.S., and by the 1880s there were over 2,000 breweries in the U.S. (Some other time I’ll give a history of beer prior to the 1880s!). From the 1880s until prohibition, the number of breweries gradually declined as local and state temperance movements took hold, and due to technological advances (that I’ll discuss at another time), industry consolidation took place.  Still, prior to prohibition, there were over 1,000 breweries in the U.S., and after prohibition over 700 reopened. Yet by 1978, when Jimmy Carter signed the Cranston Act into law, legalizing home brewing, there were just 42 breweries remaining in the United States. This history sets the stage describe the modern era of brewing over the past 40 years, and how the number of breweries has exploded to over 5,000 today, albeit with enormous state and local variation. While I’ll address much of this history another time, here I wanted to touch on the relationship between public policy and innovation in the craft beer industry, and the Appalachian trail – which travels from one the least innovative states (at least historically – Georgia) through some of the most innovative states (North Carolina and Vermont) before arriving at Mt. Katahdin.

The walk across 13 states begins in Georgia – a state that has been a laggard in beer innovation. In 2015 (when I began research for a book on this subject), there were just 0.9 breweries per 100,000 people in Georgia – the very least in the U.S. (tied with Mississippi and Alabama). Above, I show the number of beers offered – per state, in 2015, showing that even in 2015 – well after the craft beer revolution, Georgia offered just 776 distinctive beers, while Pennsylvania and New York were offering over 3,700 beers! (And this includes all the trial beers and specialty seasonal brews).

There are a number of reasons that these places might be laggards. One reason is restrictive policies that prevent innovation in brewing. Home brewing is the ground floor of innovation in brewing- and wasn’t legalized in Georgia until 1993 (well after the craft beer movement was well-underway in California, Oregon, and other places), and Alabama and Mississippi until 2013. Nearly every early craft brewer was first – a home brewer. I’ve been home brewing for over 20 years. I started in my freshman dorm, in college, with a kit called Mr. Beer that I bought at Bed Bath and Beyond, and the schwag that I produced was only drinkable because I was 19 years old. When I was 21, I upgraded to a 5 gallon bucket that I still use today. I’ll talk more about my brewing adventures another day.

The owner of Hop City – Kraig Torres – a homebrewing store in Atlanta that helped spawn most of the major Atlanta area breweries – once told me a story about his attempt to open a craft brewing store in Birmingham Alabama. A couple days before the store was going to open, he was raided, at gunpoint, by Alabama Alcohol Beverage Control, and all his inventory was confiscated. While this event made front page of the Birmingham News, and the state legislature quickly changed the law, Kraig never got back his $7,000 of brewing equipment that was confiscated, and the shock of being raided at gunpoint bothered him many years later when he told me this story. In the three years after homebrewing was legalized in Alabama, 18 new breweries opened, tripling the number of breweries in the state.

Other policy restrictions that prevented innovation in Georgia included a prohibition on retail sales and a prohibition on self-distribution. Many small breweries rely on retail sales – especially in Colorado and other brewing hubs where some breweries exist solely by selling beer direct to customers. It allows them to try out different innovative recipes and sell directly to customers – avoiding costly distribution middlemen. Distributors play a bottleneck in the ecology of beer innovation while sucking up roughly 20% of the revenue. It’s difficult to get shelf space in a supermarket and you’re often limited to a small number of products. You also have to brew at sufficient volume to attract a distributor. While larger breweries might not want to deal with trucks and distribution, smaller breweries that are allowed to self-distribute might rely on direct sales to local bars and restaurants. In the early days of craft beer, Budweiser and other major brewers prevented distributors from servicing craft beers using a Budweiser First policy that was eventually challenged in court and settled (more on that another day!).

There are other weird laws that might prevent the emergence of breweries or prevent innovation. Some states, such as Georgia (or more prominently Utah), had or have regulations on the amount of alcohol that beer can have. Tennessee, until 2017, limited beer produced in state to <6% ABV and required beer stores to have a separate entrances and separate licenses for beer that was below 6% and beer that was above 6%! If you’re limited to brewing <6% (or even worse, 4%) beer, it’s difficult or impossible to brew any number of high gravity styles.

In any case, public policy clearly has an impact on brewing. Below, I’ll share a couple of graphics that have been stashed on my hard drive for way too long. Special thanks to Ross Beppler for helping me put these together many years ago.

Below, I plot the number of breweries in each state against the number of years that a state has legally allowed homebrewing. While the graphical relationship isn’t terribly strong, it’s clear that states that have only allowed home brewing for a couple years have few breweries. Some of this is compounded by states that legalized homebrewing (or at least had no law prohibiting it) for a long period of time before homebrewing was legalized nationally in 1979. The data also suggest that perhaps the time needed for maturity in brewing – to convince someone to take the plunge and open a brewery – doesn’t take 30 years, but indeed takes more than 5:).

Fishing and Foraging on the Trail

This past weekend, walking a section of the AT, with my dog Hops, I had a chance to try my hand at catching fish and foraging along the trail. I was only doing a 30 mile segment over 2 and a half days, and I was going alone – no kids, no friends – just the dog and me on the trail. While I normally meticulously plan my wilderness adventures – this one was more spur of the moment. I had stared at a screen for hours on end, and been in endless video-chats. I needed to get out. I threw stuff in the bag, made a plan with the spouse to meet her and the kids at the trout pond at Amicalola falls (the base of the AT approach trail), and headed out. I didn’t go ultra-light (more on that in another post). But I used the opportunity to empty my cabinets. I took some mac and cheese, some cans of tuna, some Knorr Mexican rice, and some nuts and crackers. Enough to survive, though not enough to really enjoy it. Really, my hope was to catch some trout along the way and supplement my meal with fish.

I planned my trip to start at Dockery Lake, a couple miles off of the AT near a stocked trout pond. I’d stay one night near a shelter on the AT (maybe Gooch Gap), and the next night at Three Forks, which is this beautiful intersection of trout rivers in the Cohutta Wilderness. Three Forks is easily missed if you’re walking the AT. It’s only 4 miles in from Springer Mountain. When I previously hiked the Georgia section of the trail, we passed Three Forks within the first couple of hours, and didn’t even stop for a snack. In the years since, I’ve come to recognize this intersection of rivers as one of the most beautiful areas of Georgia. I had long been wanting to camp there.

I arrived at Dockery lake in the middle of the afternoon with Hops. I had been fishing for about 45 minutes – gotten only a nibble from a trout who didn’t want to stay on the line, and it started to rain. I figured I better start making my way to camp. I had about 6 miles to walk to get to Gooch Gap. I got to Gooch Gap around 7pm, made some mac and cheese and tuna, and chatted it up with some young kids doing a few miles on the trail, and a rambler named TomKat who talked to me about meandering and foraging his way towards Pennsylvania. TomKat was an interesting character who had spent the previous year jumping trains. He was walking maybe 2-4 miles per day at this point, and had mostly run out of food. He seemed like a reasonably smart character who had thoughtful things to say about dog training, foraging mushrooms, and had some deeper thoughts about politics and religion. Usually I end up with tons of extra food… this time, because of my haphazard packing, I only had a small bag of nuts and an extra packet of oatmeal for him. I also made him some coffee.

The next day was challenging – with a section called “Devil’s Kitchen” taking a toll on my feet and knees. Go figure. It reminds me of the time I hiked “Devil’s Gorge” in upstate NY on New Years with a close friend – we made it about 3 miles in sleet and ice before nightfall (about 4pm), falling well short of the intended shelter, and camped – 3 dudes and a dog in a 2 man tent – on the side of the trail.

Hops and I take in a rare view from the Appalachian Ridge.

I found a bunch of mushrooms that afternoon – some Chantarelles and some Chicken of the Woods that I packed up in the mesh of my pack. I rolled into Three Forks at around 4pm, and, while I had been picturing a sunny lazy afternoon fishing by the river, dreaming of trout and wild mushrooms for dinner – as soon as I got my rod out it started to pour. Something about trying to stand in an icy river to fish in the rain after a 11 mile walk was not entirely appealing. I packed up and continued onward – spending the night at Stover Creek. I was the only one at Stover Creek. Years ago, when doing the Georgia section of the trail, leaving from Springer Mountain – this was our first stop.  It was where I earned the trail name “Whiskey Cough” for my propensity to carry a liter of whiskey on the trail and cough after each sip. It’s a very literal and descriptive name.  I chopped up the mushrooms and added them to some miso soup and some Mexican rice. It was phenomenal and made me forget about the lack of fish (while carrying a pan, rod, and lures, adding a good 3 lbs to my pack).

Chicken of the Woods mushrooms – to be prepared in Miso Soup and with Mexican Rice.

It’s an interesting experience spending a night alone on the trail. It wasn’t the first time I’d done it – but something about sleeping around bears and in a violent thunderstorm in a tent is a bit harrowing. Stover Creek had lots of signs up about recent bear activity in the area. It’s nice to have the company of Hops, the dog, in these situations. For better or worse, Hops would either protect me from a bear, or, provoke a bear into attacking us. Still, having the dog was comforting.

The following day, I was renewed with energy. It had stopped raining (at least temporarily), and the trail was smooth and flat. I motored through 12 miles in about 5 hours, stopping only to collect some chantarelles for a risotto. I was powered by another opportunity to fish with my sons and catch some trout at the bottom of Amicalola Falls. My family met me at the top of the falls, and as we descended the falls… it rained hard. After the rain, we spent a few minutes fishing – my son caught his first trout – he was thrilled. I whipped out my camp stove and pan that I had been carrying for the past 30 miles for cooked it up on the side of the pond with a couple others that I caught. A crowd formed watching this strange bearded man clean and cook fish on a tiny little stove. I’m sure nobody had seen anything like this before.

My son with his first trout!
Nothing better than super fresh trout on the trail!
A nice haul of chantarelles for a risotto.
The risotto – prepared with the chantarelles and short grain brown rice (and some homegrown thyme & parsley).