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Pikes Pub: As growth slows, what's in store for U.S. and Colorado breweries?

April 19, 2017 Updated: April 21, 2017 at 2:11 pm
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Mike Bristol sips one of his brewery's cold beers Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, inside Bristol Brewing Co.'s new Bristol Taproom at the Colorado Springs Airport. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Things used to be easier for completion-obsessed collectors of breweriana.

When the U.S. beer industry hit an all-time low almost 40 years ago, even a modest dadcave had the necessary display space for memorabilia from all 42 American brewing companies, with plenty of room left over for golf trophies.

Today, I imagine few hobbyists have the free time, square footage or budget required to amass a comprehensive collection. According to a recent report by the Boulder-based Brewers Association, the number of operating breweries in the nation swelled 16.6 percent to 5,301 in 2016, thanks to the addition of 826 new locations.

To put that in perspective, it took almost two decades for the brewery count to climb from its 1978 low to 1,000, and another 15 years for that number to double. Starting in 2011, though, the tally began rising like a shaken-up beer. Suds continued flowing strong throughout last year, but a flourishing craft landscape combined with a flattening overall market meant startups faced a tougher time elbowing out space at the bar.

In an April 7 opinion piece in The New York Times, Boston Beer Co. founder Jim Koch said that while small and independent brewers realize they're still operating in a Golden Age, there's also general agreement that "the horizon isn't so bright."

"After years of 15 percent growth, the craft sector is down to the single digits. Part of that is to be expected in a maturing part of any market - but it's also a result of a pushback by a handful of gargantuan global brewers, aided by slack government antitrust oversight," wrote Koch in a piece titled "Is it last call for craft beer." "I worry that yet another major shift in the beer landscape is upon us - and this time, American consumers will be the losers."

Koch is referring to the 2016 approval by U.S. regulators of a merger of the world's two largest beer makers, Anheuser Busch InBev and SABMiller, which as part of the deal sold its U.S. holdings in MillerCoors to Denver-based Molson Coors. Compounding the injury to the independent brewing sector here at home is the Department of Justice's unwillingness to stomp down on AB InBev's continuing acquisition of small, independent breweries such as Karbach, one of the larger craft brewers in Texas, a state "where AB InBev already controls 52 percent of the beer market," Koch wrote.

"Drinkers buying cute-sounding brands like Goose Island or Terrapin or Ten Barrel are often unaware that these brands, some of them once independent, are now just subsidiaries of AB InBev or Molson Coors, which are not transparent about disclosing their true ownership anywhere on the bottle," he wrote.

But craft consumers may be savvier than the big brewers give them credit for, said Mike Bristol, owner of Colorado Springs' Bristol Brewing Co. And today's microbrew fans want more from a brewery than good beer alone. They want a company that has a familiar face - one they might bump into on the street, while walking to the neighborhood pub.

"I think if I were to summarize it, I would say that craft consumers are smart and quality's important to them - where the beer comes from, what it stands for and how they relate to it as a brand," Bristol said. "I think being local and doing the right thing resonates with them."

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