In Tennessee, you couldn’t make Rogue’s classic Dead Guy Ale without a distillers’ license. In Kansas, no beer with more than 3.2 percent alcohol by volume can be sold in the grocery store, meaning an easy-sippin’ barbecue beer like BridgePort Summer Squeeze comes from a shady liquor store with barred windows. In Alabama, home brewing is totally illegal, with an upstart brewer facing a felony for boiling the kinks out of his recipes. And across the country, distribution laws are tilted to protect Big Beer, which is why Apex doesn’t pour anything from the acclaimed Three Floyds, and Cowboys fans in Portland can’t sip Lone Star while they watch America’s Team on Sunday.
Beer is liquid culture, and America’s tapestry of wildly varied laws creates very different visions of what’s popular or possible.
Trivial issues, you might say, especially with an important election looming. Why write about beer instead of something “important”?
A fair point. Except that beer birthed civilization. If, as many anthropologists believe, early human clans settled into cities to ferment grains, isn’t the beer a culture produces a fair benchmark of its peoples’ progress? Why even bother with civilization—entering a social contract, punching ballots and paying taxes—if we can’t get better beer out of it?
Once every four years, America picks a leader through its only nationwide election. We thought the throes of that campaign would be a perfect time to also find out which state is making the best suds. So, months ago, WW started a project called the President of Beers, putting the flagship craft brew from each of the 50 states through a blind taste test.
In keeping with American tradition, our methods were slightly flawed and the decks stacked in favor of monied elites. We didn’t necessarily choose the “best” beer from each state, but a candidate popular among its people which represents them well. We broke a lot of laws to get these bottles. Because its illegal to ship alcohol over many state lines, we had it bootlegged—stuffed inside teddy bears, disguised as tap handles, and labeled as live yeast samples. We called in favors and spent hundreds for a case of bottles stocked at grocery stores in their native land. Intern John Locanthi spent the better part of his summer staring at spreadsheets and calling unfamiliar area codes.
Six-hundred Dixie cups, four hours, three pizzas and 12 beer-soaked ballots later, we had the returns. And we were shocked.
How the Election Worked
Our goal was to get the “flagship” beer from all 50 states. Not the “best” beer, but a beer that best represents its state. Most candidates are the best-selling local brews in their homeland. Others are nationally known or symbolic. All were obtained during the same month from friends, breweries and retail stores and stored in a cool, dark place until election day.
Our tasting panel was made up of Hilary Berg of Oregon Wine Press, John Chandler of Portland Monthly, Anne Marie DiStefano of the Portland Tribune, legendary beer writer Fred Eckhardt, beer blogger and event organizer Ezra Johnson-Greenough, brewery aficionado John Lovegrove, famed “Beer Goddess” and author Lisa Morrison, Sarah Pederson of popular beer bar Saraveza and WW’s Martin Cizmar, John Locanthi, Ben Waterhouse and Brian Yaeger.
All 50 beers were tested during a four-hour marathon at the WW office on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Each beer was presented in a 1-ounce sample poured into a Dixie cup. There were no style notes. Each beer was assigned a movie-title code name so it could be discussed without confusion (Sunset Boulevard was our winner; The Lord of the Rings was last place). Voters scored each beer on a scale of 1 to 100, and the final results were tabulated by averaging those scores.