Too many breweries? I think not

Does America now have too many breweries? I don’t think so.

Recently Joshua M. Bernstein of bon appétite had a feature that spoke about the fact that the number of breweries in the US has topped 3,000, and that this isn’t necessarily the best thing for beer drinker.

I enjoy opinion based pieces that have the ability to get people fired up. But at the same time I prefer if they make sense.

I’ve often thought that there will be a saturation point that will weed out the lesser brewers, but that’s an industry issue, not one for the beer drinker. Unless you happened to be a fan of one of those lesser brewers.

The article spawned from a conversation that he recently had with Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione, where Calagione was quoted stating, “There’s a bloodbath coming,” referring to the amount of competition that is on the horizon. I can’t argue with that statement. It’s true. But from where I’m sitting I see much of the blood coming from brewers in Dogfish Head’s position. I don’t mean that Dogfish Head per se will be bleeding much, but brewers that are regional or some that are in a class I like to call hyper-regional will be the most affected. I see brewers that have stretched their footprint a little too broadly, or expanded their brewery a little too fast will be the ones affected most. Because it is true 3,000 is a lot of breweries.

Once again, this isn’t always bad for the beer drinker, is it?

I see the beer industry in our country a little differently. I certainly don’t mean this as an insult, but the beer industry is in an awkward phase. Beer is a 13 year old boy with acne and a style crisis. He’s grown a lot in the last few years, and he doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.

It wasn’t too long ago, that when you walked into your local beer retailer and had a dozen domestic brands to choose from. This is the world that today’s craft brewers grew up in. Most of these brands were available from Seattle to Key West and everywhere in between. Many upstart craft brewers are subconsciously trying to reach this notion of beer. Or at least dreaming about it. It’s what we know, right? It’s kind of an American thing too.

But if you look at the European model for breweries you see something much different. There are many small producers. Every town will have a few local beers, especially in beer havens like Belgium and Germany. Yes, there are some large breweries dominating in spots, but for the most part there are just a lot of small producers that have localized distribution.

Roughly 3,000 breweries you say… hmm… Let’s look at this number a little differently. There is 1 brewery for every 105,000 people in the United States. Belgium has a paltry 125 breweries. However, this equates to 1 brewery for every 89,000 people. Germany has less than half the breweries we do at 1,250. But there that means every 65,000 people get their own brewery. While this logic may be flawed, and since it is coming from me, I am sure it is. If we supported breweries like Germany does, we could support roughly 4,900 breweries! The US supports about 8,000 wineries today, so 3,000 breweries doesn’t seem like a stretch.

I am not sure what the magic number is in the US right now for breweries, but I still fail to see how this is bad for the beer drinker.

Bernstein later states,
“How can you pick a pint on a 100-brew tap list? Moreover, beer shops are chockablock with pale this and imperial that, each one boasting a different hop pun. When buying beer, I can’t count how many times I’ve assisted overwhelmed shoppers, playing the benevolent Sherpa in the wilds of modern brewing.”

So how can you pick a pint on a 100 brew tap list? This can be done. I’ve done it. Many times in fact. When doing this there is a good chance you will leave wanting to try some you just didn’t have the time or sobriety for.

Picking from a wide variety is a multipronged problem. First there is the problem of history. We are just now becoming accustomed to having choices. Next is the problem of knowledge. The average beer drinker isn’t yet educated about beer to the point where they can recognize every beer, or even half of the beer. Even the seasoned beer geek is likely going to come across taplists with brands or styles they haven’t seen before. This is why it is important for the establishment, whether it be a bar or retail store, to have a knowledgeable staff.

The last part of the problem is lack of attack strategy. Let’s say the bar/retailer doesn’t have a staff that can help you. You can dissect that large taplist like you would look at an unfamiliar wine menu. What styles do you like? Is there a particular region that you looking to try? How strong of a beer are you looking for? There are a million of ways to eliminate selections to narrow that daunting list to something more manageable. Don’t just throw up your arms and say, “That list is just too big for me.” The same can be done for a beer store with a large selection. And please don’t be afraid to ask. You might be standing next to a person who is willing to be a benevolent beer Sherpa.

Once again I ask. Are a lot of choices bad?

This reminds me of a story from my day job. There was a collection of bagels in our breakroom for the office minions to feed off of. When I walked in, and saw this grand display I remarked, “So many choices, I don’t know what to pick!” Then I heard one of my co-workers respond lowly with a thick Russian accent, “In Russia it was easy. There were no choices.”

So do we want to pine for the days where we could choose between Bud and Miller, or rejoice in the bountiful beer bounty that we have been blessed with? I choose the latter.

Later in his article Berstein remarks on how many brewers are redesigning labels, and expanding their business operations from just beer to music partnerships, food, and in the case of Stone and Dogfish Head hotel operation. Once again, this sounds pretty good for the beer drinker.

Going back to the number of breweries, we have over 3,000. So what. Last month Stone Brewing announced they were expanding to Berlin. When I heard this news I was in Berlin. But in my case it was Berlin, Maryland visiting Burley Oak Brewing. Both Stone and Burley Oak count as 1 brewery of the 3,000 respectively. They both make great beer. But they aren’t exactly equal. Stone is nationally distributed, and is expanding to another continent. Burley Oak just expanded and they hope to reach another county. We can’t support 3,000 Stone breweries, but we can support 4,000 or more Burley Oak breweries.