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Pikes Pub: Thanks for making 2017 a little more palatable, American craft beer

January 3, 2018 Updated: January 22, 2018 at 1:35 pm
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photo - Photo © Brewers Association
Photo © Brewers Association 

Say or scream what you will about the surreal year we just retired, I can think of at least one significant other reflecting on 2017 with a different kind of tear in its eye.

Yes, it was another good one for the nation's craft beer industry, which added about 700 breweries for a tally of about 6,000, an all-time high.

"And most of those are the smallest of the small," said Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the nonprofit Brewers Association.

By the close of 2017, 83 percent of U.S. adults of legal drinking age lived within 10 miles of a brewery. Most beer fans living along the Front Range, home to more than 30 breweries, faced a much shorter commute.

"That's extremely powerful because breweries have become backyard community contributors in exponential ways," said Herz, whose Boulder group supports and advocates for America's small and independent beer makers.

Though Colorado Springs lost one (Triple S Brewing Co.), it also gained one (Goat Patch Brewing Co.). Three more are set to open in coming months: Black Forest Brewing Co., Dueces Wild Brewery (yes, that's how it's spelled) and Brass Brewing Co.

"If there's a bell curve of growth in the craft brewing business, we're at the top of it right now," said Mike Laur, a local mapmaker whose 10th edition "Beer, Wine and Spirit Drinker's Guide to Colorado" will be out this month. "Two years ago, everybody wanted to get into the brewing business, and they started to do it. That's starting to come into fruition now."

Commercial craft brewing at large also scored a "historic" win on the legislative front, celebrated boom times in beer tourism and launched a major campaign to push back against Big Beer's poaching of craft brands.

"In the U.S., as purchasers and consumers, we need to be more focused than ever before on supporting brands that matter to us and going beyond that convenience factor," Herz said. "That helps ensure that small businesses have a place and a prioritization in our minds."

The trade group's 2017 Take Craft Back campaign tackled that mission, in part, by introducing a genuine craft beer seal for breweries that meet the "craft" criteria (meaning, they're small, independent, traditional and - most important - not owned by major conglomerates such as ABInBev).

"The last few years, it's gotten harder and harder for small brewers to get on liquor store shelves and menus with Big Beer making the number of acquisitions of formerly independent breweries that they have done," said Herz, adding that since 2011, ABInBev has purchased 10 formerly independent breweries, including Breckenridge Brewery. "With that type of portfolio, what we're starting to see at some retailers is what we're referring to is an 'illusion of choice.' Yeah, there's an IPA, there's a hefeweizen, a stout, but those brands are all from one parent company, and that's not the diverse beer universe we've come to know and love here in the U.S."

To date, more than 2,800 breweries have signed on to use the seal on their packaging, Herz said.

The other part of the Take Craft Back campaign - to raise $213 billion and purchase ABInBev - was fated to fail, but success wasn't really the point, Herz said.

"The fun nature of what we did took a play from Big Beer's playbook," Herz said. "Big Beer has been buying breweries, so to protect the interests of small and independent brewers, we came up with this effort to buy the biggest of big beer."

The largest crowd-funding effort, ever, to buy the world's largest brewer fell massively short, earning a "We can take a joke" response from the brewing Goliath at which it was aimed.

Still, in less than two months, just shy of 12,000 backers pledged $3.8 million, a symbolic gesture that, to Herz, says the message resonated - though perhaps not so much with ABInBev.

"These people took the time to put their name on the dotted line," said Herz, whose organization promised not to collect money unless it received pledges for the full $213 billion. "I think the response says that independent beer does matter and that this effort of seeking ... choice and variety in our beer marketplace is worth fighting for."

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