There’s gold in them thar beers

Michael Callahan | Boulder Weekly

Oskar Blues signs a letter of intent to build a restaurant in Boulder’s Depot Square development, while at the same time announcing plans to build a new facility across the country in North Carolina. Dry Dock Brewing announces expansion to a new building in Aurora that will increase production to try to keep up with demand. Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins announces plans for a $7 million expansion to more than double output. Drown away memories of any Great Recession and lift a glass to the craft brewing industry, a taste of success against the backdrop of a floundering economy.

By all accounts, the craft beer industry is growing — with no signs of slowing down soon. For a state like Colorado at the creative epicenter of the craft-brewing universe, that can only mean more of a good thing for consumers and brewers alike. Most of those currently involved in the craft brewing industry agree that more heady times are to come, if brewers can evolve while avoiding some of the mistakes of their larger predecessors, who may have slowly sacrificed taste for profits and siphoned capital away from the very communities where their products were consumed.

“I really believe this is the tip of the iceberg,” says Steve Kurowski, marketing director for the Colorado Brewers Guild. “Once people buy into craft beer, it’s so hard for them to go back to a domestic or imported beer. There’s so much more behind the craft beer. There’s community in that beer.”

Like the television broadcasting world, where the slow breakup of the big three television networks allowed for incredible nuance and specificity to become injected into the standard programming palette, the American beer industry is finally emerging from more than a century of uniformity of taste. Driven by independent, conscious-minded brewers, the future of the industry now seems to rely on giving individual consumers a breadth of locally made concoctions to lubricate neighborhood conversations that contribute to the overall health of the community. Kurowski likens it to the concept of coffee shops, a nascent idea two decades ago.

“These breweries really become a place of commune. They know who brews their beer, they know who serves their beer,” Kurowski says. “The coffee shop concept was nearly unknown 15-20 years ago. Coffee shops are popular in the morning; I see those same community conversations carrying over to the afternoon brewpub.”

Craft beer has been a jobs creator in the state and an economic engine within an entire domestic beer industry that has remained relatively stagnant during the recent recession.

According to statistics compiled by the Colorado Brewers Guild, the Brewers Association and the Colorado Liquor Enforcement Division, as of early May 2012 Colorado had 139 licensed craft breweries, with 75 more in the planning stages. Colorado ranks second in the most breweries by state, and third in breweries per capita, robust numbers that indicate we have an insatiable thirst for independently made suds.

“The beer industry is booming in the state of Colorado,” says Courtney Cobb, co-producer of the documentary Beer Culture, a film that follows the craft industry’s rise in Colorado. As such, Cobb has worked with local brewers as well as those strengthening their presence on the national scene to gain insight into the longevity the craft market is capable of carving out. Despite an industry that grew 13 percent nationwide by volume in 2011 and pumped an estimated $446 million into the Colorado economy, insiders still see the glass as half-full.

“Curiosity right now is helping to drive the industry. There are so many more potential craft beer drinkers out there — 90 percent of the population who can be turned on to craft beer,” Cobb says. “The way the beer industry looks at it, if more people are making good beer, there’s a higher chance that people will turn to craft beer.”

Some of that good beer was on hand at the 3rd Annual Boulder SourFest, held June 2 at Avery Brewing Company, where brewers from around the country showed off their best sour beer offerings — a niche within a niche that is growing exponentially in its own right. Sour beers are named for their pucker effect, brought on from a barrel-aging process that might incorporate a host of different flavors, including fruits such as sour pie cherries, peaches or even the lychee fruit native to Southeast Asia.

The enthusiasm for this style of craft beer showed in ticket sales, as the event sold out in a matter of minutes. Attendee Ron Gansberg, head brewer at Cascade Brewing in Portland, where he is parked on the leading edge of that region’s burgeoning beer scene, conveyed his feelings about Colorado’s role in the community of craft brewers.

“Colorado is the crossroads of craft beer in America. The [Front Range], with events like this and the Great American Beer Festival — where the latest and greatest in brewing can cross-pollinate ideas — is like having the Silk Road and the Spice Route converging within the state,” Gansberg says.

Colorado has favorable state laws regarding breweries, with our independent liquor store network and ability for brewers to sell directly to their consumers, creating a host of possibilities for those plying their brewed wares. Despite high taxes and strict regulation, a creative spark seems to flow among those in the craft-beer industry. There appears to be more of a willingness to support rather than intensely compete. Brewers have been known to share equipment, ingredients and, at times, expertise to help out their fellow brethren in need. Other states are following Colorado’s creative lead to forge ahead with their own community of brewers.

Charles Stanley, marketing manager at Upland Brewing Co. in Bloomington, Ind., says that sense of independence, hard work and family-like camaraderie is what makes him upbeat about the future of the industry. Also at Avery for SourFest, Stanley described the benefits of competing for a large segment of the beer-drinking population that hasn’t been turned on to the merits of craftbrewed creations.

“People are recognizing that it’s a real area of innovation and job development, so we’re getting a lot of popular support,” says Stanley, adding that he welcomes the entry of more entrepreneurs to the brewing scene. “We’re all working to build the market share of craft beer. With each new brewery that opens we’re converting more people to craft beer and growing the market.”

When will these heady times begin to give way to a feeling that the froth may fall flat? Looking at the data and listening to those in the industry, any thoughts of a bubble are beyond the horizon for contemporary craft brewers.

“Right now, craft beer is growing so much we can accommodate additional craft breweries,” Stanley says. “One day perhaps we’ll reach a point of market saturation and there will be some competition. But for now, we’re a pretty happy family.”

For Cascade’s Gansberg, keeping a separation between the artisans and the corporatists is a key to further growth and creativity.

“As long as brewers can maintain a level of economy away from the financial and sales aspect then I think this camaraderie will continue,” Gansberg says.

Despite the number of brewers continuing to grow at such a rapid pace, Kurowski and the Brewers Guild see a market large enough for all to thrive.

“If our industry can grow from 5 to 6 percent, or from 6 to 7 percent, that’s a lot of business, that’s a lot of jobs, that’s a lot of beer. And if we someday can get to 10 percent of market share nationwide, we will have done amazing things as far as job creation and economic stimulation,” Kurowski says, giving no hint of doubt that current trends will continue to push the industry upward. “If you can brew a good beer, you can make a living as a brewer in Colorado.”

If you don’t believe the current crop of craft brewers, listen to a former brewpub owner give a politician’s view.

As Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper states in the opening of the Beer Culture film, “Craft beer is the perfect metaphor for the American Dream.”