It depends on whether you value quality or quantity.
Choosing the best city in America for microbreweries is, like judging the best beer, very subjective. The most obvious metric to look at is the total number of small brewers in a city, but that doesn’t tell you anything about quality. You can look at online ratings, but those, by their inherent nature, are entirely subjective—and even then, one or two good breweries doth not a best city make. Heck, even the definition of “city,” can be debated. What if there are good breweries outside the city limits? Do those still count?
Clearly understanding the nature of this debate, The Pudding’s Russell Goldenberg decided to attempt to rank America’s 800-plus largest cities based on microbreweries anyway by trying to account for as many of these factors as possible. Using data from RateBeer (which has become a bit controversial in its own right), Goldenberg looked at the over 1,600 microbreweries and brewpubs that also had at least three beers with at least ten reviews (and over 50 reviews total).
However, here is the most interesting part: He then made the results customizable based on four factors: minimum number of breweries, maximum distance from the city, strength of the beers, and importantly, a sliding scale of whether you value quality or quantity.
So, back to our original question: What city is America’s microbrew capital? If you use Goldenberg’s default parameters—minimum five breweries within 20 miles based on all beers, but using an 80-20 weight on quality over quantity—the top ten are Santa Rosa, CA; San Diego, CA; Denver, CO; Anchorage, AK; Portland, OR; Minneapolis, MN; Chicago, IL; Ann Arbor, MI; St. Louis, MO; and Salt Lake City, UT.
That said, let’s say you disagree with those parameters—and the beer expert in me does—you can come up with your own list. First, I think the breweries should be closer together—within five miles (because you don’t want to be doing a lot of driving to get to beer). And yes, quality is important, but you can’t be a brewery capital without a lot of beer, so I would tilt the list towards a 40-60 split of quality versus quantity. My new list: San Diego, Denver, Portland, Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin, Santa Rosa, Seattle, St. Louis, and Bend, OR.
Another cool part of Goldenberg’s interactive chart is that you can roll over different cities to get more info and see a list of its top breweries. Though that also opened its own can of worms: Looking at the details of a city I know well, New York City, it says there are only six breweries. Even after seeing his methodology, that doesn’t seem accurate. Well, looks like we’ll just have to start the debate again.