Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Surprising Results of Northern California Brewing Geography from a Simple Analysis

I always wondered how brewing activity is tied to geography. So to understand this more, I rather naively started looking at some of the data on beer brewing licenses by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for each county to see what I might discover. And if I say so myself, a very simple, straightforward analysis does indicate some general truths, and also raises good questions to pursue for further analysis.

The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control produces a report of the number of alcohol licenses per county. So simply looking up the number Type 1 (Brewery), Type 23 (Small Brewery) and Type 75 (Brewpub) licenses issued to each county, a rough idea of the brewing activity of the county can be determined. This may not be your ideal gauge of brewing activity per county, and it isn't mine either. It doesn't take into account quantity, where data is harder to find, or quality of the beer, which is rather subjective. But simply taking a count of the number of brewing locations within a county and a good starting point for "back of the envelope" calculations. So I started by looking at nine California counties that border the San Francisco Bay (San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, and San Mateo), added a couple nearby ones with demonstrable brewing activity (Santa Cruz, Mendocino), and threw in San Diego county just for grins, seeing how an California county everyone would agrees has plenty of breweries in it, would stack up against the others. (For those unfamiliar with these California counties, here's a handy map.)

After determining the Type 1, Type 23, and Type 75 licenses issued by the State of California, I took the sum of these numbers, and then divided the population of each county by the total number of brewing licenses in it, and rounded to resulting county residents per brewery to the closest thousand. After each county residents per brewery is listed, I've put the number of Type 1, Type 23, Type 75, and county population in parenthesis in the following format: (Type 1 / Type 23 / Type 75 / County Population). In order of fewest residents per brewery, here is what I found:

Medocino (17,000...( 2 / 3 / 0 / 86,221)
Napa 22,000...( 0 / 1 / 5 / 133,433)
Sonoma 29,000...( 0 / 14 / 2 / 466,741)
Santa Cruz 51,000...( 0 / 5 / 0 / 253,137)
Marin 62,000...( 0 / 3 / 1 / 248,794)
San Diego 79,000...( 0 / 24 / 14 / 3,001,072)
San Francisco 81,000...( 1 / 5 / 4 / 808,976)
Alameda 134,000...( 1 / 10 / 0 / 1,474,368)
Santa Clara 136,000...( 2 / 7 / 4 / 1,764,499)
San Mateo 142,000...( 0 / 5 / 0 / 712,690)
Solano 204,000...( 1 / 1 / 0 / 407,515)
Contra Costa 206,000...( 0 / 5 / 0 / 1,029,703)

Let's consider that 20,000-30,000 people per brewery figure for a moment. That's one brewery for each small city in the county. And how many of you honest expected Napa County to rank second on this list? Three things seemed to jump out of the numbers, at least to me.

Three Distinct Groups of Counties
It was surprising to me to see the counties neatly organize themselves into three groups. There is the group of Lower Density Counties, that includes
Medocino, Napa, Sonoma, Santa Cruz, and Marin Counties. All of these counties have a fair amount of wine making activity as well. Next are the two High Density Urban Counties of San Francisco and San Diego, which surprisingly have almost the exact same density of breweries. The last group of counties, bringing up the rear are Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Solano, and Contra Costa counties, which are the Largely Suburban Bay Area Counties.

Outside San Francisco, the Number of Residents per Brewery is Surprisingly Uniform
I didn't really expect this, thinking there would be more concentration around San Francisco and Oakland, but that wasn't the case.

The South Bay Isn't Quite the Beer Desert Everyone Says It Is
I've suspected this for a few months now, and it was part of my motivation for doing the analysis. Compared to most counties in the Bay Area, Santa Clara holds it's own, thank you very much. If there is any beer desert in Northern California, it is the Northeastern Counties of Solano and Contra Costa.

I'm encouraged these results suggest a number of questions to delve further, which are:

  1. Does this rather simple approach work as we expand to other regions? I really didn't expect such a nice, neat arrangement of counties. What refinements can we make for it to be more reliable?

  2. Is there a relation between wine making and brewing? If we look at other California counties with a lot of wine making activity, would we see similar results in brewing activity? What about wine making regions of Oregon, Washington and New York states?

  3. Can we look at other urban areas in the United States and compare the residents per brewery in these area, and see what cities emerge as particularly active brewing cities. Of course, cities like San Francisco, San Diego, Portland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston have reputations as brewing meccas. How do these reputations square with the data?
I'm looking forward to seeing conclusions we can make about brewing and geography and if this kind of stuff interests you, then stay tuned. And of course, if anyone has any comment, questions or sugestions, I look forward to hearing them.


  1. It's hard to argue with the numbers. To a certain degree, yes, the south bay isn't hurting for beer which is encouraging but I still think we're a "beer desert" for several reasons.

    The primary reason is, despite the reasonable numbers of craft breweries in our area, the craft beer community seems smaller in comparison to other areas. We may, in fact, be just as big but we're nowhere near as vocal. If we want better beer here in the south bay, we need to start asking for it. This goes far beyond distribution. If we're asking for great and interesting beers from other regions, we should be doing the same of our local breweries.

    I encourage south bay craft beer lovers to meet their local brewers. They need our support to know they're not toiling away in obscurity and that if they do brew up something interesting, it will not be for nothing.

  2. Interesting thoughts, Peter. I'm not sure how to meausure "organization of craft beer drinkers", "interactivity with your local brewer", or "vocal-ness". Certainly San Francisco and the East Bay have a greater tradition of activism than the South Bay. Then again, maybe brewers in the South Bay quietly brew their beer, and people in the South Bay quietly drink it and are happy with it, and there's no need for anyone to be vocal about anything. Is that a bad thing?