Two years ago, back when Bellingham had half the number of breweries that it does today, I outlined many reasons why I thought this city could sustain many more breweries. Even though Bellingham now has 10 breweries (with more in the works), plus a continuously expanding selection of beers from other regions, I still believe it can sustain more.
As a beer enthusiast, I couldn’t be happier. We now have easy access to more brands and beer styles than ever before. Selection has improved unimaginably since I moved to Bellingham seven years ago, when there were only two breweries and not a single bottle shop.
A couple days ago, I took an inventory of our local breweries and I was impressed by what I found. Breweries in Bellingham average about 12 taps each (not including cider taps), and collectively I counted 48 uniquely different styles of beer available on draft, including many uncommon styles. Four breweries had a Foreign Extra / Export Stout on tap, for example, which is more than you’d find in some states.
Of course, our beer options don’t end with our local breweries. You may have noticed many regional and national breweries moving into our market via bottle shops and beer bars. Left Hand Brewing of Longmont, CO, for example, has expanded its lineup here, and it just moved into the Portland, OR, area (its 40th state).
With all the increased competition for store shelf space and tap handles these days, Left Hand is among the few mid-size breweries in America that is still expanding into other states. In my opinion, this is working for Left Hand because it makes quality, no-nonsense beer and it offers uniqueness, especially with its long lineup of nitro bottles (not all of which are sold here). I recently tasted Left Hand’s new Well Played Red IPA, which isn’t the flashiest vogue style, but it was one of the finer red IPAs I have tasted. I would happily buy it again, and I couldn’t say the same for most other red IPAs I’ve had before.
Modern Times Brewing has also recently surfaced in Washington state. This San Diego brewery is as solid as they come, and as an aside, I’d put it down as one of the least likely breweries to sell out to AB-InBev or the like. Fingers crossed, just to be sure.
For beer lovers, this ever-expanding selection is fantastic, assuming the beer is good and quality remains high. For breweries, this increased selection means increased competition. And if breweries – whether local or national – want to stay competitive, they need to get the attention of beer enthusiasts with honest marketing and branding, and then they need to back it up by making tasty, high-quality beer, providing a healthy selection of styles, and offering uniqueness through creativity and innovation (e.g., offering new flavors and flavor combinations, experimenting with new processes and/or ingredients, and either pushing the envelope on current styles, resurrecting defunct styles, developing new styles, or perfecting existing styles). The bar is constantly being raised, and if a brewery wants to succeed, it must keep up.
Some may not like it, but a good number of craft beer drinkers these days are drawn to the next shiny object, whether it’s a new special release or a new trend. But to really garner long-term attention, the beer still must taste great, it must be flawless, and it has to be consistent.
That said, being progressive and keeping up with the times is still important. Many established, mid-size breweries are losing footholds because they’re either unable to adapt to changing palates or they’re refusing to change. Some have rested on their laurels, relying too much on tired old flagships, and they’re paying for it. Can you think of the last Redhook release that got you excited, for example? For that matter, when was the last time you drank a Redhook ESB?
Others have adapted. Fat Tire Amber Ale made New Belgium Brewing what it is today, but if the brewery had not expanded to sour ales and special releases and IPAs (reluctantly, I’d add), it wouldn’t have seen continued success.
This is where small breweries have the advantage. They are nimbler and more flexible, they can better adapt to rapidly changing palates, they can experiment more, and they can take greater risks. In other words, they can rotate more beers into their lineup. Almost every time I walk into any of Bellingham’s breweries, I see a new beer on tap that I’ve never had before. In fact, a surprising number of small breweries nowadays (locally and nationally) are mostly thriving off of special releases, seasonals, and one-offs.
There are now more than 5,200 breweries in the U.S. and most of them are small, neighborhood breweries with limited production capacities, such as most of the breweries in Bellingham. Actually, 78% of Washington’s breweries make less than 1,000 bbls per year. So, volume-wise, there’s still plenty of room for even more growth.
Additionally, the potential craft beer market is not finite. Remember, nearly 80% of beer drinkers still drink industrial light lagers made by multi-national corporations, but I believe they could easily be converted to craft light lagers. Plus, there’s a new crop of people turning 21 every day, most of whom are choosing craft beer over “BudMillerCoors” products.
No doubt, increased competition has contributed to some layoffs (e.g., Stone), closings (e.g., Speakeasy, though it’s trying to find a buyer), and sales declines (e.g., Craft Brew Alliance), but these aren’t signs of a bubble that’s about to burst. They’re a normal part of any expanding industry, especially a healthy one. After everything shakes out, I just hope quality and selection sit on top.