The term “craft beer” has really taken hold throughout the United States, but once in a while I run into someone who gives me a blank stare when I start applying the word “craft” to beer. At which point I usually try to help them understand by tossing in the term “microbrews.” The latter term has been in the vernacular in this country much longer than the former, so it has a wider base of understanding.
But I always cringe anytime I feel the need to use the microbrew term to get my point across, because it’s been a big misnomer for a long time.
It conveys a mental image of a couple of guys in a small building producing a dozen kegs of beer per batch. While that’s how most craft brewers start out, at the end of 2010 there were 80 “regional” craft brewers in the U.S., defined as those producing between 15,000 and 6,000,000 barrels of beer annually. Those are large operations with lots of employees and, in some cases, enormous facilities. Nothing “micro” about them.
And they are growing and doing things that would have been unimaginable to them 10 years ago. I recently covered a downside to all this growth—increased litigation between brewers. But the positive effects of the growth far outweigh the negative effects.
One such positive effect was a recent improvement in Tennessee law allowing breweries in that state to brew high-alcohol beer. To understand the improvement, you need to know a little something about how Tennessee regulates beer.
Unlike Alabama prior to the passage of the Gourmet Beer Bill in 2009, Tennessee has long allowed beer over 6 percent ABV to be sold within its borders. But they do it in an absurd, oppressive manner. They define beer over 6 percent as liquor, and tax it and regulate it like liquor. And since they issue different licenses for brewing beer and distilling liquor, historically Tennessee breweries have been unable to brew any beer over 6 percent alcohol, even though liquor stores were able to sell all sorts of high-alcohol beers brewed in other states. In a nutshell, Tennessee law put its own breweries at a competitive disadvantage versus breweries in other states, a typical Bible Belt inanity.
Oddly, the remedy for the inanity was a rumor that Sierra Nevada (located in California) was considering Tennessee as a possible location for a new $200 million facility they are planning for the eastern United States. Sierra Nevada did not make any commitments to Tennessee legislators and have even publicly stated they are not 100 percent committed to building an eastern facility, but just the faintest whiff of a “foreign” $200 million manufacturing investment in their state got Tennessee legislators off their asses to do what they should have done for their own local businesses many years ago: allow all breweries located in their state to brew the full spectrum of beer styles.
And though it hasn’t sparked any changes in state laws that I know of, it’s been reported that New Belgium brewery is also looking to build a new facility somewhere near the east coast. That may be what finally brings Fat Tire to its many fans in Alabama.
But Sierra Nevada and New Belgium aren’t the only craft breweries with plans to build. Stone Brewing has grandiose plans to do some uncommon things over the next couple of years. Most ambitiously, they’ve been planning for quite some time to build a European facility and are close to finalizing the location. In their existing facility last year, they brewed 115,000 barrels of beer, but a massive brewery expansion will soon take them to a capacity of 500,000 barrels in San Deigo County. For reference, Samuel Adams maker Boston Beer produced a little over 2,000,000 barrels last year. Stone is also adding a “company store” in downtown San Diego that will feature swag and growler fills, and adding a second World Bistro & Gardens location, to complement the existing one attached to their brewery. Finally, they are going to build a 50-room hotel across from their brewing operations in California. Yes, a hotel.
I’m almost certain the Stone hotel would be the first craft-brewery-owned hotel in U.S. history. I’m crossing my fingers that a theme park will be next on the list.
Seriously, these one-time microbreweries are becoming very big business. And knowing the hardcore beer geek community as well as I do, I have to think it’s likely that in a few years there will be new divisions in the community of craft drinkers. You already find plenty of people who dismiss Samuel Adams as being too big and too mainstream. But in time, several more craft breweries will grow as big as Sam Adams is right now. I happen to think that’s a wonderful thing, as I think beer drinkers should care about flavor, not brewery size. And the continued growth of the largest craft brewers will further propel IPAs and stouts and Belgian-style golden ales into the mainstream.
Plenty of craft drinkers buy into the ethos of supporting small businesses over larger corporations, and let’s face it, businesses with multiple large facilities in different parts of the country and even on different continents are not “small businesses” under any reasonable definition of the term. Microbreweries are hitting the big time.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and coorganizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com