THE BOOZE BIN
By Jill Haapaniemi (@haapsandbarley)
Growing popularity of craft and microbrews over the past few years shouldn’t be news to anyone remotely in tune with the food and beverage world. Homemade batches of hoppy IPAs, stouts, and Belgian triples once made by a couple of friends bored in their basements have brewed a strong standing in bars across the country. From bottle to the tap and now 64 ounce growlers filled up with your brew of choice and taken home to impress your friends with your moonshine-like jug, accessibility of microbrews is a trend on the rise.
Personally, I am thrilled with the increase in accessibility to “good beer.” Originally from Michigan, I have seen first-hand the growth of local breweries. Despite being up to speed on the trends and sales of microbrews and craftbrews, I was still taken aback- so much so that I snapped a quick pic to send to hometown friends when I came across Jolly Pumpkin’s Sour Ale on tap in the East Village’s The Wren
The Wren is a cool New York bar, and Jolly Pumpkin is a local brewery in Dexter Michigan. Haven’t heard of it? My point exactly. Though they’ve recently expanded their business, opening a small cafe and brewery in Ann Arbor, and a brewery and distillery in Traverse City, it is still fairly small. Micro, if you will.
Wondering what exactly constitutes “micro” and “craft” is something I’ve been curious about. The U.S. American Brewers Association defines a craft brewery as “small, independent and traditional.” Technically this means the brewery produces less than 6 million U.S. beer barrels a year and can’t be owned by another alcoholic beverage company that isn’t itself a craft brewery. Microbreweries, in comparison, are defined within the category of craft breweries, producing less than 15 thousand U.S. beer barrels a year.
So what does this mean? There is room for growth. Take the popular Boston Brewing Company’s Samuel Adams. While a Sam Adams is still considered a “craft” brew, I highly doubt founder Jim Koch knew his microbrew would grow to become a staple in bars across the U.S. Herein lies the ultimate conundrum of a small brewery and the very paradoxical state of their image. While trying to maintain the authentic image of “small, independent and traditional,” breweries still have one priority at the end of the day: profit. Microbreweries only stay micro with limited growth, yet no small business would logically try to limit themselves, especially when their consumer market is at an all-time high.
Back in February, Forbes released their top ten notable craft breweries. Beer drinker or not, you’ll probably recognize some of if not most of the list. Need I point out that Sam Adams is number one? There was a time when these breweries were all micro. There was also a time (only a year ago) when Chicago’s Craft brewery Goose Island wasn’t partnered with Anheuser?Busch. The ever so hip Williamsburg’s also makes Forbes’ list, but I can’t help but wonder if they’re destined to follow in the footsteps of Goose Island, both of which ultimately risk losing some of their “craft” qualities in becoming aligned with the more uniform taste of a corporate, mass produced beer.
So on the one hand, I’m thrilled for the guys at Jolly Pumpkin. After all, the Wren is a trendy New York spot, and if you’ve got a beer that started in a small brewery in Dexter, Michigan on tap, that success is something to be proud of. However, selfishly I was a little bit irritated to see this unique, underground brew from my home state made readily available for hipsters and suits alike. Though I’m not proud to admit that feeling, I felt it nonetheless, and think this represents the main-stream vs. niche product dilemma.
While one solution to the ironic position of craft breweries has been to open more small breweries in spread-out locations, this becomes complicated across different cities. While we can’t say for certain how long micro and craftbrews will be able to perform the balancing act of growing a successful business and maintaining the image of local one, I can tell you that between the Portlandia generation who may revel in the lumberjack look that a growler gives off and the in vogue financiers able to throw down the cash for multiple microbrew pints in one night, craftbrews won’t be going anywhere soon. And at the end of the day, I’m happy to easily find a Michigan brew on tap in Manhattan, even if the Don-Draper next to me is ordering it too.