Earlier this year, the Brewer’s Association (a trade group that monitors the craft beer industry) released their annual stats regarding the growth of craft beer in America. The number of breweries open in the U.S. through 2014 (which includes macro, micro, regional and brewpubs) was a staggering 3,464. In 2013, that number was 2,917 and the year before that 2,456. That means that there was about an 18.8% increase in the number of breweries in America in each of the past two years.
Obviously that’s a tiny sample size, but if we assume that 2015 will see similar growth to 2014 and 2013, that would put us at 4,115 breweries by the end of this year. Why is this number so remarkable? The highest number of breweries ever operating in the United States was waaaaay back in 1873. Back then, we had 4,131 active breweries. Keep in mind that this was before modern refrigeration so any town that wanted fresh beer had to have a local brewery. If craft beer keeps growing at its current pace, in 6 months there will be more breweries in America than at any point in its history.
Even more amazing is that from 2010-2014, almost 1,500 new microbreweries opened while only 110 shut their doors!* That means for every microbrewery that closes, more than 13 open. This is, to put it mildly, remarkable growth. The frozen yogurt craze exploded then died. The gourmet cupcake craze did the same. Vape shops seem primed for the same boom and bust cycle. But craft beer? It doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.
*Brewpubs fare less well in this metric. From 2010-2014, 556 brewpubs were opened while 159 were shuttered. Decent numbers, but proof that restaurants are a tough business.
We’re in a unique historical moment in terms of Americans’ relationships with the goods and services they buy. Many Americans have become wary of corporations and chain stores. They’re becoming more aware of the economic realities at play with companies like Walmart, McDonald’s and the Gap. Our knowledge of the poor pay, lousy work conditions and negative environmental impact inherent in massive, cost-cutting corporations are starting to outweigh the enjoyment of the consistent, cheap goods these companies provide. We’re also gaining an increased appreciation of local goods. Farmer’s market and farm-shares are sprouting up everywhere. The locavore movement is gaining steam across the country. Americans are taking pride in their regional products and foods. Support for local businesspeople, restauranteurs and artisans has gotten huge. And smack in the middle of this cultural shift is your local craft brewery.
Craft beer is having its moment. That’s not to say the bubble won’t burst eventually. The industry can’t sustain 18.8% growth indefinitely. An optimist would note that while we are about to “beat” the year 1873 in terms of total number of breweries, we also have more than 8 times the population that we did 140 years ago. While our country and our culture have changed dramatically since then, I think it’s fair to assume that we can still sustain at least some growth in craft beer before the meniscus of that bubble is reached. And who knows? It may never burst…it may just slow down to a sustainable annual percentage that matches population growth.
After all, we’re talking about beer here. Not yogurt. Not cupcakes. Beer is the liquid staff of life…one of the cornerstones of human civilization. It predates recorded history and every culture on Earth has some sort of ancient brewing tradition. We’re not going to “fall out of love” with beer. Sure, there wasn’t much in the way of American craft beer in the 80s, but it’s not because we weren’t drinking! American’s have ALWAYS consumed copious amounts of brew. If anything, the fact that we STILL drank shit-tons of beer even when our only options were dishwater-dull macro lagers is testament to the fact that Americans have always and will always love beer.
So color me unconcerned about the future of craft. I know it will slow down and there will likely be a culling of some lesser brewhouses (or those that don’t market or distribute aggressively enough). But I’m convinced we can support many more breweries than we currently have. As I said, we’re at a unique moment in American history in terms of our connection to what we consume. And craft beer is reaping the rewards of that moment.
And now, a tasting note…
THE MAGIC TREE HOUSE
While I just spent 700 words declaring that craft beer is here to stay and will continue to grow, the sheer number of breweries in America means that you have to be truly special to really stand out. Tree House Brewing is truly special.
Located in Monson, Massachusetts (halfway between Sturbridge and Chicopee off the Mass Pike…you’ve never been to any of these towns), Tree House served their first draft beer just three short years ago. Since then, through word of mouth and the tireless efforts of their team to continue to improve, Tree House has become to Massachusetts what Hill Farmstead is to Vermont. A remote little brewing outpost in a tiny, bucolic New England town, Tree House sees people lined up out the door every Saturday to grab a couple growlers of their immensely well-received creations.
Brewer Nate Lanier has become justly famous for Tree House’s hopped-up but well-balanced IPAs like Julius and Green. The brewery has had to institute very strict regulations in terms of retail operating hours and the number of growlers each guest can purchase in order to minimize the number of customers who leave Monson empty-handed. While it’s hardly a household name just yet, Tree House is proof that craft beer is still very much in its growth phase. A hard to find, tiny outfit with minimal marketing budget that manages to draw endless lines every weekend? Does that sound like a burst bubble to you? Me neither.
While I’m a native Masshole, it’s been over a decade since I called New England home. As such, my ability to trek out to the Bay State boonies is nigh-impossible. Thankfully, my friend and fellow Alehead Smiley Brown still resides in the area and he sent down a delightful little care package including a canned Tree House offering called Haze. If there’s anything better than receiving unexpected beer in the mail, I don’t know what it is.*
*HUGE shout-out to my buddy Chris in VT for sending me a four-pack of Heady Topper along with some Lawson’s Finest Liquids and Crop Bistro brews out of the blue a few weeks back. That was a fun package to open.
I cracked open the Haze last night and it was delightful. As the name implies, it pours a gorgeous hazy orange with a fluffy, pure-white head. The nose is a big ol’ bowl of citrus fruits but the initial taste is dank ganja. My first impression was that I was drinking a Heady Topper clone. However, the beer finishes quite differently than the Heady. I found the Haze had a surprisingly earthy, grassy malt backbone that finished sweeter than I expected. A superbly well-balanced beer that sips like a world-beating IPA and finishes almost like a hopped-up pilsner. Intriguing, delicious, and gone in an instant.
Thanks, Smiley…and thanks to Nate and his crew at Tree House for cranking out some delicious suds. I know it’s too much to ask for Tree House to make its way to Alabama when they can barely fill their orders in their tiny corner of Massachusetts. But something tells me I’ll be making the trek to Monson during my next visit to New England…