At Happy Gnome in St. Paul, craft brewers can clamor for a spot on the list of 89 taps.
Manager Emily Brink, who runs the beer program, aimed for a balanced list offering “something for everyone.” Some beers brewed nearby, such as Bent Paddle Venture Pils and Steel Toe Size 7 IPA, are staples; longstanding national brands also are consistently available.
“Some of those national brands have been around upwards of 18 to 20 years,” Brink said, citing Lagunitas, Founders and Bell’s. “You have a paradigm that’s quick and essential.”
And, perhaps, some folks in the craft beer field worry, one that also has reached its saturation point.
The number of breweries is at a historic high and continues to climb. As of Dec. 1, the Brewers Association counted 4,144 breweries in the United States, topping the previous high-water mark of 4,131 in 1873.
Although beer industry observers have known this day was coming, the pace of growth was explosive: At the end of 2011, there were 2,033 breweries, or fewer than half as many as now. In 2005, there were only 1,447. And 25 years ago? The Brewers Association, a trade group for small and independent breweries, logged a mere 284 in 1990.
On average, the association said, two new breweries open every day.
On one hand, that makes this a golden age for beer lovers. It is easier than ever to find a great IPA (the most popular craft-beer style in America), stout or session ale at a bar or liquor store. Previously ignored styles such as gose and Berliner weisse have become trendy, while brewers have a free hand to experiment with Belgian IPAs or saisons packed with unusual herbs.
On the other hand, the explosively expanding market has created a new set of problems for brewers. New arrivals are finding it difficult to stand out on the store shelves. And the competition for taps, even at bars that have dozens of them, has become intense, forcing the new brewers to convince the owners that their product is more deserving of a spot than better-known, established beers.
The Happy Gnome, Brink said, is willing to offer new tastes, especially rare ones. But the keg should ideally move in less than a month, she added.
“I like to have things that not everybody is pouring down the street,” Brink said. However, if a newcomer “takes a while to move, it might not be something that I explore again.”
More beer options means sales will probably decrease, acknowledged Nathan Berndt, co-owner of Indeed Brewing Co.
A few years into the craft beer game, the northeast Minneapolis microbrewery already is seeing consumer habits shifting. Indeed has distributed its product in more than 300 bars and restaurants. Whereas Indeed drinkers first found the brand through its taproom, they’re now seeking out the taproom after sipping at a bar, restaurant or at home.
Bars and restaurants, Berndt said, are both the biggest competition and opportunity.
“There are so many local and great beers around, and so it’s tough to keep [the taps] on” at outside locations, Berndt said.
The mushrooming number of products shouldn’t deter interested brewers, according to Joe Alton, editor-in-chief of Growler Magazine.
Quality will make or break a brand, he said. The increased competition could result in brewers “who are making really quality beers start to call out the ones who aren’t.”
Tapping into competition
Barkeepers are feeling the pressure of the booming market.
“Picking the draft list has become exponentially harder than it was two or three years ago,” said Jace Gonnerman, beer director for three bars in the Washington, D.C., area.
“You have to balance styles, but how many spots do I have for national breweries? What local breweries do I want to focus on?” he said. “Every time a local brewery opens, making really, really high-quality beer, it pushes a national brewery off. We keep a good mix of national breweries on, because people are looking for that. But you have to say no to people way more than you say yes.”
Even when they are given a chance, some small brewers have expressed frustration with the way bars order products. Instead of buying three kegs of a new beer and running through them all, as it might have done when local beers were a novelty, many bars tend to buy a keg and, once it’s empty, fill the draft line with a competitor’s product, and then another one, and so on, before rotating back to the first brewery’s beer weeks or months later.
Dave Delaplaine, owner of a Washington bar that regularly swaps beers among 16 of its 22 draft lines, defended the practice.
“That’s what the culture of the beer world is: In order to have really fun beers, these crazy one-offs, you have to change a lot,” he said. “Breweries are approaching it as an art and want to try new things. I’d take that any day: That’s what got people to try their beer in the first place.”
When Jason zumBrunnen and his partners began planning to open a brewery in Denver, they knew what they were up against.
“I think we’ve had 10 breweries open in the neighborhood since 2010,” ZumBrunnen said. “Five years before us, opening a brewery was a very cool thing to do. The difference now is the amount of brands. There’s a finite number of tap handles.”
Many in the beer industry pin their hopes for small breweries on localization: the idea that consumers would rather drink beers made down the road than across the country. In national surveys conducted by the Brewers Association, 67 percent of craft beer drinkers said it was important to them that their beer be locally made.
Magazine editor Alton is also a project director for the Beer Dabbler, an annual festival in its seventh year. This year’s event takes place Feb. 6 at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. He agreed that the consumer focus has become much more localized.
“We want to know the guy that makes our beer just as much as we want to know the guy who makes our food,” Alton said.
Staff writer Natalie Daher contributed to this report.