By Daniel Matthews
The 2014 numbers for America’s craft beer industry are in, and crafties are excited. The industry is in the midst of a renaissance. Craft brewing is at an all-time peak, with diversity reigning and craft breweries contributing to the sustainability efforts of local economies.
According to the Brewer’s Association, in 2014 craft breweries numbered at nearly 3,500, a 19.4 percent increase from 2013. In terms of market share, craft beer sales accounted for 11 percent of intake, with a 22 percent growth in sales from 2013.
Alongside the daily reality of watching these breweries thrive, the growing numbers are heartening for advocates of sustainable economies.
First, let’s get our terms straight. Exactly what is a craft brewery? The temptation is to say it’s any brewery that crafts small batches of specialty beer. But the craft beer craze is marked by desire for a more specific level of exclusivity, a higher standard some mistake as snobbery.
A craft brew isn’t considered a craft brew unless the grain portion is all-malt (instead of rice or corn). Besides malted barley, hops, yeast and water, any added ingredients must contribute flavor. A craft brewer must produce 6 million or fewer barrels per year. And 75 percent of the company must be owned by a hands-on party, not a member of the alcoholic beverage industry.
American beer sales are dominated by Anheuser-Busch InBev, which produces 18.1 percent of the world’s beer. U.S.-based Anheuser-Busch merged with InBev, a Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate, to create AB InBev in 2008.
The craft brew standard is specifically formulated to exclude producers like AB InBev, but the company continues to buy out breweries in an effort to harness the craft craze. The buy-outs redefine “craft brewery." Brewers get to continue their work unchecked, producing the same products with the same level of care -- the same “craft." But they leave the 75 percent ownership stipulation by the wayside.
In my hometown, one of the sell-outs is 10 Barrel Brewing, which has a brewpub in the heart of downtown Boise, Idaho. The brewery's sale to AB InBev last year raised controversy due to Idaho’s law that grants special rights to small brewers. According to the law, if 10 Barrel isn’t a small brewer anymore it can’t operate a brewpub, i.e. it can’t sell directly to the consumer. Large brewers are required to sell through an independent retailer so they can’t monopolize the system.
In June, the state determined that 10 Barrel can continue its brewpub because AB InBev isn’t an Idaho licensed brewer, effectively giving 10 Barrel a loophole. The place may look local, but now a good percentage of the dollar you spend there will go to AB Inbev. Not a lot of that dollar will go toward sustaining the local economy. But 10 Barrel’s business will thrive.
Still, despite the lure of the corporate dollar, thousands of craft breweries around the nation hold out and continue independently contributing to sustainable local economies. One of the new, exciting upstarts in Boise is called Payette Brewing Co. Voted Best Local Brewery, in 2016 Payette plans on opening a $4.5 million production facility in downtown Boise.
Owner Mike Francis is a former engineer for Boeing who decided to pursue his brewing dream by founding the brewery in 2010. Francis is an Idaho native. The state makes starting your own business a snap, so locating the brewery here made perfect sense.
One of the ways Payette gives back to the community is through its Payette Forward program, which donates to nonprofit organizations and sponsors events, as long as the organization throwing the event is a nonprofit. Payette prefers not to give to political and religious applicants, unless they are all about an independent cause, such as supporting the local food bank. Payette partners with local food trucks that set up shop right out front of the pub.
Payette has also partnered with Ninkasi Brewing, a Eugene, Oregon, member of the Willamette Valley Sustainable Foods Alliance. Ninkasi ranks as No. 36 on the Brewers Association's list of the top 50 craft brewers in 2014.
Distribution is one of the biggest concerns for craft brewers trying to make a living. In January, Ninkasi resisted the AB Inbev pull and opted to go through two regional distributors, in part to stay aligned with the values of “independent and local wholesalers." Additionally, Brewpublic reports that Ninkasi will team up with Maletis Beverage to give money from every keg sold in September to the Portland Firefighters Association, Local 43. With the high volume of fires this season, it’s safe to say this is a good cause.
Overall, you can’t blame a brewer for wanting to harness the distributive power of a large brewing company like AB Inbev. But the diversity, integrity, creativity and sustainability companies like Payette and Ninkasi bring to the field goes a long way toward helping America’s craft brewing revolution and local economies thrive. Here’s to more amazing new brews in America!
Image credit: Flickr/Visit Florida Editor
Daniel Matthews is a beer enthusiast, freelance writer, and musician. He's written for Social Media Today, GM-Volt, Smart Data Collective, and YFS Magazine. You can find on Twitter @danielmatthews0.