A new study released last week by Lexington’s Alltech, which brews Kentucky Ale beers, and the Brewers Journal shows that of the 19,000-and-change breweries across the blue-green orb we call Earth, 94 percent of them are making “craft” beer.
For those not in the know, in America, a “craft brewery” is loosely defined by the Brewers Association, a national entity dedicated to promoting craft beer, as a brewery making 6 million barrels annually or fewer; that is independently owned (no more than 25 percent ownership by a non-craft entity), and which majority of its products are derived “from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.”
The survey, however, which was announced to be timed with St. Patrick’s Day, shifted the parameters, considering a craft brewery as “having fewer than 30 staff or producing less than 5,000 hectolitres [roughly 132,000 barrels] per year or more than 50 percent of the brewery being privately owned.”
But what’s it all mean? Well, I guess my question is that if nearly 18,000 of the world’s breweries are considered “craft” under these guidelines, why are so many people still drinking Corporate Light? Or Mexi-swill? Probably because those people are the same folks still eating at quick-service restaurants every day and calling it “food.” They simply haven’t gotten to craft beer, or have no interest.
For many, craft beer can be daunting or intimidating. For instance, I’ve never been snow skiing — in part because I know I would likely break several limbs thanks to my clumsy nature, but in part because, well, I’ve never been invited. If your immediate social group is content with Corporate Light beer, you may not have been given the opportunity to find your “gateway” beer.
(For the purpose of this column, I will define a “gateway” beer as being anything a non-craft-beer person can drink without making a face, and that they perceive to be “craft” beer. Like, for instance, Blue Moon.)
The gap is closing in the U.S. It’s closing slowly, but it’s closing enough that the big producers, like A-B InBev, or whatever it’s called this week, have been buying up craft breweries in whole or partial interest for several years now. The Brewers Association reports that craft beer sales grew by nearly 13 percent in 2016, so that craft beer in America now holds 12.2 percent of the total market share.
The Alltech study reports that of the 5,025 total breweries in the U.S., 4,750 of them are considered craft breweries. That’s right, theoretically, fewer than 300 American breweries are selling 82 percent of the beer (that factors in imports).
That’s the bad news. The good news is there are more breweries in America now than ever before — in 1873, there were just over 4,000, but as recently as the late 1970s, the number was below 100 total breweries. That changed when Jimmy Carter’s administration began allowing home brewing in 1978, which helped revive interest in more flavorful beers. It was the first time since Prohibition that home brewing was legal in the U.S.
But while America has the most craft breweries of any country, North America isn’t even the largest producer of craft beer, according to the Alltech study; Europe is outdistancing us, even with the U.S. being the top producer, thanks to more breweries per capita.
A press release announcing the study states, “Although the U.S. is recognized as the originator of the recent craft beer movement and has heavily influenced the modern take on traditional styles, there are more craft breweries in Europe than North America. The top 10 craft beer-producing countries are the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Australia.”
Once again, what does it all mean? It means, to me at least, that small neighborhood breweries are back in a big way. I point to examples like Apocalypse Brew Works, Old Louisville Brewery, Great Flood Brewing Co., Akasha Brewing, and several others that primarily are distributing within the city and selling beer in glasses and growlers to regulars and other taproom visitors. This seems to be going on everywhere, and it’s a welcome trend.
Why? Because this offers up more and more variety, which is exactly what the beer industry lacked until the craft movement hit (you weren’t going to find a gose or Flemish sour around town even 10 years ago). In short, the beer got better. I don’t think anyone is complaining about that — well, except for the big mega-brewers. If the trend continues, their dominance will only be squeezed more.