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America's taste in beer, in five maps

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There is an unmistakable geography to beer preferences in America.

By analyzing over one million location-specific tweets related to beer, geographers Matthew Zook and Ate Poorthuis have mapped the geographical patterns hidden in the brews we like to drink. Their fascinating maps are featured in a chapter of a new textbook, The Geography of Beer.

Of course, with all these maps, there's a caveat: "The people who are tweeting are not everybody in the US," Zook says. "It's a distinct population, so it's important to be cognizant of that."

1) Wine is popular on the coasts, beer is popular in the midwest

Tweets about wine vs. tweets about beer


Zook and Poorthuis

In August 2013, a poll was released showing that the country is pretty much evenly split between people who prefer wine and those who prefer beer.

To investigate the geographic trends underlying this split, the geographers analyzed all geotagged tweets sent between June 2012 and May 2013 that mentioned either wine or beer, and mapped which areas had significantly higher numbers of one or the other.

As you can see, there's a definite pattern going on: most of the east and west coasts seem to prefer wine, or at least have an even split.

The researchers speculate that this is partly driven by wine-growing regions in California, the Northwest, and Upstate New York, and traditional beer-brewing areas in the Midwest. But there also seems to be a definite urban-rural cultural trend reflected in the map, with inland cities like Atlanta and Phoenix dominated by wine tweets as well.

2) Bud Light is really, really popular everywhere

Tweets about the most popular light beers

Screen_shot_2014-05-06_at_2.47.01_pmZook and Poorthuis

Craft beer might be getting more popular, but cheap light beers still rule: in 2013, Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite and Busch Light were four of the top six selling beers (the others were Budweiser and the timeless classic Natural Light).

Noting this, Zook and Poorthuis decided to map where tweets mentioning each of these brands were dominant. On the map, Bud Light's sales dominance is clearly apparent: it covers all of the South and most of the Northeast, along with other random pockets elsewhere. The only other beer that comes even close is Coors Light, the taste of the Rockies, which is popular out west.

Each of the companies that own Bud Light and Coors Light also own a secondary light beer: Anheuser-Busch InBev owns Busch Light, and MillerCoors owns Miller Lite. It turns out that they share dominance in the same region of the Midwest, with Busch Light inexplicably popular in Iowa in particular.

3) Beers like Sam Adams and Corona have devoted regional followings

Tweets about 14 other high-selling beers

Screen_shot_2014-05-06_at_3.19.13_pmZook and Poorthuis

But looking solely at raw numbers of tweets tends to favor the massive beers and drown out all the smaller beers with passionate regional followings.

So the researchers looked at 14 of some of the highest-selling beers after the big four, and mapped the areas where tweets about them are particularly likely to come from.

You'd think that these areas simply surround where each beer is brewed. But the interesting thing is that in many of these cases, the actual brewery has moved on, but its customers haven't.

Sam Adams, for instance, is beloved in New England but is mostly brewed in Cincinnati. National Bohemian (a.k.a. "Natty Boh") is popular in Maryland but brewed at MillerCoors facilities in Georgia and North Carolina. Goose Island's flagship 312 Ale, named after Chicago's area code, is still drank there, but is mostly brewed in Upstate New York, and Olympia, the pride of Washington state, is brewed in Los Angeles.

Why are so many beers getting brewed far from their birthplaces? In some cases, it's a result of attempts to cut costs. But many shifts reflect the remarkable consolidation of the beer industry, and the fact that most of the beers on this map — along with the mega-popular beers shown in map #2 — are owned by the same few companies.

In addition to Bud Light and Busch Light, Anheuser-Busch InBev produces Budweiser, Natural Light, and Goose Island, and owns a part of Corona. MillerCoors brews Coors Light, Miller Lite, Coors, and Blue Moon. The Pabst Brewing Company is the king of a certain vintage of watery beers: apart from PBR, it owns Olympia, Schlitz, Natty Boh, and Old Milwaukee.

4) Illinois and Wisconsin have more bars than grocery stores

Number of Google maps listings for bars vs. listings for grocery stores


Floating Sheep

As part of earlier work, Zook mapped the distribution of bars across the country, in terms of the number of bars in Google Maps listings. For one fascinating map, he compared the number of bars in any given area with the number of grocery stores.

You might think that in any given place, both of these numbers would be similar, per capita, so there'd be a consistent relationship between them — but that's not what Zook found. Illinois, Wisconsin, and the Midwest in general had proportionately more bars than the rest of the country, with watering holes outnumbering grocery stores in many places.

"This was so striking that we actually went to the census data to confirm it," Zook says. There's no single explanation for it, but he thinks part of the reason is that "the upper Midwest states, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, were heavily settled by Northern Europeans and people from Germany, areas with strong cultural traditions of beer brewing." There's something amazing about the fact that immigration patterns from over a century ago may be reflected in America's digital life today.

5) People tweet more about beer than church — except in the south

Tweets about beer vs. tweets about church


Floating Sheep

For a previous project, Zook's colleague Monica Stephens looked at every single geotagged tweet that referenced either "beer" or "church" over the course of a week.

In total, there were 17,686 tweets about church (mostly sent on Sunday) and 14,405 about beer (sent throughout the week). But the ratio of beer to church tweets in any given county varied widely, as you can see in the map.

As a whole, most of the god-fearing counties (at least according to Twitter) were in the South. Dallas had the highest ratio of church to beer tweets, with 178 total church tweets sent during the week, compared to only 83 about beer.

At the other end of the spectrum: San Francisco. During the week studied, it had 191 beer tweets, and just 46 tweets about church.

Correction: this article previously said Anheuser-Busch InBev produced Corona. It owns part of the company and produces Corona sold in other countries, but does not brew the Corona sold in the US.

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