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Are there too many breweries in the USA?

American craft brewers continue to grow. The reasons for their growth and popularity are not only about the beer.

Chad Miller, co-founder of Black Shirt Brewing Company, Denver, Colorado
Photo by Charlie Papazian
Chuck & Lyza Schnabel, founders of Quarry Brewing Company in Butte, Montana
Photo by Charlie Papazian

New craft brewers continue to open across the United States in both established craft beer centric metropolitan areas and in the smallest of rural communities. Over 2,700 small and independent American brewers are succeeding and will continue to succeed for years to come. Their success is not a simple of measure of traditional beer industry values. There’s more to understand than what statistics reveal.

Here are five headlines that reveal another aspect of why craft brewers are succeeding

Many small brewers are revitalizing Main Street America with an attitude and serving up a business model that communities big and small want to support.

A recent good sized city in the United States recently posted this advertisement in a brewer’s forum:

Got brew? [USA city], wants you.

Tap into future success in [our state]: Looking for brewpubs, tap rooms and production facilities with a desire to open and expand. Brewer-friendly zoning. Buy or lease opportunities. Incentives available. contact@[USA city].org

In September I visited The Quarry Brewery, Butte, Montana. It opened in 2007. Located on a quiet city center main street of economically depressed Butte brewery entrepreneurs Chuck and Lyza Schnabel bought a heritage-style abandoned 3-story hotel for $75,000. First a brewery and tap room was established in the lower level (a below street level from the front, but actually opens up to back alley at street level). Renovations continue. Baking equipment has been bought and is now up and running. The first day of the open bakery brought a line of customers out the front door. A café is in the early stages of development. Renovations continue. An entertainment and lounge area as well as a planned bed and breakfast hotel on the upper floors are in progress. Across the street Chuck and Lyza have purchased a building and lot for $10,000. The porn shop’s lease was terminated. Plans for more parking and a restaurant is anticipated, It seems welcomed relief and the beginning of a brighter future for the area.

Also in September while In Butte I had the privilege of having a beer with Jim Devine, brewer, owner, founder of the Beaver Creek Brewery in Wibaux, Montana. “Wibaux, Montana who the hell are you…” is sung by Jim Devine. I need to clarify that I haven’t been there yet but it high on my list of want-to-places. Wibaux is a small town of 461 people, 3 or 4 hours from the nearest airport. It’s located in eastern Montana, 10 miles from the North Dakota border. Jim has renovated a longtime unused building and established his brewery in 2008. It’s now a center point of the community, attracting quality performances from musicians who pass through on their travels across America. The nearby movie theatre hadn’t shown a film since the 1950s. Jim Devine is a big man, with big ideas in a small town. The Cinema has been renovated as the Historic Gem Theatre and Pub, hosting beer lounging, entertainment and music. Neighboring worn down office space has been getting a face lift to add brilliance to this tiny town that replicates what can happen on Main Street in Anywhere, America.

Max Pigman founder of Lewis and Clark Brewing Company in Helena, Montana tells of his own classic craft brewery story. Opened in 2002 Max developed a building into a brewery that had been a set of buildings added onto over the last 125 years, some structures dating back to 1885. Their brewery was formerly a smoke house, the well-known defunct Columbia Paint Company, and an ice house. With renovation and expansion they are producing nearly 20 regular and seasonal beers.

In the River North area of Denver, Colorado lives the dream come true of three founding “badass” entrepreneurs, brothers Brandon and Chad along with wife Carissa Miller. The Black Shirt Brewery had its roots in homebrewing and garage nano-brewing and after a long journey opened at their current location in 2009. The building they purchased was a run down, decrepit small business dwelling with seemingly no hope of recovery in a rough neighborhood. With no money and lots of sweat equity they worked a day job and doubled their time nightly gutting and reconstructing the building. It was an unrelenting period of a do it yourself; build-it-yourself construction project demanding maximum resourcefulness. After nearly 4 years at their location they recently scaled up with a new 15 barrel brewing system brewing beer for the neighborhood and this destination for musicians and artists who play, perform music and enjoy their craft beer. Behind the brewery a City of Denver Light Rail station is being developed. The railroad tracks will bring people from downtown Denver to their brewery. A convenient, seemingly made to order light rail walkway will drop transit goers at the doorsteps the Black Shirt Brewery. Black Shirt Brewery will be remembered as an anchor for the resurrection of this district.

Are there too many breweries in the USA?

Are there too many breweries in the USA? HELL NO! You can quote me on that. The prospects of local breweries supported by their immediate communities have potential with no end in sight. The wealth of opportunity fueled by the passion that is a nation of brewers will continue for the foreseeable future.

Are there enough distributors?

Are there enough distributors to handle all the new beers from new packaging breweries? If existing distributors establish limits, brewers will find a way to get their beer to the beer drinker, through self-distribution opportunities or with new entrepreneurial beer distributors.

Are there enough retailers, shelf space and tap handles?

Are there enough retail stores, shops, convenient stores, bars, restaurants, pubs, taverns that can handle all the new beers from craft breweries? Of course there are. Will a particular craft brewer’s beers be everywhere? No they won’t need to be everywhere. Local craft brewers will find enough select locations, shops, restaurants, bars, markets and pubs that want to support local businesses. And they all will benefit from supporting local and unique products.

See A Nation of Brewers: If you don’t count the top producing 50 American craft brewers then the average annual production of a brewpub is 769 barrels (31 gallons = 1 U.S. barrel). The average annual production of a packaging brewery is 1,704 barrels.

There are many new dynamics that are relevant to the success of current and future American breweries. The “old school” way of thinking about what is needed for a successful brewing business can’t be applied to many new and emerging small business models. But there is one thing that consistently matters. Quality matters. It’s not only about quality beer but quality of attitude and doing the right thing. There’s plenty of passion that I’m seeing for doing so.

What is the future of beer in the USA? Most of the old school beer industry will never understand that what I’m saying is the future of beer in the USA. You have to be on the ground and you have to see it, drink it, listen to it, feel it, taste it, and live it – face to face. These kinds of things don’t show up in reports, statistics, projections, surveys, power point presentations or speeches at a podium.

America’s average craft brewer lives in a dimension that will continue to appeal to Main Street American beer drinkers who are not necessarily always seeking mainstream American beer.

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