Better Know a Beer Region: Upper Midwest

Greg Sasso, June 14, 2013

Hello, and welcome to Better Know a Beer Region

Over the next couple of months I’ll be exploring how different regions drink and brew their beer (according to Untappd anyway), trying to highlight what makes each region different. For example, I always think of the classic American Pale Ale as a West Coast specialty, but is this true? Do other regions have their own specialty styles? Intuitively, you’d think warmer climates would drink lighter beers, but does the data back that up? Hopefully by the end of this series we’ll have answer to these questions.

A quick disclaimer: We’re most definitely not dealing with a random sample of beer drinkers.  Whenever I saw something to the effect of “The most popular style…”, that’s always in relation to our Untappd data. Clearly a big Double IPA will not outsell Bud Light. It may, however, be much more popular among the Untappd crowd. First up, the breweries of the Upper Midwest (IL, MI, WI, OH, IN).

Here are the top ten styles from breweries in the UM.

Immediately, we see people drink a lot of Double IPAs from the Upper Midwest as fully 11% of the UM beers are DIPAs. Compared to the national average of 9.5%, that’s high, although not crazily so.  It’s cold in Michigan in the winter, and high alcohol beers help with cold weather. Imperial Stouts (both kinds) are also a few percentage points higher than the national average. Worth noting that two of the top three American Imperial Stouts by number of reviews on Beer Advocate are Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. This supports the Untappd data in that more Imperial Stouts by volume seem to originate from the Upper Midwest than the country as a whole.

Now let’s check the top breweries by Untappd check-ins.  I included all breweries with greater than ten thousand check-ins.

Holy crap Bell’s.  That’s an unbelievable amount check-ins for a non-national brewery. Bell’s has some significant distribution, for sure, but double the check-ins for Goose Island seems crazy. It accounts for 16.4% of all Upper Midwest beers in the first quarter this year. Check out where Bells ranks among all breweries.

That’s simply amazing. Bell’s, a brewery without national distribution and no presence on the west coast, has the second most check-ins out of any U.S. brewery in our sample. Every other brewery with over 50,000 check-ins has greater distribution than Bells. Drilling down into Bell’s check-ins, we can see what’s going on: Hopslam.

For those unfamiliar, Hopslam’s a Double IPA available for a limited portion of the winter, and tastes delicious. With just under 45,000 check-ins, Hopslam makes up just under 45% of all Bell’s check-ins. That leaves Bell’s with about 55,000 non-Hopslam check-ins. Hopslamless Bell’s still has the most Upper Midwest check-ins, but only by 5,000 over Goose Island instead of 50,000. Bell’s would also fall to 9th most check-ins, falling behind other breweries that either serve California, have national distribution, or both.

With these numbers, it shouldn’t be surprising that Hopslam was the most popular beer from an Upper Midwest brewery, accounting for 7% of all check-ins and doubling the second most popular beer (the venerable Miller Lite). It also accounts for an astounding 62.5% of all DIPA check-ins from Upper Midwest breweries. 

Since the results are dominated so thoroughly by one beer, it may be instructive to look at check-ins without Hopslam included. Notice how much DIPA drops in the style rankings once we exclude Hopslam: 

This suggests Upper Midwest Brewers actually brew fewer DIPAs than the country as a whole. Take out the one seasonal, special beer and American IPAs take over the top spot with a similar share of check-ins as the country as a whole. There’s probably some substitution here; people are not drinking the DIPA they might normally drink in favor of Hopslam. I’d guess the seasonally smoothed DIPA check-ins would be in between the two extremes. We might see a similar bias in Imperial Stouts using April data due to Dark Lord Day.

We’ll end with a quick look at an interesting discrepancy in ratings between the UM and the rest of the country. Lots of biases in these ratings of course, but it’s still interesting to look at the raw ratings instead of look it BAR. BAR will smooth out some of the underlying behavior that I’d like to look at.

American Pale Ales have a higher rating from the Upper Midwest (3.83) than from both the country (3.58) and, more surprisingly, from the Pacific Coast (3.59). Are Pacific Coast drinkers more discerning or are Upper Midwest Pale Ales better? It’s possible widely-available Pale Ale’s like Sierra Nevada skew the rankings. People may use the nationally-available Pale Ale as a baseline and rate beers relative to that baseline. If Pale Ales brewed in the UM are systematically different than those classic beers while Pacific Coast Pale Ales are more similar in style, the higher rating could simply signify the difference in regional variants, not quality. For example, Half Acre Daisy Cutter is classified as a pale ale, but also hoppier than the standard pale. A preference for this hoppier style may be behind the ratings variation.