The Monthly Session: Should It Continue Or Should We Let It Go?

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Way back in early 2007, Stan Hieronymus had an idea, one he’d borrowed from the wine bloggers, who at the time were further along in both numbers and longevity. That idea was Beer Blogging Friday, the monthly Session that takes place on the first Friday of each month. The plan was simple. Beer bloggers from around the world would get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic each month, on the first Friday. Each time, a different beer blogger would host the Session, having chosen a topic and then afterwards would create a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. Over time, I had hoped that we’d collectively have created a record with lots of useful information about various topics on the subject of beer. And for a while, it worked great.

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Around 2008, Stan went on an 18-month around-the-world trip with his wife and daughter, and I took over keeping track of the Session, and put up a page here listing all of the topics with links along with instructions on how to host and participate. When he got back, it was simple enough for me to keep the archive going and between the two of us keep recruiting hosts. It’s now been 104 months in a row, a little more than eight years, and somebody has stepped up each month volunteering to be the host and keep it going. There have been a few months when it looked like nobody was going to host, but so far something always seemed to work out. In the early days, we were booked out months ahead with hosts, which was great, and made things a lot easier to manage. Lately, however, it’s been hard finding hosts and fewer and fewer people have been stepping up. For the last year or so, we’ve limped along, and we’ve been able to keep going only by the skin of our teeth. There have been more than a few months when someone stepped up just in the nick of time and offered to host.

But I fear we may have hit a wall. With just two weeks to go before Session #104 is scheduled to take place, we have no host and no prospects for one, or so it seems. I could start asking previous hosts to step up — and perhaps I should — but that also seems a little contrary to the spirit of it being organic, something that just chugs along all by itself. I could also start begging and cajoling bloggers who have never hosted, but then again I don’t want anyone to feel obligated. It’s supposed to be fun, otherwise it won’t work. Which brings me to the elephant in the ether.

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Should we keep the monthly Session going, or put it out to pasture, and declare it past its prime and no longer of any enduring interest? Certainly beer blogging has changed in the eight years since we started the Session. When I asked Stan yesterday — since it’s really his baby — he wondered if we should “take the philosophical approach, that the Session has run its course,” noting that “it lasted longer than the similar wine project” that inspired it.

We originally looked at it as an opportunity to promote one’s own blog, but more importantly to take part in a larger discussion and build cohesion or community or something vaguely positive among our fellow bloggers. I can’t speak for everybody, but that was at least my hope. None of us thought about it in terms of boosting traffic, but it certainly feels like that’s become part of the equation. There are so many ways to engage with readers, one another and just people in general nowadays, with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and who knows what else that blogging itself no longer seems as relevant as it once did as a medium. And indeed, it does seem like there are lots of beer blogs that have been abandoned or are no longer maintained.

According to the Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference, as of August of 2015, there were 677 beer blogs in North America, 365 more internationally, 133 considered industry blogs, and another 71 they consider to be press beer blogs. That’s a total of 1,246 beer blogs. I feel like that’s number is getting smaller, that there actually fewer beer blogs then there used to be, although I have no evidence to support that whatsoever.

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I do know that when I started the Bay Area Beer Bloggers in 2008 there were a little over fifty beer blogs here in Northern California but today’s list on our dedicated website includes less than half that number, and a quick perusal shows me a couple of those are now fairly dormant, bringing the total ratio to around 2/5, meaning three out of every five beer blogs in the Bay Area are no longer posting regularly, or at all, seven years after we started BABB. And that’s the trend I’ve seen around the country, if not the world.

Although to be fair, 1,246 is still a pretty big number. With only 104 Sessions under our belt, and ignoring the fact that a few people have hosted twice, there’s still theoretically 1,142 beer bloggers who have not yet hosted The Session.

So the question I have for the beer collective hive mind is should we continue to do the monthly Session, Beer Blogging Friday? Please vote below, whether you’ve hosted, participated or never even heard of it before now, whether you think it should continue, or whether we should move on to other pursuits. Maybe there’s something else, similar, or whatever, that could replace it, or perhaps we should just go our separate ways altogether. Please vote “No” or “Yes” below:

And if you voted “Yes,” are you willing to put your time where your mouth is? Or something like that. If you’ve never hosted before, would you be willing to? (If you don’t know what hosting entails, The Session page has a description of what’s involved.) If you have hosted before, would you be willing to again? Answer that $1,000,000 question below. If you are willing to host and chose either the first or second answer, please add your e-mail address in the field marked “other” before clicking on the “VOTE” button and it will send it to me. I’ll then reach out and see when you might be willing to host. Right now every month is open from Friday, October 1, 2015 and on. If you already know when you’d be willing to host, just drop me a note directly at “Jay(.)Brooks(@)gmail(.)com.”

Google Trends In Beer

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This morning Jonathan Surratt alerted me to a fun tool that Google has available, known as Google Trends Explore. You can use it to compare trends in virtually any search term and even topics (which is in beta). Jonathan was comparing “craft beer” to things like potato salad and mashed potatoes, but you can do all sorts of comparisons. So just for a bit of fun, I tried a few different ones. Most are comparing searches, but a few measure topics. Five is the most comparisons you can do at one time, but that still allows for some interesting pairings. In each case, the charts show the trends from 2004 through the present, which is over ten years of data.

First, here’s the difference between craft beer vs. beer. Just beer is beating the pants off modified beer. Good.
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Here’s Craft Beer, Beer and Wine compared. Wine is leaving us in the dust.
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And here’s just beer and wine. But it’s not that far apart and we are gaining on them.
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And this is beer vs. wine, but by topic instead of by searches. By topic it’s closer still, and we’ve even come up on top a few times closer to the present.
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Here’s beer compared to four popular spirits. Vodka, not surprisingly, is leading the tightly packed spirits, but beer is besting all of them pretty handily.
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And here’s five of the most popular beer brands.
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This is the same five beer brands but by topic.
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Beer Birthday: Alan McLeod

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Today is also beer blogger extraordinaire Alan McLeod’s 52nd birthday. Alan runs a good beer blog, called — curiously enough — A Good Beer Blog. I’m not sure what came first, the goodness or the blog. Anyway, though I’ve yet to meet Alan in person I feel as if he’s already a great, not just good, friend through our many conversations via e-mail and commenting on one another’s blogs. If you haven’t read his essay in the book Beer & Philosophy yet, rush right out and buy yourself a copy. He also published The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer, with Max Bahnson, available as a Kindle single on Amazon, and last year co-wrote both Upper Hudson Valley Beer and Ontario Beer: A Heady History of Brewing from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay. Join me in wishing Alan the very merriest of birthdays. Cheers, mate.

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Alan pondering the mysteries of Stonehenge at age 7.

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A night with bald pate, circa 2002.

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Contemplating a jump near Prince Edward Island a dozen years ago. Happily, he decided against getting wet.

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Letting everyone know his status as a VIP at an event in 2012. [Note: photo purloined from Facebook.]

Let’s Grab A Beer

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Show of hands: who remembers “Here’s to Beer,” the somewhat lackluster attempt by Anheuser-Busch to teach consumers more about beer eight years ago? No? Let me refresh your memory. The original idea in 2005 was to have all of the major breweries work together to promote beer as an industry, rather than promote any one brand, sort of like the Beer Belongs campaign by a brewers trade group in the late 1940s and 1950s. Unfortunately, trust was not strong among the competing larger breweries and none signed on, fearing A-B would run the show and control the message for their own benefit. So A-B decided to go it alone, and launched a consumer website in 2006 called Here’s to Beer. If you click on the link, it still works, but it’s not that first attempt anymore. Before it launched there were press releases and media talking about it, including me in Here’s To Beer — Here’s to Making it Appear Relevant and Appealing. A few days later the website went live and I did an initial review of it, which was not overwhelmingly positive. A year later I started questioning if Here’s to Beer was dead with R.I.P. Here’s to Beer? But it turned out that the reports of its demise had been premature, and a month later Phase 2 launched with an updated website. That website, which used to be “herestobeer.com” changed to “htbeerconnoisseur.com” and that’s the one that is still online, although it doesn’t appear to have been updated in quite some time, if ever. The copyright information at the bottom of the home page is dated 2009, and attributed to “Here’s to Beer, Inc.” which you won’t be surprised to learn is located at 1 Busch Place, Saint Louis,” the headquarters for Anheuser-Busch InBev. So Phase 2 was about as successful as the first attempt, and quietly faded away.

So this past Tuesday, on “National Beer Day,” you may have seen some of these graphics making the rounds on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. I know I retweeted a couple of them.

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It turns out they’re part of a new effort by ABI, this time called “Leg’s Grab a Beer.” Apparently Beer Marketer’s Insights first reported on it, but I saw it on AdAge, in an article entitled Let’s Grab a Beer… With A-B InBev: Brewer Tries Unbranded Beer Image Campaign. The idea, this time around, according to Julia Mize, ABI VP of Beer Category + Community, is wanting “consumers to understand all the different varieties that are available with beer for different occasions.” Which is much more possible now that they acquired several more smaller breweries outright.

But her subsequent statement is really hilarious: “[W]e wanted to do it in a non-branded way so that we make sure we are connecting with the consumers and it’s not forced. It’s not marketing. Our intention here is to just have a resource that is relevant and fun and celebrates beer.” That reminds me of something Bill Hicks said about marketing, “they’re going for the anti-marketing dollar.” Essentially they’re marketing by not marketing, a tactic more prevalent in our more media-savvy present. And while I’m certainly not against a little education, this seems more like a Tumblr than any real effort at that. The plan apparently is for the “site [to] include a combination of original and aggregated content, ranging from ‘deep reads about the past, present and future of beer’ to colorful charts and graphics,” although at least for now there’s a lot more of the latter. Some of the “deep reads” include such titles as “7 Beer GIFs that Will Make Your Mouth Water” and a photograph of “Women demonstrating against Prohibition 1932.” It’s not exactly heady stuff they’re tackling so far.

Here’s to Beer, for all its faults, at least tried to educate consumers. This latest attempt seems more intended to entertain, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The National Beer Day cards were done, apparently, in partnership with Some E-Cards. Sadly, it doesn’t look like you can make your own cards using the beer background. That’s a shame, it would have been fun to make some.

There’s definitely some interesting things being shared, but edumacation it ain’t. The other problem I see is something that seems to happen frequently to these sorts of efforts. There was a flurry of posts to the Let’s Grab a Beer Tumblr (might as well call it what it is) but then nothing new since Tuesday, three days ago. That’s a long time for a tumblr to not be updated. I have several, and make an effort to post something at least once a day, while many others post new content far more often than that. But Here’s to Beer suffered from the same problem: infrequent updates gave little reason to return to the site with any frequency. If you can absorb everything there in a few minutes and then there’s nothing new posted, why would anyone become a regular visitor?

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It’s somewhat obvious why they’re doing this, as one of their own posts makes clear. So if beer drinkers are using social media more often, why wouldn’t they realize you have to keep up with the pace of that social media? If they really want something like this to work, they need at least a dedicated person working on this 24/7. That’s what makes a successful Tumblr.

Midway through the AdAge article, the author suggests it’s branding at the heart of this move.

But there is also an inherent fear in industry circles about the so-called “wineification” [how I hate that word!] of beer. This refers to placing emphasis on beer styles, versus brands. For instance, if more people walk into bars and ask for a “wheat beer,” rather than a Shock Top or Blue Moon, brands become less valuable. And good branding equals profits.

“They are facing the ultimate challenge here of trying to promote a category that really lives through its brands,” said one industry executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “So how do you celebrate beer without making it a commodity? The value of the industry is in the equity of the brands.”

I have to take issue with her definition of “wineification,” saying it means “placing emphasis on beer styles, versus brands.” I don’t think that’s it at all. Nobody walks into a wine bar and says “give me a Chardonnay” or “oh, anything red will be fine.” The term generally has been used to suggest that beer is trying to be fancy, or be marketed more like wine, and is usually used derisively (at least by me). I think people do look to drink a particular type of beer they’re in the mood for or for some other reason just want at a particular time, but it’s been a long time (at least a decade or more, I’d guess) since most people would sit down at a bar and ask the bartender for whatever “pale ale,” or perhaps more popularly an “IPA, they have on tap. Brands still matter a great deal, as the spate of recent high profile trademark disputes among brewers should make abundantly clear to anyone paying attention.

But the rest is an interesting insight. Branding is how all of the big brewers made their fortunes, especially when most beer tasted about the same. In effect, all beer was commodified for a long time, which is why advertising, marketing and branding became so important for the success of the big beer companies. It was no accident that year after year, A-B outspent their competition in ad dollars per barrel by a wide margin. I haven’t seen those figures since InBev took control of A-B, but certainly that was the case up until that transition.

Now that smaller breweries have essentially uncommodified beer by offering a wide range of beers that don’t all resemble or taste like one another, big brewers are left asking themselves what to do now. “So how do you celebrate beer without making it a commodity? The value of the industry is in the equity of the brands.” In some ways that, anonymous executive is still engaging in old beer thinking, using the framework of how the industry used to be constituted. One could argue it still is since 90% of beer is of that single, commodified type — American lager — but it’s nowhere near as universal as when I was a kid. And I think even small beer’s 10% slice of the total beer pie is enough to have at least changed many, if not most, people’s perception of it, even if they choose to still buy the big brewer’s beers. Even the loyal customers still buying the bland American beers know about Yuengling, or Samuel Adams, or Sierra Nevada, or New Belgium, or Lagunitas. What the big brewers bought with decades of blanket advertising was not just blind loyalty, but habit. And habits are harder to shake, because they’re no longer conscious decisions.

So I’m unequivocally in favor of beer education for everyone. We’ve known since the beginning of flavorful beer’s rise that education was the path to winning over more beer drinkers. In order to appreciate it, you have to know something about it. That may not be necessary to simply drink it and enjoy it, but to appreciate what you’re tasting, you do have to know a little more.

I think music once again provides a useful analogy. You don’t need to know anything about music theory or composition to love the Allegro con brio first movement to Beethoven’s 5th symphony in C minor, or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. But if you do, the experience is much richer because you understand what they were doing differently than their predecessors and how they were expressing musical ideas. The history of music is all about rules, and breaking them. Baroque music was very orderly and followed strict rules for its composition, then innovative composers broke those rules and created the classical music period, which in turn had its rules broken by romantic composers, and so on. Each time there was push back from the status quo before the new music became the next established form.

I think we’re seeing something similar with beer, too, as traditional rules have been broken, but are often respected, too. Innovation is simply trying something a little different or even going back to something that hasn’t been done for a long time, or mixing the two, or doing something old in a new way. It doesn’t have to mean something particularly snooty or high falootin’ as we so often seem to think. It’s just how change occurs. It’s trying to find something you can call your own that a brewery can sell and make their reputation. Few breweries, if any, will do that making the same thing as everybody else is. That’s how we got in the mess we were in by 1980 in the first place. So we should expect breweries to try something new, with 3,000 of them they almost have to experiment to find a niche, or their place in the market. Some will undoubtedly work better than others, and some will ultimately fail while others succeed. That’s the natural order of things. That’s healthy competition, with breweries competing on taste or what people are willing to support and buy.

I think I’ve veered off quite a bit from where I started with this, rambling on about some unrelated ideas, but the takeaway is that education matters — “Just Say Know™” is my catchphrase — but this may not be the best way to engage more people to learn about beer. Still, I’m up for whatever. Let’s grab a beer.

Beer Birthday: Joe Tucker

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Today is also the birthday of Joe Tucker, the “Boss” — a.k.a. Executive Director — at Rate Beer. He runs the website from his Vineyard bunker in Sonoma, California. Because I’m in the Bay Area, I run into Joe from time to time, and usually at the annual hop picking day at Moonlight Brewing, though we flew to San Diego together three Decembers ago to visit Stone Brewing, too. Join me in wishing Joe a very happy birthday.

Vinnie, me and Joe Tucker, from Rate Beer
Vinnie Cilurzo, me and Joe at the Pliny the Elder release earlier last year at Russian River Brewing.

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Joe with some of the Hop Press staff — Ken, Ashley, Mario and Mark — at Triple Rock’s Sour Fest 2010.

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At Fred Abercrombie’s Craft Beerd’s book launch party at Taps. Left to right; Fred Abercrombie, Ken Weaver, Anneliese Schmidt, Joe and Ron Lindenbusch, from Lagunitas.

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The day after we tried all of Stone’s Vertical Epic’s in San Diego; with Steve Wagner, me, Joe, Jason and Todd Alstrom and Greg Koch.

Beer Birthday: Knut Albert

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Today, it’ also the 55th birthday of Knut Albert Solem from Oslo, Norway, who has one of the premiere beer blogs in Scandinavia, Knut Albert’s Beer Blog. Though I’ve never met him in person, we have corresponded a time or two through blog comments or e-mail and I certainly enjoy his perspective on beer. Join me in wishing Knut a very happy birthday.

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Hoisting a pint (photo nicked from Knut’s Facebook page).

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Knut near water, the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland actually (ditto).

A Link-Bait Manifesto

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This morning I got a press release from the P.R. Firm for a well-known men’s magazine that was so obviously link-bait, that I almost didn’t even want to read it. I won’t say who or what, mostly because I’m tired of playing into their hands, but most of you will no doubt be able to figure it out.

It’s something I’ve been guilty of time and time again. When I see something that annoys me, or strikes me as being wrong on some level, I often feel compelled to intercede. I’m seeking help.

A few years ago, I definitely would have penned an angry response, pointing out the flawed reasoning, or what have you. But I think I’m done, at least I hope so. I was bcc’d (thankfully) so I have no way of knowing just how many people the P.R. firm was trying to bait with their e-mail, but I suspect it was a lot of people. The e-mail itself used the most incendiary quotes from the piece, obviously designed to raise the hackles of the beer community and rally support against the piece, all in an effort to get thousands of people to visit the website and get their hit count going through the roof.

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Essentially, this has become a strategy on the internet. Say something incendiary, and reap the rewards. Maybe some of the people actually believe what they’re writing, but I get the sense that even if that’s the case, they do it in such a way as to maximize the outrage, and thus insure a greater number of responses. Often, I think, the extreme position taken is done precisely to get a rise out of people. I think it’s become a variation of the old saw about there being no such thing as bad publicity, in this case more along the lines of as long as people are clicking on the link, it doesn’t matter what they say or whether it’s even true or not. All that matters is the hit count. Oscar Wilde was saying something similar in the 19th century. “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

Sadly, there are all sorts of helpful websites explaining just how to accomplish this. See, for example, the SEO Guide to Creating Viral Linkbait, The Marketer’s Ultimate Guide to Link Bait, or SEO Advice: linkbait and linkbaiting. There’s even a helpful infographic and a link bait title generator. While most of them insist that not all link bait is bad, in our little part of the interwebs, that hasn’t been my experience.

I think I’ve just grown weary of hearing why the bubble is about to burst, or why you hate hops or beer with flavor, or that you drink your beer out of a plastic cup as god intended. Please, stop. Okay, I’m certain that won’t work. No plea for sanity every has. So instead I’d like to propose that we all agree to ignore them. That’s really the only way to make them stop. If we all ignore the link bait, and they don’t get the expected backlash they’re hoping for, then they’ll have no choice but to stop trying.

Having a different opinion or wanting to spark a meaningful discussion about it will remain an excellent reason to pen a thoughtful blog post or article. But taking an opinion that’s designed to provoke outrage with inflammatory language, fringe positions, or by insulting entire swaths of people has no place in the marketplace of ideas that the beer blogosphere should aspire to. Just say know.

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Don’t take the bait

The Difference Between Novice And Expert Beer Drinkers Infographic

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Today’s infographic is an interesting look at the Difference Between Novice And Expert Beer Drinkers, created by Business Insider, using a paper from earlier this year by Stanford University computer science post-doc Julian McAuley and assistant professor Jure Leskovec. The paper outlined “how our tastes change as we consume more products and gain more expertise,” but they then took it a step father, and applied their model to the beer reviews on RateBeer.

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Click here to see the graph full size.

According to the Business Insider article, here’s what else they discovered.

The figure above shows the relationship between user experience and beer preference. McAuley and Leskovec broke down the beers into lagers, mild ales, and strong ales, and then calculated each beer’s individual ranking by experience level.

The x-axis shows the average rating of products on the site (out of 5 stars), while the y-axis shows the difference between expert and novice ratings.

According to their study, while beginners and experts have similar top beers, experts tend to have stronger opinions than novice users. They explain in the study:

While a lager such as Bud Light is disliked by everybody, it is most disliked by experts; one of the most popular beers in the entire corpus, Firestone XV, is liked by everybody, but is most liked by experts.

They also found that more-experienced users gave higher ratings to almost all strong ales, illustrating that these types of beer are more of an acquired taste than traditional lagers.

Great American Beer Bar Favorites Chosen

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CraftBeer.com, the consumer website for the Brewers Association released today the results of an online poll that took place in the last half of August. Here’s how they arrived at the 2013 Great American Beer Bar Selected by CraftBeer.com Readers. “CraftBeer.com asked readers to nominate their favorite craft beer bars in the country, and received over 5,000 nominations, a 117 percent increase from last year. The choices were then narrowed down to the 10 most nominated bars in each of the five regions of the country. Over 37,000 votes were cast in total, a 23 percent increase from last year, resulting in the top three overall and regional winners. Voting was conducted from August 19 until August 30.” I’ve never been to any of the top three, so I guess I’ve got some travel plans to make.

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The overall winners were roughly on the eastern half of the country.

  1. Mekong Restaurant, Richmond, VA
  2. HopCat, Grand Rapids, MI
  3. Cloverleaf Tavern, Caldwell, NJ

The Pacific (west coast) winners are as follows:

  1. The Bier Stein, Eugene, OR
  2. Toronado, San Francisco, CA
  3. Prospectors Historic Pizzeria & Alehouse, Denali National Park, AK

Great to see the Toronado making the list.