Redefining Local In A New Era Of Craft Beer…

Support Your Local Brewery. Drink Local, Think Global. For more than a decade, brewers have doled out countless bumper stickers, coasters, and stickers with these and similar slogans promoting their community-based beer offerings. And the campaign served them well, helping to build a connection to area consumers. After years of communal camaraderie, things are about to change.

If 2011 was a year for celebrating a return to local beer, 2012 will be a year when consumers and brewers seek to redefine what local really means. This past year saw dozens of breweries, including many well-known names, retreat to their home markets due to supply issues, in what I’ve previously called the Great Beer Retreat. From Allagash to Great Divide to Flying Dog, capacity restrictions and demand in closer-to-home markets has drawn mid-range and some smaller regional players to rethink their growth and distributions strategies.

While these larger breweries were busy trying to send beer to dozens of far-flung markets, a host of smaller, nimbler craft outlets, including hundreds of nano-breweries, have crept into their once safe home markets. Many larger players publicly heralded this new wave of craft brewing entrepreneurs, while some privately questioned their abilities to sell enough beer of sufficient quality to survive. As many have grown and continued to prosper in their hometown markets, the inevitable competition for local tap lines and shelf space has taken hold.

As these smaller players continue their dueling dance for hometown beer dominance, another force looms large in several markets across the country. In many industries, cash is king, but not so in the beer business. For brewers, stainless steel reigns supreme. That and the warehouse space in which to install shiny new fermenters or dinged up, used conditioning tanks. In this age, if a brewery can leverage the debt load and possesses the physical space to support growth, it has a good chance of dominating the game. And there are a few breweries that have amassed sufficient size as to wreak some havoc with the whole concept of what is ‘local.’

The issue is coming to a head in the little town of Asheville, North Carolina, where two western craft brewing giants will be opening new breweries. With its growing craft beer reputation and excellent garage breweries, Asheville is making a lot of noise for such a small brewing town. But when word started leaking out that the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and New Belgium Brewing were visiting sites around the town, the local brewers started to worry. Talk of tax credits and development deals started to swirl around as attempts to entice the two brewing giants, whose combined production is well north of 1 million barrels annually, to make North Carolina their second brewing homes.

Trying to hawk the localness of beer has always struck me as an odd selling point as next to none of the raw materials involved in production actually come from the region and nearly every production brewery sends beer far from home. The hyper-vigilance of some local brewers also seems misguided at times. In the case of Asheville, it’s understandable that local brewers grumble when a seemingly carpet-bagging West Coast brewery swoops into town and charms millions in tax incentives out of county representatives. But who’s to say that setting down roots doesn’t make Sierra or New Belgium ‘local’, especially when they’ll employ hundreds of North Carolinians?

As the credit and stainless steel crunches hit breweries bent on expansion, the stratification of craft brewers will grow deeper, likely straining the communal ethos that has been so central to the craft beer industry’s identity. Already big breweries will expand quickly, while smaller operations beat retreats back to their home markets and dream of stainless days to come. It may be time to redesign some bumper stickers.

-Article appeared in Issue 61 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

One Response

  1. Jen Sykes

    I think one of your last points is the most important – how much more “local” can one get than creating JOBS?

    Sierra Nevada has been easily available to me in Florida, and while we buy plenty of it (my husband adores their pale ale), it doesn’t temper my support or love for our local brewery, Swamp Head. If they wanted to create a hundred jobs here in Gainesville, I’d be happy to see them. I mean, seriously–beer is not a zero-sum game.

    (And personally, as a East Coaster, I’m hoping that New Belgium’s new operation will bring Fat Tire at long last to Florida!)

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