Wednesday, September 30, 2015

U.S. now has over 4,000 breweries. How many is too many?

According to the Brewer's Association, the trade group that represents craft beer, there are now over 4,000 breweries in the United States. That's approaching the high of 4,131 the U.S.boasted in 1873, before the Temperance Movement, and later Prohibition, and then after THAT the big corporate brewers, laid waste to beer brewing in America.

That's pretty remarkable, when you consider that within our lifetime (or at least within my lifetime) there were as few as 89 breweries operating in the United States. There are now more than that in the Portland metro area alone!

Chart courtesy of

Of course, many of us remember the craft beer boom of the 1990s. It was a glorious time. It was a time when Samuel Adams, Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada and others were just starting to make waves. Between 1986 and 1995, craft beer grew at rate of up to 75 percent a year. That growth dwarfed even today's beer explosion. Sure, I had to drive 30 minutes to get to the only decent beer store in the area, but the fact that decent beer even existed was a revolution.

In 1997, that growth hit a wall. Between 1997 and 2003, craft beer barely budged. Some years, there was no growth at all. It began to slowly tick upwards after that, but didn't begin to surge again until 2010, when the craft beer segment began experiencing double-digit growth that continues to today.

But can it last? Is there a so-called "bubble" that is threatening to burst, leaving hundreds of broken breweries in its wake?

It's a question that many people have been asking the last several years.

Breweries in planning, circa 2011

Despite my misgivings about the quality of many of the newest breweries, I don't think so. At least not any time soon.

Breweries like Stone, New Belgium, Dogfish Head, and Lagunitas are petty big fish, but only in a small pond. They seem big to craft beer nerds, but in truth they border on being nobodies. Really influential nobodies, to be sure, but hardly the giants we often think they are. As Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione recently pointed out, "I guess we are somewhere around one tenth of one percent of the US beer industry."

And these are the BIG craft breweries. Most are reeeaally damn tiny. That 4,000 figure includes nano breweries operating out of garages and barns, small brewpubs that make just enough beer to supply their restaurant, and so on. They serve very local, very small customer bases, just like breweries did over 100 years ago.

As the Brewer's Association points out:

Most of the new entrants continue to be small and local, operating in neighborhoods or towns. What it means to be a brewery is shifting, back toward an era when breweries were largely local, and operated as a neighborhood bar or restaurant

How many neighborhoods in the country could still stand to gain from a high-quality brewpub or micro taproom? While a return to the per capita ratio of 1873 seems unlikely (that would mean more than 30,000 breweries), the resurgence of American brewing is far from over.

That's not to say we're not feeling the squeeze. Talk to the person who runs your local beer shop and they'll probably tell you that there just isn't enough shelf space for all the new beers coming out. I have a solid half-dozen really good beer stores within five minutes or so of my house, and between the six of them they still can't maintain a selection of all the beers supposedly available in our area.

Photo courtesy of a really stupid column.

There is a lot of competition in the craft beer world. There will only be more. A lot of beers will get squeezed off the shelves. One bar owner told Draft Magazine in 2013:

“Frankly, I’m pretty convinced that the market [here] won’t support all of these breweries ... From talking to all of the bar owners in the market, we all have that opinion. There are a few breweries right now that none of us, meaning respected beer bars, support regularly. They sort of get ‘pity handles’ because we’re all on the same team.”

But there is room to grow, especially in areas not yet served by several good local/regional breweries, and even when that growth begins to slow -- and it inevitably will -- it's hard to envision a collapse. Today's beer drinker has been exposed to better beers right from the start. Sure, they will often still buy a cheap 30-pack of something because college + spending money don't usually go together, but from a taste perspective they have different expectations than people from my father and grandfather's generation.

Sure, my shop of choice doesn't stock half of what I want to drink because there is literally too much great beer out there for them to stock, but for the moment all that means is that every good beer shop is unique, with a selection not duplicated by the shop down the road. It makes every store you visit a beer adventure.

And that's hardly a bad thing. It means demand is still huge.

More importantly, people are still demanding good beer made nearby. As long as that demand remains -- and I don't see it waning any time soon -- we'll continue to see craft beer grow.

The sky is not falling. The good stuff is here to stay. Sure, make no mistake, there is NOT much room for competition in the upper echelon of the craft beer world. They're already starting to step on one anothers toes. There is room for only so many Founders and Bell's and Samuel Adams to go around.

The small, uber local guys are another story.

Four thousand breweries is a lot ... but we'll get to 5,000. Bet on it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Tipping my hat to Anchor Brewing

Anchor Steam
If you can't appreciate Anchor Steam, you're no beer friend of mine.

Anchor Steam is one of the grandaddies of craft beer in America. It's just one beer from the excellence-filled Anchor lineup, but this one is something special. It's a landmark. It's a mainstay. It's a bottle of history.

Oh, and it holds up wonderfully, too. Many who are new to craft beer scoff at Anchor Steam. After all, it doesn't feature any crazy ingredients or style-busting flavors. Nope, it's just a damn good beer. Not going to blow your mind, not going to take you to new beer places, not going to push the boundaries of taste. Just going to provide a good, basic, "this is a good drinking beer" experience ideal for friends, food and conversation.

For some reason, that kind of thing is rejected by many of today's crop of craft crazies. That's too bad. There is a lot to be said for a beer that aspires to be nothing more than an excellent, impeccably crafted-yet-simple beer.

Beyond Anchor Steam, anyone and everyone who enjoys craft beer in America owes a small debt to Anchor Brewing. They were among the pioneers who helped get the movement started.

By now the story is legend. The brewery had been around since 1896 or so, quietly churning out beers, with their "steam beer," a uniquely American style now referred to as a California Common, being their mainstay. (A California Common is essentially a lager brewed at ale temperatures, giving it the smoothness of a lager with the fruity bite of an ale.) By the 1960s, though, they weren't going very well. Fritz Maytag, great grandson of THE Maytag, however, really loved their beer, so he did what any filthy rich beer lover would do: he bought the place.

Maytag prompted Anchor to reinvent themselves. They improved their processes and brought back traditional styles that had been all but forgotten in America, among them porters and barleywines. By the mid-1970s, they were probably the best brewers in America.

Even more important, they inspired a slew of others to follow in their footsteps and begin brewing craft beer. You wouldn't be enjoying your Stone and Dogfish Head and Bruery and New Belgium and Samuel Adams and Lost Abbey and on and on and on if it weren't for folks like Anchor Steam, New Albion, Sierra Nevada (who themselves credit Anchor and New Albion as major influences), and a very small (very small) handful of others.

Anchor Brekle's Brown
Steam isn't their only beer worth drinking, either. Their Old Foghorn barleywine may not impress those who like today's hopped-up barleywines, but if you like them traditional this is a classic. Their lager is good. They do a great summer ale. Love their brown. And oh, did I mention the porter?

If you haven't had Anchor Porter in a while, or at all, give it a try. Many decades after it was first made -- it was first brewed in 1972, waaaaay before almost every other porter on the market -- it's still one of the best classic porters made in the States.

Consider that for a moment. This is a beer that can go head-to-head with any American porter being brewed today. It's a definitive example of the style. Set it next to some of today's best, like Founder's and Bell's, and it is their equal or better.

And this beer was hitting shelves 40 years ago, during a time when light lagers were pretty much the only game in town! That's astonishing. That was back when good, robust beer was all but dead in America. And here you have Anchor putting out this inky black stuff that was all body and flavor. Talk about ahead of their time.

Loving Anchor isn't all about celebrating the past. All these years later, they're still a fantastic brewery and a model on how to do it right.

I will always, always tip my glass to Anchor. And you should, too.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I've been gone too long. Time to get some beer on!

It feels like forever since I blogged about beer.

It's not that I haven't been writing about beer. I write a weekly beer column for the Philly Weekly, which appears online in a slightly different, daily-dose form and which gives me my regular fix when it comes to waxing poetic about suds. I've written about the beer scene in Atlantic City and bacon and beer coming together, too, among other things.

But blogging?

I've barely touched my main blog. Small chance I'd be on top of this one, too.

I do miss it sometimes, though. There are things worth saying that aren't a good fit for my column. A lot of it is grumpy old man stuff about how much the current craft beer scene frustrates me, but a lot of it is the usual upbeat, beer-positive stuff I prefer to focus on, too.

Reviews? Probably not so much. Everyone and their dog does beer reviews -- you can't spit at a Google server without frying a dozen beer review blogs, podcasts and Youtube channels -- and frankly, how much purpose do they really serve? It all comes down to "is this good or is this bad," and tastes vary so wildly the distinction can be all but meaningless.

But maybe some commentary. And pictures. Or something.

Because hey, beer is awesome. Writing is awesome. They're like my chocolate and peanut butter.

And I love me the hell out of some peanut butter cups. So let's do this thing (at least until I get tired of it).