Brad Hillman knew the challenges of opening a brewery in Asheville, North Carolina, a city once named “Beer City USA” and a popular destination for so-called beer vacations. With 26 craft breweries in a population of 89,000, Asheville’s taps never run dry.
But Hillman also knew the market would be welcoming. In April, he opened Hillman Beer, a brewpub that he says avoids gimmicks in favor of classic styles. He’s not worried about animosity arising from entering a congested market. “That attitude doesn’t exist,” he says.
With about $23 billion in sales last year, no shortage of competition exists in the craft beer industry, especially in cities like Asheville, which ranks at the top in terms of breweries per capita. The rise of craft beer sales has been a boon for craft breweries. Yet, as more pop up, it means greater competition and new challenges, such as finding tap and shelf space, for new entrants and neighborhood mainstays alike.
But even as competition heats up, craft brewers want to maintain a collegial rather than cutthroat atmosphere.
“We’re nowhere near being a cutthroat industry,” says Mike Stevens, co-founder and CEO of Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We’re still an industry of unions, of togetherness; an industry that fosters growth.”
The craft brewery industry has certainly grown since Stevens’ brewery opened in 1997. Indeed, from 2006 to 2016, the number of breweries in the country increased by 270 percent, according to the craft beer trade group Brewers Association.
When Founders started out, Stevens says, it was the only craft brewery within the city limits. Today, Grand Rapids and the surrounding communities in Kent County are home to 31 breweries.
And that increased number of breweries did bring new challenges. “All of this local pressure has made it more and more difficult for us to find space [in restaurants], for instance,” Stevens says. “There are lot of bars and taverns now that want to carry the local brands, so it’s getting more and more difficult for us to come in there and put our beers on.”
But Stevens and others don’t believe the market is oversaturated. In fact, he sees opportunity to expand beyond a city to across the country and attract beer drinkers who still don’t automatically reach for craft brews. Founders has narrowed its focus on “just a brand or two,” including its All Day IPA, in an effort to compete nationally.
By growing its presence outside Grand Rapids, Stevens believes, Founders can make room at the bottom for more craft breweries to rise. He says this is a sentiment shared by many of the larger craft breweries operating in the country. Not out to crush the little guys, the breweries instead aim for their success to buoy the entire industry.
Even still, with so many different breweries producing myriad styles of beer today, brewers have looked for new ways to stand out. For Night Shift Brewing in Everett, Massachusetts, that meant an emphasis on funky homebrews. But as the brewery grew, co-founder Michael Oxton says it began relying less on “crazy ingredients,” like habanero peppers, and delving more into traditional styles.
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“When we came on to the scene, we had been homebrewing funky stuff,” Oxton explains. “We wanted to brew something that was not seen on the shelves. [Now] we’re brewing beers that are much more traditional in style – pale ales, IPAs. And we’re hoping the quality helps us stand apart.”
Night Shift opened in 2012 during a sort of craft brew renaissance in the Boston area market, with now-popular breweries like Idle Hands, Mystic and Trillium also getting their start. They’ve all grown up together, Oxton says, creating a bond that has led to a scene defined by collaboration.
“The brewing community is super friendly and welcoming, and that alone creates this brotherhood vibe,” he says. “We hang out with a lot of local brewers, we get along with them and totally support their business. We want all of the local guys to kill it.”
For an example of Night Shift’s willingness to work with other breweries to both grow itself and the industry, look no further than its new distribution business. Night Shift has already inked partnerships with potential competitors from outside the market like Pipeworks Brewing Company in Chicago and Mast Landing Brewing Company in Maine to get them into local stores.
The craft brew scene has not been completely devoid of resentment, though. The David versus Goliath attitude in craft brewers battling behemoths like Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Company can also create tensions as those big brands buy up smaller craft breweries. When that happens, the small craft brewery can face backlash from craft beer family.
That’s what fellow Asheville brewery Wicked Weed Brewing experienced when it announced that it had joined Anheuser-Busch. Walt Dickinson, Wicked Weed’s founder, says he expected this reaction, but that it just showed the level of passion present in the industry.
“We wanted to make sour beer more regionally and nationally known – get as many people as you can drinking amazing beer,” he says.
Eventually, he expects the ill-will to fade.
“I do not see craft beer ever becoming cutthroat,” he says, “because we all respect each other’s brands and passion.”