Too Much of a Good Thing? Concerns About Craft-Beer Saturation

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We are undoubtedly living through a beer renaissance. In the late ’70s, there were just 44 brewing companies in the entire U.S. Now, there are roughly 2,500 — including 409 new craft brewers added just last year. Another 1,250 breweries are in the works. Growth has been so explosive that the question is inevitable: When, if ever, will the craft craze level off?

Craft beer seems to be everywhere. It’s being incorporated into ice cream flavors and appearing in beer cocktails around the country. The website for the New Yorker, of all publications, recently launched an interactive craft-beer map of the U.S. It’s full of factoids you can scroll over, like that Blackstone Brewery in Nashville is the country’s fastest-growing brewery, and California has the most craft breweries overall (316), followed by Washington (158), Colorado (151) and Oregon (140). Mississippi has the fewest, with just three. (This is all based on 2012 data from the Brewers Association.)

The map also reveals that 48 out of the 50 states saw an increase in craft-beer production last year. The two exceptions are North Dakota, which only listed four craft brewers in 2012, and which apparently is rife with red tape concerning licensing and distribution, and Vermont. Despite its relatively small population, Vermont ranks 15th for overall craft-beer production. It also boasts the most craft breweries per capita in the U.S. Vermonters certainly love their beer. But Vermont’s beer production fell 2.45% from 2011 to 2012, a surprising shift that “suggests that perhaps the state is hitting its saturation point — that states, like people, can eventually have enough beer,” the New Yorker noted.

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Another interesting case is Indiana, which had 54 craft breweries as of 2012 (No. 14 in the nation), and where production rose an impressive 27% last year. Yet an article in the Indianapolis Star suggests that the craft-beer scene is getting overcrowded. “With about 60 Indiana craft breweries already saturating the market, triple the number from four years ago, breaking into the scene is only getting tougher,” the article states.

New brewers complain about the difficulty of getting their beers on tap at restaurants and bars. There’s only so much room at the bar, after all, and restaurants are in a position where they can be picky. “We don’t want to put five Indianapolis breweries on that have the same types of beer,” said the owner of one pub.

Bart Watson, a staff economist for the Brewers Association, says despite the dramatic increase in American craft beer over the past few years, there is still plenty of space for more growth. “Oregon is probably one of the most mature craft-beer markets in the country, and last year production still grew by 11%,” Watson points out. “Similarly, cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland have a much stronger craft presence than the national average, and they continue to see market growth.”

The U.S. has around 2,500 breweries, which sounds like a lot. But Watson explains that the number of breweries would have to double before we were on par with the per capita brewery rate of Germany, which has roughly 1,300 breweries.

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Ultimately, increased variety and competition will result in better beer. “The beer drinker is too knowledgeable now about styles and quality” for a company to count on solid sales just by putting “craft” on the label, says Watson.

The brewers that’ll be successful understand this as well. “The first requirement to stay on tap is to have really good quality beer,” Omar Robinson, co-owner of Indianapolis’ Sun King Brewing, told the Star. “That’s the way you have got to get taps, and that’s the way you’ve got to keep them.”