America’s best beer cities: Comparing big city brewery scenes

By: Patrick W. Zimmerman

Big cities are giant interdependent conglomerations of chaotically organized, semi-autonomous groups, bound together in a state of (more or less) stable equilibrium by one, and only one, glorious social lubricant: beer.

The invention of intentional fermentation predates the rise of cities. Therefore, logic dictates that it clearly was a necessary and prior development to the development of mass civilization. History agrees. There.

So, now that the function and importance of cereal grains and sedentary agricultrue in the development has been established, let’s get down to what the Internet thinks really matters: Makin’ lists and startin’ arguments.


The question

If you’re a fan of metropolises (and odds are that you are), how does your city’s local brewery scene stack up?

Is the grass greener in a different wretched hive? If so, where should you move for a more satisfying, happier hour?

This is part three of our look at city brew scenes.  This week, we’re looking at at the biggest of the big, the large American metropoli (greater than 4 million people, using the US Census definition of Combined Statistical Area). You can find small cities and medium metro areas, as well. Within that category, we considered all highly-rated breweries (averaging 3.5/5 or better on Beer Advocate and Untappd) within 50mi of the city center, attempting to balance quality and quantity.



Short-short version

San Francisco, open your Golden Gate. You’ll let no (thirsty) stranger wait outside your (bar)” The top of the big-city brewery heap is pretty close, with the SF Bay Area just edging out Boston and Chicago for the #1 spot (helped, almost certainly, by Santa Rosa’s Russian River Brewing being juuuuuuuust inside the 50mi radius from SF City Hall at 48.46mi.).

Following that, Seattle stands out, having lots of breweries but only a couple outstanding ones, followed by Philly and then the two megalopolises, LA and New York (in that order). One surprising result was that the top 4 major metro areas (and 7 of the top 8) lost a significant portion of the territory in its 50mi radius to a large body of water. Only Philly at #5 sneaks in there. Land-locked big cities = mediocre beer?

On the other end of the spectrum…Texas. ::facepalm::. Austin and San Antonio are fine, but woof, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth.


How do we quantify brewery scenes?

In plain English, Brewery score = quantity of breweries/person X quality of breweries X 100,000.

Methodology is detailed in the Small Cities chapter of this project.

Note: Our methodlogy, calcuated on a per-capita basis, tends to penalize large metro areas, so they populated the bottom of the overall list. This is one of the reasons that we ended up comparing like-to-like in separate articles, rather than focusing on one big list. That, and the likelihood of anyone finishing a 10,000 word treatise on breweries.

For those of you who prefer graphs to words, here’s our handy graph of beer enjoyment graphed onto beer ratings.

Beer smile-o-meter

Because it’s in a graph with magical number dust, you now know with 100% false confidence that beer enjoyment objectively follows the trinomial function f(x)=(x-1)(x-2)(x-3).


The top 5

1 – San Francisco Bay Area, California (#20 overall) – Brewery score: 1.135

San Francisco Bay Area breweries

San Francisco seems to hit pretty much the sweet spot in our rankings, as far as major metro areas go. It’s dense enough that a 50mi radius from SF City Hall still encapsulates some productive brewing areas (in particular, Santa Rosa and most of Sonoma County), as well as as far South as San José. The Bay Area has a good number of quality breweries, but what puts it over the top is the 6 superlative ones.

  • Number of good (3.5+) breweries: 71 (0.00000811/person)
  • Superlative breweries: 6
  • Highest-rated brewery: The Rare Barrel (Berkeley, CA) – 4.325 metarating
    • Highest-rated beer: Home, Sour Home (Wild Ale Sour)

2 – Boston, Massachusetts (#22 overall) – Brewery score: 1.085

Boston breweries

Boston ranking pretty high on this list was no great surprise, as New England has some of the densest concentration of high-quality breweries in the country (see our small cities article for details on Portland, Burlington, Hartford, et. al).

The difference between SF and Boston is close enough that year-to-year fluctuations in ratings will likely cause them to leapfrog each other several times in the rankings over the next several years.

  • Number of good (3.5+) breweries: 66 (0.00000807/person)
  • Superlative breweries: 5
  • Highest-rated brewery: Trillium (Boston, MA) – 4.285 metarating
    • Highest-rated beer: Headroom (Imperial IPA)

3 – Chicago, Illinois (#23 overall) – Brewery score: 1.050

Chicago breweries

Chicagoland does very well for itself here, in spite of having a larger population to account for. The beer is good, the beer is plentiful (more than just Goose Island and Old Style, peoples). I’m probably going to start another flame war here, but that’s two gastronomic categories in which Chicago beats New York.

  • Number of good (3.5+) breweries: 104 (0.00001052/person)
  • Superlative breweries: 5
  • Highest-rated brewery: Mikerphone (Elk Grove Village, IL) – 4.08 metarating
    • Highest-rated beer: Imperial Smells Like Bean Spirit (Imperial Stout)

4– Seattle, Washington (#26 overall) – Brewery score: 0.826

Seattle breweries

The other obvious, hop-centric metropolis in the Pacific Northwest that was, of course, going to show up on any beer list. Seattle doesn’t have that many great breweries, but it’s got a whole lot of very good ones, particularly for a metropolitan area that is barely big enough to qualify for our big city list.

Hoppy beer goes very well with flying fish.

  • Number of good (3.5+) breweries: 93 (0.00001985/person)
  • Superlative breweries: 2
  • Highest-rated brewery: Holy Mountain (Seattle, WA) – 4.12 metarating
    • Highest-rated beer: Guava Table (Sour)

5– Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (#28 overall) – Brewery score: 0.743

Philadelphia breweries

Birthplace of America, brotherly abuse of its own sports teams, and land of delicious unhealthy meat and cheese sandwiches (American, with, hots and sweets. At Pudge’s in Blue Bell.). Also, a sneakily underrated beer scene that’s pretty easy to tap into in Center City (see what we did there?). No, Yuengling didn’t make the “good brewery” cut with a 3.30 metarating).

  • Number of good (3.5+) breweries: 66 (0.00000919/person)
  • Superlative breweries: 3
  • Highest-rated brewery: Conclave (Flemington, NJ) – 4.14 metarating
    • Highest-rated beer: Barrel Aged Mexican Morning (BAMM!) (Milk Stout)

The big big-city beer table

All 14 Combined Statistical Areas in the US that have more than 4 million people, ranked by Brewery Score.

Major US metro area brewery scenes
Rank (overall) Metro area Brewery score Breweries Superlative Highest rated brewery
1 (21) San Francisco Bay Area 1.135 71 6 The Rare Barrel
2 (22) Boston 1.085 66 5 Trillium
3 (23) Chicago 1.050 105 5 Mikerphone
4 (26) Seattle 0.826 93 2 Holy Mountain
5 (28) Philadelphia 0.743 66 3 Conclave
6 (29) Los Angeles 0.671 69 7 Monkish
7 (30) New York 0.646 79 9 Other Half and Sand City (tie)
8 (34) Atlanta 0.354 24 1 Burnt Hickory
9 (37) DC-Baltimore 0.311 63 2 Aslin
10 (39) Miami 0.298 15 1 J. Wakefield
11 (43) Phoenix 0.151 17 0 Wren House
12 (46) Houston 0.102 18 0 Copperhead
13 (50) Detroit 0.068 40 0 River Rouge
14 (54) Dallas-Fort Worth -0.117 28 0 The Collective Brewing Project

The complete metro area table

For those of you who want all the info, all the time, in handy table-like form, including all 54 primary statistical areas, brewery rating, and highest-rated brewery.

Rank Metro area Brewery score Breweries Superlative Highest rated brewery
1 Burlington, VT 73.609 32 9 The Alchemist
2 Portland, ME 20.316 37 6 Bissel Brothers
3 Bend, OR 20.184 15 2 The Ale Apothecary
4 Hartford, CT 8.694 56 6 Tree House
5 Fort Collins, CO 8.057 58 1 WeldWerks
6 Asheville, NC 8.030 34 2 Zebulon Artisan Ales
7 Charleston, SC 4.758 10 2 Westbrook
8 Tampa – St. Petersburg, FL 3.096 34 5 Escape
9 Richmond, VA 3.027 18 2 The Answer Brewpub
10 Columbus, OH 2.780 23 4 Ill Mannered
11 Anchorage, AK (credit for state) 2.732 21 1 Anchorage Brewing Company
12 San Diego, CA 2.654 65 5 AleSmith
13 Austin, TX 1.932 35 2 Jester King
14 Portland, OR 1.723 60 4 de Garde
15 St. Louis, MO 1.697 24 3 Side Project
16 Nashville, TN 1.686 18 2 Southern Grist
17 Omaha, NE 1.654 11 1 Boiler
18 Denver, CO 1.347 118 2 Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales
19 Cincinnati, OH 1.341 29 1 Triple Digit
20 Raleigh, NC 1.187 29 1 Bond Brothers
21 San Francisco Bay Area, CA 1.135 71 6 The Rare Barrel
21 Boston, MA 1.085 66 5 Trillium
23 Chicago, IL 1.050 105 5 Mikerphone
24 Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN 1.046 60 0 Lupulin
25 Pittsburgh, PA 0.860 23 1 Brew Gentlemen
26 Seattle, WA 0.826 93 2 Holy Mountain
27 San Antonio, TX 0.772 15 1 Oddwood Ales
28 Philadelphia, PA 0.746 66 3 Conclave
29 Los Angeles, CA 0.671 69 7 Monkish
30 New York, NY 0.646 79 9 Other Half and Sand City (tie)
31 Sacramento, CA 0.635 28 1 Device
32 Grand Rapids, MI 0.537 38 0 Bell’s
33 Albuquerque, NM 0.514 18 0 La Cumbre
34 Atlanta, GA 0.354 24 1 Burnt Hickory
35 Madison, WI 0.339 23 0 New Glarus
36 Indianapolis, IN 0.317 40 0 Black Acre
37 DC-Baltimore, MD 0.311 63 2 Aslin
38 New Orleans, LA 0.299 11 0 Second Line
39 Miami, FL 0.298 15 1 J. Wakefield
40 Charlotte, NC 0.270 19 0 Wooden Robot
41 Cleveland, OH 0.180 20 0 The BottleHouse
42 Oklahoma City, OK 0.151 7 0 Roughtail
43 Phoenix, AZ 0.151 17 0 Wren House
44 Milwaukee, WI 0.149 22 0 Raised Grain
45 Jacksonville, FL 0.139 12 0 Aardwolf
46 Houston, TX 0.102 18 0 Copperhead
47 Orlando, FL 0.100 14 0 Ocean Sun
48 Kansas City, MO 0.095 13 0 Crane
49 Las Vegas, NV 0.070 9 0 Lovelady
50 Detroit, MI 0.068 40 0 River Rouge
51 Virginia Beach / Norfolk, VA 0.044 17 0 Virginia Beer Company
52 Honolulu, HI (credit for state) 0.025 8 0 Lanikai
53 Salt Lake City, UT -0.029 10 0 2 Row
54 Dallas-Fort Worth, TX -0.111 28 0 The Collective Brewing Project

Click the title bar to expand or collapse.


What’s next?

That’s a wrap for this edition of the rankings! Only thing left to do is more in-person research. LOTS more research. Also, finish writing the script to update these rankings every 6 months or so.

Coming soon, keep an eye out for downloadable and prints of City Beer maps, with brewery names, ratings, and addresses. Basically, The Beer Gazetteer made into an actual, you know, gazetteer.

Table updated to include Omaha, Nebraska (Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan statistical area). Thanks to Brady Cox for pointing out that we missed it when building the small cities database.

About The Author

Architeuthis Rex, a man of (little) wealth and (questionable) taste.

Sports-obsessed historian and anthropologist interested in the connections between sports, mass culture, and the social and political contexts in which they exist.

Earned Ph.D. in Social and Cultural History with a concentration in Anthropology from Carnegie Mellon University and then (mostly) fled academia to write things that more than 10 other people will actually read.

Plays beer-league hockey, softball, and soccer. Professional toddler wrangler. Likes dogs, good booze, food, and horribly awesome kung-fu movies.

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