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On Tap: Of God, Beer, America

Years ago, when I lived in Texas, I hit the supermarket one Sunday before football started.

It was late morning and I was studying the beer shelves. A fellow shopper, wearing handsome suede cowboy boots that I coveted, advised me to browse a while longer.

“You’re gonna have to wait until noon, anyway,” he said.

Why?

He chuckled.

“Because of church,” he said.

God did not prohibit beer sales before noon on Sunday in the Lone Star State. Texas lawmakers did. The reason, as suggested by the supermarket cowboy, was so the drinking public would put down their bottles long enough to pick up a Bible and sing hymns.

I was reminded of that moment recently when my editor emailed me a map of the United States colored red and blue. It looked like a 2012 election map, with the coasts blue and every place I didn’t want to live colored red. But this was not a geographic analysis of Republican versus Democrat. It was “church” versus “beer.”

The map was created by an organization called Floating Sheep, a group of geographers who use online data to figure out how we think of different places. This map, which came out last year, analyzed 10 million tweets that contained the word “church” or “beer,” just to see what patterns emerged.

Perhaps no reader of this column will be surprised to know how the Upper Valley fared.

Sullivan, Grafton and Orange counties all tilted to beer. Windsor County, which is home to Harpoon Brewery and Long Trail, leaned heavily toward beer.

Indeed, the Northeast and West Coast were blue (as in “beer”) while the South trended red (“church”). The Midwest was evenly divided.

This was a gimmick, of course, not to be taken too seriously. But I thought it would be fun to pass it by Randy Balmer, chairman of Dartmouth’s Religion Department. He is also a first-class beer aficionado.

The South, he said, was no surprise. It is a region where “as Bill Moyers memorably noted, there are more Baptists than there are people,” Balmer told me in an email.

New England and the Pacific Northwest also were kind of obvious. Vermont is home to more breweries per capita than any state in the U.S. New Hampshire drinks the most beer per capita. And Oregon has, well ... Portland. Meanwhile, all three states vie for “least religious” in Gallup polls.

But it was the so-called “Mormon Corridor,” from Idaho to Arizona, that intrigued him. There was no clear preference.

“Even Nevada, a stronghold of Mormonism, tilts toward beer,” Balmer said. “Having recently spent time in Utah, Colorado, and western Montana, I can attest to the presence of some high- quality craft breweries there.”

He’s right. And a few even like to poke fun at local religious extremes. Balmer noted that his favorite biking shirt is for Park City, Utah-based Wasatch Brewery’s “Polygamy Porter,” with the slogan “Why Have Just One?”

I restate, this map is not to be taken too seriously, but my problem with it isn’t even with the data or what it purports to reveal. I take issue with the fundamental proposition — beer versus church. They need not be mutually exclusive.

Religion and beer share deep roots. Indeed, some of the world’s best brewers are monks. And recently, churches have been using craft beer to attract new members to their dwindling congregations. I heard a piece this week on National Public Radio about a “beer and hymns” event organized in — where else? — Portland, Ore.

If there is a divide, surely Balmer must be a conflicted man. I imagine he tosses and turns in bed at night, wrestling with his internal demons, who are stirring a kettle of grains over Hell’s flames and fermenting a 6.66 percent IPA.

Not so much.

“As for any supposed conflict between beer and belief, I see none whatsoever,” Balmer said. “The existence of good beer, after all, together with Opening Day, provide the surest proof for the existence of God.”

To see the map, visit: http://alturl.com/5r792

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Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.