Denver: Fourth cheapest city for beer drinkers (maybe)

“Cheap beer” isn’t a term usually coupled with Denver; the city’s propensity for craft beer means local taps typically pour high-quality—but pricey—suds.  Denver seems more like an $8-snifter-of-barleywine kind of drinking town rather than a place to get pitchers for a buck fifty (although even beer geeks enjoy cut-rate brewskis from time to time).  Yet, despite these assumptions, NerdWallet named Denver the fourth least expensive town for beer drinkers.

Being undersold by only Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Kansas City, Denver appears to be among the thriftiest beer-drinking metros, beating 44 out of 48 of America’s most populated cities.  The most expensive city for beer:  Chicago.  Ever wonder why it seems every other person you meet in Denver is originally from Chicago?  Why the stands of Coors Field are covered in blue when the Cubs are in town?  It’s got to be Denver’s great beer deals, man!  And its natural beauty.  And its active lifestyle.  And its lack of humidity.  Well, at least Chicago has good hot dogs (unless you like ketchup, which everybody does).

According to NerdWallet, the cheapest cities to grab a beer

According to NerdWallet, the cheapest cities to grab a beer

Before getting too excited and buying a truckload of cheap booze, it’s important to understand the methodology that went into the study.  NerdWallet’s three criteria in discovering the most affordable beer cities were as follows:

1. Relative affordability of beer: We calculated the affordability of beer using the cost of a six-pack of Heineken and the median income per worker in each city.

2. Beer tax: We factored in the state beer tax incurred in each of the cities.

3. Beer consumption: We looked at how much people drink in each state—if there are more beer drinkers around, the city scores higher because of the relatively greater demand.

Criterion #2 is a reasonable data point.  Colorado’s lenient alcohol tax is among the many reasons why this state enjoys a popular and profitable beer industry.

Criterion #3 is mostly sound but it does leave a few unanswered questions.  Yes, Denver residents do drink a lot of beer; beer is part of the state culture, there are countless breweries around town, and one simply does not hold the country’s largest beer festival (see: Great American Beer Festival) in a city where brews aren’t appreciated.  However, a population demanding beer does not necessarily equate to all-around lower prices, it depends on the type of beer being demanded.  The craft beer drinking public—which constitutes a significant portion of Denver’s population—isn’t hunting for bargains but is looking for quality.  Local craft breweries are ethical enough to not gouge their customers’s wallets, but they’re not lowering their prices to Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors levels, either.  Nor should they; small-batch, artisan ales and lagers require a more labor-intensive process than macro-beers.  The higher price reflects the extra toil and extra love that went into brewing craft beer.

While a bit iffy in spots, Criteria #2 and #3 are, essentially, effective methods in determining the affordability of a city’s beer.  The real head-scratcher is the first data point.  The only beer NerdWallet price-checked was Heineken?  That small of a sample size sheds a good deal of doubt on this study’s results.

On one hand, using Heineken as the price representative of an entire market makes a certain amount of sense; it’s a popular import so it’s more expensive than domestic beer, less expensive than craft beer—it’s middle of the road.  Nonetheless, middle of the road beer is only an accurate indicator of city-wide beer affordability if the citizens of said city prefer to drink in the median.  Denver, however, pulls off to the side and drinks on the shoulders.  Both shoulders.  Like Colorado’s politics, weather, and topography, the beers of choice swing to either extreme.  Mile High BBQ hosts stock their coolers with Coors Light or Dale’s Pale Ale because, when Denver wants to drink cheap, it drinks cheap, and when it wants to drink well, it drinks well.  A major imported beer, in contrast, is more costly than a domestic beer and less tasty than a craft beer.  It’s the worst of both worlds.

How often do you see this label in Denver?

How often do you see this label in Denver?

It begs the question: Can Denver truly boast the fourth most reasonably priced beers when the data collected is from a beer most of Denver doesn’t even drink?  Certainly, somebody in Denver must be buying and drinking Heineken – the Dutch brewery would pull all their bottles from the Denver market if they weren’t getting at least some support.  Nonetheless, Heineken doesn’t have a strong Colorado presence.  Even NerdWallet concedes that Denver prefers local brews saying, “Denver is one of the best cities in the country for beer lovers and home to many breweries.  These breweries are a major part of the local economy.”

Indeed, there are many breweries in Denver and they do have a great influence on the economy.  Many of these breweries have a very limited range of distribution, meaning, to create that economic impact, Denver breweries must depend on a lot of local drinkers to keep them in business.  And they are in business because the locals love what’s being brewed next door, not what’s being brewed in the Netherlands.

There needs to be more data before anybody calls one city’s suds cheaper than another’s.  Heineken alone can’t tell the whole story, research on domestic and craft beer prices is required, too.  What’s the price of a Bud Light in any given metro?  What’s the price of PBR?  For craft beer, what’s the cost for widely-distributed brands such as Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, or Stone?  Looking regionally, what’s the average expense of the flagship taps at the three most popular local breweries?  This in-depth study would take longer and would be more complicated than the current study but, until that research is done, the most cost-effective beer city will remain unknown.  Which city has the best deals on Heineken, however, is crystal clear.

In the end, none of this information has much effect on the average beer drinker.  Even in the so-called most expensive beer city, Chicago, it’s not hard to find a dive bar serving discounted swill and, even in the so-called least expensive beer city, Washington, Daddy Warbucks would raise an eyebrow at the prices attached to the higher-end offerings at DC Brau or Atlas Brew Works.  No matter which city one finds themselves, there’s an option for every budget.  Don’t uproot your life and move to a city where your beer money will supposedly go further, just be a savvy consumer, know your metro, and drink and shop at the establishments which conform to your priorities.

About Chris Bruns


Chris Bruns is a self-professed beer geek living in Denver. Chris spends much of his time brewing beer at home with friends and family, attempting to visit every brewery in Colorado, attending special beer events and festivals, purchasing and assessing the latest releases from local breweries, and blogging about his adventures in the world of craft beer. He is also the Denver Craft Beer Examiner on Examiner.com. Contact Chris by e-mail at chrisdbruns@gmail.com or through his blog at www.beerincolorado.blogspot.com.