How does your state stack up to the other 49 when it comes to the cheapest beer? Are you getting a deal, or is it worth driving over a nearby border for brews?
A recent survey from Simple Thrifty Living aims to answer those questions. Its findings: the states with the cheapest beer are Michigan, California, and Illinois; the states with the most expensive are Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. Because this is a fun and interesting question, plenty of publications have picked it up and run with it, declaring Michigan a dream state for cheap beer lovers. But the actually data doesn’t quite bear that out.
The survey is attention-grabbing partly because there isn’t really anything like it; the laws around beer-selling and the prices that arise from those laws vary dramatically state-by-state, and few have attempted to address cost questions across the entire country. To wit: Taxes range wildly, from $1.29 per gallon in Tennessee to only $0.02 per gallon in Wyoming. Some states charge five or ten cents per bottle/can as a recycling fee; most do not. Some states are particularly loyal to a local beer; in others, major, national breweries are most popular. Some states strictly control where beer can be sold, while others do not.
Those complications make it very tricky to compare beer prices throughout the country, but this particular survey chose a kind of wide and shallow approach: the best-selling beers at the biggest retailers. The survey looked at two varieties—Bud Light, the top-selling beer in the country, and, for some reason, Miller Lite, which ranks third—and called “up to 10” stores in each state, in a mix of urban and rural areas. Those stores were “primarily” Total Wine and Walmart locations.
But because of everything mentioned above, the numbers get screwy. Pennsylvania, which Simple Thrifty Living ranked as the number one most expensive state for beer, has exactly zero Total Wine locations, and not a single one of its many Walmarts sell beer due to the state’s liquor laws. And Pennsylvania also doesn’t drink nearly as much Bud Light or Miller Lite as other states; its most popular beer is the local brand Yuengling, which is often cheaper than Bud or Miller but wasn’t considered in this study—and demand does affect price.
Tennessee, which ranks second on the most-expensive list, prefers Coors Light to either Bud or Miller, and also boasts the most expensive beer taxes in the country, driving up the price. Meanwhile, Michigan, the cheapest state, ranks Miller Lite as its favorite beer, but is also the only state in the country to have a ten-cent bottle recycling tax. Considering regular tax is included in the survey but the recycling tax is not, this is suspect and not reflective of the take-home price.
All these caveats should make you disregard this survey as nothing more than a simple PR play (which, to be fair, worked—we’re talking about it now) and instead see it as an indicator of just how complicated the beer situation in the US really is. There’s a lot that goes into a beer’s cost: where it’s brewed, what the demand for that category is, what are the local taxes, where is it sold, etc. etc. It’s not as simple as how much Bud Light costs at Walmart.