Wild Growth: What Will the Ever-Increasing Number of Breweries Mean for the Industry?

Unfiltered by | Jun 2016 | Issue #113
Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

Walk the floor at this year’s Craft Brewers Conference and a singular impression comes over you: This is big business. The Pennsylvania Convention Center’s show floor, a nearly half-mile long expanse, is filled with shiny brewhouses, gleaming fermentors, and every type of swag imaginable. Hungry-eyed sales reps stand poised and ready to sell brewers on the value of the latest data program, gadget or device. The smell in the air is not hops or malt but commerce.

Look a little deeper and you’ll notice another trend: a creeping insularity. In an industry where the nation’s flavorful beer brewers once largely knew one another by name, the event is now a sea of fresh faced, novice brewers in brand new hoodies. Once defined by its shared camaraderie, the sense among brewers today is that it’s nice to be in the same building together even if you largely stay clustered in your own regional cliques with longtime friends.

That leaning is understandable at a conference with nearly 13,000 attendees, a staggering number compared to five or 10 years ago. Walking the convention floor, a seasoned industry vet might go several minutes without seeing a recognized brewery name. With more than 4,000 breweries in existence and several thousand more in planning, the craft brewing industry is less about commonality and more about thousands of individualized business experiences.

The statistics on the wild growth of the craft brewing industry are staggering, but perhaps the most telling is a simple one. Of the nearly 4,300 breweries operating in 2015, more than 3,900 of them produced fewer than 7,500 barrels. That means 91 percent of American craft brewers account for only 1.5 percent of the total production of the nation’s beer industry.

It’s hard to imagine what shared experience binds such a diverse group of businesspeople. Certainly the interests and experience of relative beer behemoths Sierra Nevada and Boston Beer aren’t going to be particularly recognizable to folks from Philadelphia’s tiny Crime and Punishment Brewing or Chicago’s miniscule Spiteful Brewing.

The new wave of smaller brewers, often based on the taproom model, frequently have few, if any, intentions of selling beer outside of their four walls. It’s a financially smart model in a capital hungry, expensive industry. It also invites some insularity, where in the absence of a need to engage the outside market, brewers retreat to their own houses and don’t interact with others.

Some craft brewing vets also lament the attitude of the new generation of beer entrepreneurs, believing that they don’t pay enough homage to the earlier pioneers who helped build the industry’s foundation and structure. Others, including myself, confess a near complete inability to keep up with the fast growing ranks of brewers in our own local communities, let alone in states across the country.

Still others see new brewers hungry for knowledge, passionate about joining the beer industry, and bootstrapping themselves until they make it. The sheer number of breweries in planning, however, will stretch and contort any previous conception of craft brewing into something hard for the pioneers to recognize.

Change is inevitable. It cannot be smartly fought. It can either be embraced or ignored, but it will come. What the resulting industry will resemble in 18 months, let alone five years, is beyond any reasonable person’s imagination. But above all, this year’s Craft Brewers Conference suggests it’s going to be big.