September 5, 2012

The Session #67: How many breweries in 2017?

My buddy Derrick Peterman over at Ramblings of a Beer Runner hosts this month's The Session. Man it's been awhile since I've joined the fray. Derek opens:
There's been much cheering and fanfare reverberating throughout the brewing community about the latest brewery numbers recently released from the Brewer's Association, who counted exactly 2,126 breweries in the United States.
The theme he suggests us beer bloggers blog about is:
Where is it all going? The growth shows no sign of stopping and the biggest problem most breweries have is that they can't brew beer fast enough. But can the market really absorb all these new breweries?...Tell us how many breweries the Brewer's Association will count five years from now in 2017, and why you think it will be that number.
Answer: 5,001.

Oh, I should extrapolate? Well, it's like this. Yes, there are well over 2,000 breweries already. The Brewers Association further purports that there are over 1,600 BIP (breweries in planning)! True, not all of them will brew in the light of day (and to be sure we will see a huge bump in the number of failed/shuttered brewing concerns, but it will long be outpaced by new and succeeding ones). But blink and the number of brewery-opening hopefuls has already risen, so let's just say that by early 2014 when all their i's are dotted and they've navigated the alphabet soup of ABCs and TTBs, etc, there will be nearly 4,000.

"Impossible!" you say? Why? A recent Gallup poll concluded that Americans prefer beer to wine 39% to 35%. So it stands that there should be 4% more breweries than wineries, right?! (Hey, I'm a wordsmith, not a mathematician.) OK, but really, my point is that it'd be logical that since more Americans prefer beer to wine, there should be more breweries. Or at least the same amount. Fine, how about at least HALF as many!? But no, as it stands today, there are 7,626 bonded wineries in the USA. That's fewer than 28% as many licensed breweries as bonded wineries.

So where are the remaining 2,875 breweries going to come from that I'm predicting will open by 2017?

Tiny, nano, pico, "boutique," retirement-plan, post-law-career, I've-always-loved-homebrewing-and-all-my-friends-said-I-should-go-pro breweries. One of the biggest arguments against the success of more packaging breweries is that shelf space remains finite. So clearly we cannot have nearly 3,000 new "regional" breweries concocting over 15,000 barrels apiece. But people love supporting local and that's just not a fad or trend that will dissipate. Once people get a taste for serious, flavorful, characterful beer, they do not revert back to the industrial, commoditized swill. And if my hometown of Portland can support 50 breweries--yes, 50 breweries in a city with just over 1/2 a million folks--then so can other progressive towns. And if littler hamlets such as Asheville, Bend, and Grand Rapids can support over a dozen breweries, then who's to say many more with less than a 1/4 million residents can't do the same?

Craft beer consumers are savvier than they've ever been. The mid-90s bust needed to happen; too many bogus breweries needed to have bullshit called upon them. But now, there's a more knowledgable and talented pool of prospective brewers/brewmasters. The AHA estimates that there are a million homebrewers in this country. I'm one of them and I have zero aspirations of going pro. But if only 0.002875% of them do seriously plan on making an avocation their vocation, then welcome to a world with over 5,000 breweries.