Let’s say there are 9,000 breweries in the country, just for the sake of my numerically-averse brain. How long would it take to visit them all? Assuming five breweries per weekend (not impossible), 45 weekends a year (not likely), and no gout (not a doctor), it’d take you somewhere in the ballpark of 40 years of beer tourism. The mind, she boggles — and I more or less visit breweries for a living! Which makes the numbers Chris O’Leary is putting up all the more staggering.
By the time this column hits the internet, O’Leary — a marketing executive in New York City who moonlights as the editor-publisher of the Empire State-focused beer blog “Brew York” — will be somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, en route to Australia and his 3,000th brewery visit. Though he’s scheduled this momentous milestone to fall on April 1, this is no April Fool’s joke. What started in 2013 as a casual effort to tally up the breweries he’d visited since founding Brew York in 2008 (167) has become a full-blown lifestyle project for the 40-year-old O’Leary, one underwritten by unquenchable thirst, logistical precision, and a Dreamliner’s worth of frequent flier miles. Think of him as The Points Guy of beer tourism — The Pints Guy, if you will.
“I don’t have the fanciest new gadgets or anything like that,” he tells Hop Take from his home in New York City as he packs for his trip Down Under, where he’ll hit more than a dozen breweries on his way to — and past — his trimillennial taproom visit. “It’s almost cliché, but it’s a mantra that I’ve lived with for at least the last 10 years: I value experiences over things.” Call it “Drink, Post, Love.” For over a decade, he’s organized this wanderlust around the United States’ (and the world’s) burgeoning beer scene, hopping from city to city, visiting breweries, and documenting the effort with regular blog posts, a carefully kept spreadsheet, and a massive, searchable map. The current count stands at 2,992, including 2565 in the U.S. (“2286 are still open!”) and 427 breweries abroad, mostly in Europe. “I would say I can still picture, like, 80 percent of them in my head,” he says, laughing.
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These aren’t mere check-ins, either. Even though he’s only keeping score against himself, O’Leary’s criteria for what counts as a visit are pretty stringent. The place must make beer on-site, and he must drink that beer there. “I’ve got to keep myself honest,” he explains. Satellite taprooms don’t count, even if a brewery’s production facility isn’t open to the public; neither does drinking stuff produced at a main brewery if the secondary location he’s at has a pilot system putting out its own offerings. These standards “did evolve during the pandemic,” O’Leary tells me, almost apologetically, but otherwise, they’ve remained unchanged for over a decade.
It’s his rigor, combined with the sheer breadth of his effort, that elevates O’Leary beyond the average beer tourist. Your humble Hop Take editor does not typically go in for travelogues, but his deep, analytical, shoe-leather forays on fermenting frontlines foreign and domestic endow him with valuable expertise about the beer business’s ever-changing on-premise trends. There just aren’t that many people capable of outlining what the past decade of soaring growth, mainstream penetration, and shifting drinker preference has wrought on breweries writ large with the learned, vibes-based authority that comes from actually being there. O’Leary, by virtue of drinking in more breweries than nearly anyone else in the world (there are a few other obsessives out there), is a font of that sort of intangible intel.
What do you want to know? How taproom decor has changed over the past 10 years? Which rural counties in the Lower Midwest are running successful brewery trails these days? The local drinkers’ attitudes toward corporate buyouts in Traverse City, Michigan, Reno, Nevada, and, oh, I don’t know, San Juan, Puerto Rico? If O’Leary can’t tell you, I doubt there’s anyone who can.
But rather than take our conversation into the weeds (as I’ve done in the past) this time around I asked a few more open-ended questions of our man, angling for higher-altitude reflections on how the craft brewing industry has evolved for better and worse over the span of his globe-trotting endeavor. To wit, here’s O’Leary (edited lightly for length and clarity) on:
- The slightly diminished dominance of India Pale Ale: “Whether it’s ever going to be a true trend, I’ve definitely noticed a lot more lager out there lately, which means that I can visit more breweries and not be completely knocked on my ass by brewery No. 4 of the day. That would have been the case in the age of double and triple IPAs. I’m really happy about the resurgence of craft lagers because it gives me a very early read on the quality of the beer that a brewery is making. There’s nothing to hide behind. I’ve actually seen more IPAs in the last year than I have in the previous five, and plenty of breweries will still push their hazy IPAs, or sour IPAs. But I think the age of ‘10 beers on the board, nine of them are IPAs’ is behind us. That’s a relief to me.”
- The utter intractability of the “kids in taprooms” discourse: “Like two years ago, I created these Brewery Taproom Bingo cards. Some of the squares were like, ‘No children after [insert time here],’ and ‘Overheard complaint about crying child.’ It’s kind of the third rail of the craft beer industry, but there are more people who tolerate it now than complain about it. I tolerate it! And for every one brewery I’ve been to that doesn’t allow children, I’ve seen three that actually have amenities for children, like a room with toys and books. It’s just so different than it was 10 years ago.”
- The beer bar’s essential legacy and endangered future: “It’s very troubling to see some of the more iconic places that have closed recently, with Falling Rock in Denver being my prime example. I think that was part of an evolution that happened there much earlier than happened anywhere else. Ten years ago there was already a brewery in almost every neighborhood in Denver, whereas drinking at breweries was such a foreign concept to people who hadn’t spent much time outside of New York City, or even just people who hadn’t spent time in a city that had a vibrant taproom culture. Now that’s pervaded virtually every city in the U.S. If that was something that contributed to Falling Rock’s demise 10 years later, will other cities that were behind Denver follow? I think bars and taprooms serve different purposes, especially when you consider the latter’s tolerance of dogs and families. I don’t consider a craft beer bar necessarily a third space — you might visit at night, you might splurge. Whereas sitting in a good taproom on a Saturday or Sunday, they’ll do a lot of repeat business in a way that suggests they’ve really become cemented as third spaces.”
- The irredeemable brewery mistake he’s (somehow) still seeing out there: “I went to a brewery just this weekend that had a nice setup and a friendly staff, and they had a pilsner on a side pour pull handle with the dimpled mug. It was a complete diacetyl bomb. Maybe instead of getting all fancy with the side pour and the milk tubes, focus on the beer first? It just is unfathomable to me that with 9,000-plus breweries in the country, some of them still think you can skate by making beer that’s very obviously technically flawed. It’s definitely happening less, which is impressive considering that most of the breweries I visit now are new. But I’m shocked that I still come across a brewery that’s just making absolute dog shit.”
Despite the occasional dog shit, and the industry’s well-documented workplace ills, and the overall category cool-off that has virtually flatlined American craft brewing’s once-soaring growth, O’Leary remains bullish on the cultural potential of full-flavored beer served fresh at the taproom. “The modern small-brewery taproom, as much as it can be a stereotype, is still a model, it can still be successful,” he argues. “A lot of the places that are closing overextended themselves and tried to be too many things to too many people, or had their eye on expansion. But there are plenty of breweries out there that just want to be small, local, no-B.S. third places for people, and those are the ones that I think will stand the test of time.”
Speaking of time: if all goes according to plan, less than 48 hours from now O’Leary will be hoisting a pint at brewery No. 3,000: Sydney, Australia’s Wildflower Brewing & Blending. Congratulations, Chris. Here’s to 3,000 more.
🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now
I regret to inform you, the monks are not all right. Just months after confirmation that the clerics of France’s Carthusian order had decided not to ramp up production of their coveted Chartreuse liqueur, a new report indicates that the men of the cloth behind Westmalle Brewery’s iconic Trappist ales are really struggling to find willing recruits to join their ancient monastery, the oldest in Belgium. It’s a sorry state of affairs for a vital, venerable brewing tradition that has spanned centuries only to become increasingly irrelevant to drinkers in this one. But all is not lost! Have they tried posting job listings with those A.I.-generated images of the Pope in a Balenciaga puffer and holding a Westmalle goblet? Or maybe hit up their Citercian brethren over at Germany’s also-very-historic Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle, who recently created some sort of Sanka-style powdered beer?! (All right, all might be lost.)
Anheuser-Busch InBev is launching a production house; they probably got the idea from this column… New Belgium is buying that massive plant Constellation Brands built in Virginia for the Ballast Point boom that never was… Lagunitas Brewing Company is reopening its Chicago taproom — called the TapRoom, for some reason — after three years of Covid-related closure…
📉 …and downs
Rest in peace to Beer Marketer’s Insights’ founder Jerry Steinman, who passed away this week at 99 years old… Orpheus Brewing’s nine-year run in Atlanta will end (though some popular beers will live on)… Virginia officially passes its law governing retail merchandising of soft-to-hard alcopop crossover brands… 80 percent of Americans say they’re scaling back grocery purchases due to inflation — bad news given beer continues to outpace inflation…