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Introducing Beer Heat Maps

Matt Murphy, September 10, 2013 -   

The topic of distribution area and where beers are consumed is one that's fascinated me, which is one of the reasons I've written about it previously. One of the most controversial aspects of BAR is the fact that it utilizes check-in number in an attempt to quantify "value added" by a beer, as it has been suggested that a beer should get more credit for being available over a large area rather than being highly popular locally (or regionally). I won't get into this debate today, but instead I want to take a look at exactly where some of BeerGraphs' top beers are being consumed, and see how consumption compares to distribution.

To do this, I utilized seekabrew.com for distribution data, and used HeatmapJS to produce heat maps for check-in data. I focused on the top-three beers by BAR, which all have relatively high check-in numbers despite somewhat limited distribution.

#1 - Heady Topper (The Alchemist Pub & Brewery, VT)

Heady Topper ranks first overall on BeerGraphs according to BAR, with both excellent ratings and huge numbers of check-ins (nearly 10,000). While the beer has a large volume of check-ins, its distribution is actually quite limited:

According to seekabrew, The Alchemist only distributes to its home state of Vermont, with limited distribution to Massachussetts. While this may not be 100% accurate (I see their Celia Saison regularly in NY), I do believe that the vast majority of their beer, especially Heady Topper, is distributed at or near their brewery. However, whenever there is a highly rated beer that is bottled or canned, you can be sure that craft fanatics across the country will go to great lengths to get their hands on some.

While there is a hot spot at the brewery location in Vermont, there are also a large number of check-ins throughout the Northeast, including major cities such as Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia. You can also see that despite a lack of distribution, there are a few check-ins in other major metro areas throughout the country, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco on the West Coast, along with Denver, Chicago, and Detroit. So, while the technical distribution area for Heady Topper is rather small, we can see that people across the country who want it are finding a way to get it.

#2 - Zombie Dust (Three Floyds Brewing Company, IN)

The former #1 beeer by BAR, Zombie Dust, caused a bit of commotion when I praised its "excellent distribution" as a driving force behind its high check-in number. Upon further inspection, I found that Three Floyds distribution is actually fairly limited, focusing on meeting local demand in Indiana and the Midwest.

However, as we saw with Heady Topper, the overlap between where a beer is distributed and where it is consumed is far from perfect.

Just as we saw before, there is a hot spot right around the brewery (located in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago), with additional hot spots in surrounding metro areas. We also see the familiar pattern of check-ins in the major cities along the East and West coasts, despite the fact that the beer in question is not actually distributed there.

#3 - Pliny the Elder (Russian River Brewing Company, CA)

The number three beer on our list might be considered the classic highly-sought-after-but-difficult-to-get-if-they-don't-distribute-to-your-region beer (unless you live in California, of course). Russian River is widely considered one of the top beer producers in the country, and Pliny is a big part of that reputation. Unfortunately, if you're not on the West Coast, it can be quite difficult to find.

Of note here is the limited distribution to Colorado and Pennsylvania.  A friend told me that the owner has family in the Philadelphia area, and he wanted to make sure that they had access to Russian River beers, so he decided to distribute there. I'm not sure about Colorado, other than that it's a huge craft beer state and distribution is probably relatively simple (if anyone has a story or theory behind this, I'd be interested to hear it). Now, given of the hype and mystery of Pliny the Elder, you can bet that those of us on the East Coast will go out of our way to try some.

By this point, you probably shouldn't be surprised. As a West Coast beer, you see the largest volume of check-ins in California, including near the brewery. There are also hot spots in Denver and Philadelphia, where we know the beer is actually distributed. Once again, however, we see check-ins in New York City, Boston, Chicago, DC, and a number of other metro areas throughout the country. While there are probably a handful of official Russian River events throughout the country that feature Pliny the Elder, I'd bet most of these check-ins are from trades (which is how I first tried it) or people who traveled to a region that had Pliny and brought some back to share with their friends.

As a bonus, here's the heat map for Pliny the Younger, which is a draught-only beer produced in limited quantities once a year. The distribution is tightly controlled, and growler fills are not permitted (although a couple handbottles have shown up on Ebay over the years).

Finally, a heat map that is restricted to the true distribution area of the beer. According to Untappd, Russian River's efforts to keep the Younger as a draught-only beer have been quite successful. The vast majority of check-ins are from California, with around 100 in the Denver area and a couple dozen in Philadelphia. If you look closely, you can also see faint blue spots near Minneapolis and in Virginia, each representing a single check-in. Did these beer drinkers somehow acquire a small handbottled taste of Pliny the Younger, or were they simply so excited when they drank it that they forgot to check in, and did so when they returned home? Or maybe they were drinking a different beer and accidentally checked into the Younger. Maybe they're just lying to try to make their Untappd followers jealous. Your guess is as good as mine.

Conclusion

Heat maps can be a useful tool to analyze where beers are being consumed. As we saw above, anything that comes in a bottle (or can) will find its way across the country if it has a reputation. Whether a beer is brewed in (and distributed to) the Northeast, Midwest, or on the West Coast, it's bound to show up in most major metro areas throughout the country.

Why? There are a lot of beer nerds out there (myself included), and if there's a beer they really want to try, they'll find a way to get it. Sometimes this means a six-hour drive to a brewery that doesn't distribute to your state. Other times, it means waiting in line for three hours to get a rare brewery-only release that you can trade to someone on the other side of the country. Or maybe you're sneaking out of work a couple hours early, heading to your local bar to make sure you get a pour of that limited release barrel-aged beer before the keg kicks. Whatever the reason, beer consumption patterns will rarely match up with the distribution patterns, which is one of the reasons why I find the location data and heat maps so fascinating.

If you have any cool ideas for using the heat maps, or have a particular beer or brewery you think is worth investigating, let me know in the comments section. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

When he's not writing about beer, Matt works at the NYU Medical Center where he does cancer and stem cell biology research. You can find him on Twitter at @murphym45.

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