Updated June 10, 2014

Study: Best Small Cities for Beer Lovers

Who doesn't like good beer and good company? In the following cities, you can easily find both. As smaller cities, these communities have more character than their larger counterparts, which raises the potential for an interesting and memorable night on the town. A few, tasty brewskis will guarantee it.

Study Methodology

We considered the following statistics to determine the best small cities for beer drinkers:

  • Cities with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 residents
  • The city’s “walkable” rating, as determined by Walk Score
  • The number of bars in relation to the city's population
  • Unemployment rate
  • Liquor and beer tax rates per gallon, based on state-level data

Walk Score, a company that promotes and rates “walkable” neighborhoods, ranks the accessibility of a city's entertainment venues, restaurants, and, yes, bars by foot. Typically, the higher the Walk Score, the better the city's public transportation and overall health of residents. A low Walk Score reflects the likelihood beer drinkers would have to drive to get to their favorite bar after a night out.

We also looked at each city’s number of bars compared to the city's population, based on numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. If a city has more bars, it is more likely to have competitive prices, and wait and bar service that’s stronger.

Beer taxes also were taken into account. After all, we don’t want to overspend. The higher a state’s tax on beer per gallon, the lower a city fell on our list. This is because it is likely that a pint in a high-tax city would cost more than one in a city with a lower tax rate.

Studies show low unemployment rates result in better attitudes and mental health outcomes. Finally, we considered unemployment rates using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We did this because high unemployment can impact an area's mood.

10 Best Small Cities for Beer Lovers

1. Indiana, PA

  • Walk Score: 98
  • People Per Bar: 3,703
  • Unemployment Rate: 7.1%
  • Beer Tax Rate: 0.08

Indiana, PA, tops the list as the best small city for beer lovers. Home to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana has a near-perfect Walk Score, a low unemployment rate, and low beer taxes. There's also one bar for every 3,703 people in the city, which gives it one of the highest bars per capita rates in the country. And consider this: Indiana is Jimmy Stewart’s hometown (it even has a museum dedicated to the well-loved actor from “It’s a Wonderful Life”). Rumor has it that Jimmy loved beer and would have weekly beer and steak parties. We like to think Stewart would have approved of his hometown topping this list.

2. Traverse City, MI

  • Walk Score: 98
  • People Per Bar: 6,827
  • Unemployment Rate: 8.2%
  • Beer Tax Rate: 0.23

Coming in a close second is Traverse City. Although the bars per capita isn't as high as Indiana, Traverse City hosts several microbreweries and grows hops on the city's Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas. In 2012, Draft magazine named Traverse City one of America's three newest emerging beer towns. Traverse City is home to nine microbreweries, brewpubs, and craft brew taprooms, including the Mackinaw Brewing Co. and North Peak Brewing Co. In August, Traverse City hosts the Summer Microbrew & Music Festival. It features samples of craft brews and mead.

3. Ukiah, CA

  • Walk Score: 92
  • People Per Bar: 4,392
  • Unemployment Rate: 8%
  • Beer Tax Rate: 0.2

Ukiah is a small community two hours north of San Francisco and ranks third as the best small city for beer drinkers. Other than a great Walk Score, low unemployment and low beer tax rates, Ukiah also hosts several annual events that attract a large number of visitors. Its Taste of Downtown in June gives residents and visitors a night to sample local microbrews and brandies in one spot while listening to local musicians.

4. Meadville, PA

  • Walk Score: 85
  • People Per Bar: 3,170
  • Unemployment Rate: 7%
  • Beer Tax Rate: 0.08

Near Erie, the historic town of Meadville ranks fourth on the list. It is so high mostly because of the city's downtown district. It features the Meadville Market House, a market built in 1870, plus other bars and restaurants concentrated in one area. Meadville also is home to Voodoo Brewery, which offers a selection of beers from its barrel room, which could also be sipped in its pub.

5. Corning, NY

  • Walk Score: 89
  • People Per Bar: 4,303
  • Unemployment Rate: 9.5%
  • Beer Tax Rate: 0.14

Corning and the nearby Finger Lakes are huge attractors of visitors during the summer. Corning also ranks fifth as the best small city for beer lovers. Along with wineries, Corning and the Finger Lakes is home to three breweries, including the Market Street Brewing Co., which is located in Corning's Historic Market Street. One place you’ll want to avoid after spending too much time in one of the local breweries is the Corning Museum of Glass, which contains more than 40,000 glass objects on display. But when you do visit, you can enjoy a drink in the museum's cafeteria, which serves beer and wine.

6. Whitewater-Elkhorn, WI

  • Walk Score: 82
  • People Per Bar: 1,858
  • Unemployment Rate: 7.5%
  • Beer Tax Rate: 0.06

Home to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, the city of Whitewater-Elkhorn ranks sixth. The Triangle, Whitewater's main street district, has several bars and restaurants all centrally located. Fun fact: Actor John Belushi, star of “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers,” and all-around beer lover, lived in Whitewater-Elkhorn while he attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

7. Owosso, MI

  • Walk Score: 86
  • People Per Bar: 5,046
  • Unemployment Rate: 8.9%
  • Beer Tax Rate: 0.2

Another historic community, Owosso has a low beer tax rate and unemployment rates. So visitors and residents can get a fairly inexpensive pint in a positive atmosphere. Each year, Owosso hosts the Curwood Festival to celebrate hometown author and conservationist James Oliver Curwood. Visitors can sip a beer while watching the parade or the Curwood Dog Contest.

8. Centralia, WA

  • Walk Score: 92
  • People Per Bar: 5,804
  • Unemployment Rate: 11.1%
  • Beer Tax Rate: 0.76

Centralia has an active historic district and a steady amount of events in the city, such as the Lions Fishing Derby, Dance Festival Northwest, and Summerfest, a collection of events centered around the Fourth of July. It also has a high Walk Score, which makes it rank eighth overall on the list. Centralia also has its own college – Centralia College – and is well-known for its brewery, Dick's Brewing Co. Dick's opened in 1984 and brews more than 20 types of beer.

9. Athens, TX

  • Walk Score: 91
  • People Per Bar: 15,706
  • Unemployment Rate: 6.8%
  • Beer Tax Rate: 0.2

Near Dallas, Athens is home to several beer-loving and entertainment venues such as Railway Cafe and Tara Winery, which is known for its red wines and blushes. It also has a high Walk Score and a low beer tax rate. Fun fact: Athens also is known as the “Black Eyed Pea Capital of the World.” What goes great with a plate of black-eyed peas? You guessed it – beer.

10. Sunbury, PA

  • Walk Score: 77
  • People Per Bar: 3,150
  • Unemployment Rate: 8.2%
  • Beer Tax Rate: .08

With beginnings in 1776, Sunbury rounds out the list as one of the best small cities for beer lovers. There are several bars in Sunbury, all accessible on foot, and the beer tax rate for Pennsylvania is one of the lowest in the country. Visitors can make a stop at Bottleworks, a beer garden that has several local beers on tap. And they can thank a local man for their ability to see their brew while they drink at night: Thomas Edison once lived in Sunbury and installed the first three-wire electric lighting system there in July 1883.

This list was largely based on specific data points and did not take into account each city's proximity to larger cities, which could have more bars and improve the rank of the smaller city. Rankings would also change if we added other factors, such as the number of local breweries, or if we had expanded the list of cities we reviewed (we looked at the top 100 micropolitan cities, those with between 10,000 and 50,000 residents).

This list also shows that you don't have to live in one of the top metropolitan cities in the United States to get a great beer with locals (although if larger cities are your preference, we have a list for those, as well). Additionally, smaller cities tend to have lower food and drink costs, so many of these places may have a pint that costs much less than one you could find in a large nearby city.

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