There is that one beer fanatic in your life— the person who’s a home brewer and always looking for that “perfect balance” in the brew, in the pour, in the taste. He has a palate of gold; if he had lived in the time of the Greeks, he would have been an estranged hop-loving second cousin of Dionysus. He tastes earth and iron when you detect nothing but cloves, nutmeg and just a tinge of orange rind. He chooses a brew before a menu selection, to ensure that his food will match his drink. He is the beer guru, and as a beer guru, he relentlessly pursues the newest microbreweries to hit the “scene.”
Microbreweries have been spreading like fire throughout the west coast in recent years. In Beer West’s “Best of the West Coast 2011,” it was noted that 25 percent of the country’s craft breweries were located on the west coast. These craft breweries spring up in unexpected venues— reclaiming vacant warehouses, empty buildings, even airport hangars. Though even in our relaxed, west-coast environment, in which businessmen might pop in for a cold one on their lunch hour and college-aged students abound, how many microbreweries can our economy juggle? Is consolidation of craft brewers inevitable, and will the puppeteers of beers— ahem, Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller— force the little guys out of the ring?
Take a peek at the California Craft Brewer’s Association’s brewer member’s map, and ogle at the clustering of breweries.
There are a disputed 381 to 400 (or a little over) breweries in the state of California, according to the website. The source also deems California to be the place of origin for American craft brewing. A Stanford graduate named Fritz Maytag is loosely attributed with coining the notion of the microbrewery. Maytag swooped in and purchased Anchor Brewing, in San Francisco, when the brewery was under the threat of bankruptcy in 1965 (anchorbrewing.com). Beer craftsmen Jack McAuliffe of the New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma, Calif. jumped in on the action in 1976 and Ken Grossman joined in on the fermentation fun to create the beloved bottle with the mountain peak label, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, in 1980. The microbrewery or craft brewery differs from large scale brewing operations in size and scope, and has loosely become known as an outfit that produces 15,000 U.S. beer barrels or less annually.
Graduate student Andrew Patalano, chemist at the University of Riverside, Calif., has six years of experience with home and craft brewing and is employed at one of the main supply stores in the Inland Empire for brewing—Beer Beer and More Beer in Riverside. Patalano has partnered with some like-minded brewers who are endeavoring to open a craft brewery in the Los Angeles area in the coming months. Patalano speaks about brewing from the threshold of his new venture:
“In terms of locally, I’ve seen four or five serious breweries start up, but perhaps as many as 15 to 30 who want to start. Sometimes they come in and talk to you, and you never see them again. There are lots of little groups of people—people who brew in their garages— it is explosive in this area. So many people speak about opening up a brewery because they are proud of what they know, it is an accomplishment. Who doesn’t like the guy that brings the beer to the party?” Patalano said.
When asked about what a successful brewery needs to make it, the list was surprisingly brief:
*Cleanliness: Sanitation is key. The brewer spends the majority of his/ her time ensuring that all equipment is squeaky clean, preventing any sort of contamination.
*Handyman work: Lifting, hauling, setting up, stainless steel vessels? Muscles not included.
*Rockin’ venue/ space: Just as in any business: location, location, location. Or at least some wicked advertising to let consumers know where you are located. Since breweries require a large and spacious area, this can be tricky. Many breweries end up setting up shop somewhere away from foot traffic, which entails compensation of some sort— either some key advertising, or acquiring a faithful group of beer patrons.
*Solid brew: The product must be unique, balanced and flavorful in taste, and reproducible with every batch, upholding its original standards.
*Marketing and advertisement: A distinctive name. A slogan. A label. Visibility to the public. And, again, consistency.
Retired Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery, Los Angeles
Realistically, a brewery, like any small business, is more of an investment than people expect. When asked what resources and monetary investments are required for the upstart of a craft brewery, Patalano noted:
“People start breweries in their garages. A minimum, a bare minimum, on a Nano-brewery scale, would be $20,000 for a single barrel system. For a 10-barrel system—a barrel is roughly 31 gallons—you’re looking at about $250,000. Those are estimated, soft numbers. “
When asked about if he has any inhibitions investing in a new craft brewery, Patalono said, “Nope, except about the amount if time I’ll be using. It’s not something you just do. It’s for someone who’s willing to put in 70 hours of his or her week to make sure the yeast is working, the brews are bubbling. It’s not for the faint of heart- it takes a lot of attention, like any new business. All of the time commitment helps to keep away those who aren’t avidly interested.”
Craft brewing is more than a hobby. It has an artisan following of people. People seek out the out-of-the-way places to grab a cold one. The breweries and brews are compared and contrasted. “It’s becoming a communal culture, it’s becoming about a collective group of people who are creative and interesting. It is something that draws people together. It is a true “craft.” I had a ham porter the other day, how much more creative can you get? It was the perfect touch of hammy,” Patalano noted.
The Brewer’s Association is adamant that brewery consolidation is not a luring threat, that there will not be a brewing doomsday. Those “little guy labels” come through in a consolidated market (the article notes that 91.5% of the beer market is controlled by the top eight manufacturers). Craft breweries fill the nooks and crannies that big beer companies overlook. Seasonal brews, specialized and limited brews, colorful labels and those special touches are not emphasized with the big brew boys (albeit, their dogs and horses are favored by football-watching aficionados).
Reassuringly, the craft and micro-brewing rage seems to be balanced. Despite the fact that California has a booming and diverse group of breweries (#1 in the nation), it is not easy for joe-shmo to jump into the biz on a whim. The upstart process naturally weeds out the enthusiasts who are not market-worthy. The craft brews have a niche in the marketing world, alongside those super-star labels. For drinkers that value quality over quantity, taste over haste and authenticity, the good beers are here to stay.