Colorado craft beer’s ever-growing map
Anyone with an eye trained on the restaurant bar or liquor store refrigerator case knows that Colorado craft beer blankets the state.
Six-packs of Breckenridge bottles sit on 3.2 shelves in grocery stores. Empty Oskar Blues cans fill recycling bins near campgrounds. New Belgium tap handles … well, where are there not New Belgium tap handles?
Production volume has long kept Colorado at or near the top of the list of beer-producing states for years. And Colorado consumers are certainly the proudest fans of local brews. But increasingly, they’re becoming outnumbered by beer drinkers beyond the Rockies.
“It was a bittersweet day when California eclipsed Colorado as our highest-volume state,” said Bryan Simpson, New Belgium’s media relations director.
Yes, residents of the country’s wine capital now drink more Fat Tire than do Coloradans. And ours is the state that Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (and founder of the state’s first brew pub) has long referred to as the Napa Valley of Beer.
Fat Tire’s tracks now criss-cross the country from coast to coast, with New Belgium beer sold in 24 other states beyond its top two (no state besides California has eclipsed Colorado – yet). The brews have gotten so popular that a second facility – outside of Colorado – is being considered.
“We are nearing capacity at our Linden Street facility, so eventually we will be looking at another facility,” Simpson said. “We had been looking at northern California, but that is a pricey endeavor. So we are currently evaluating our options, looking to maximize our Fort Collins capacity in the short term with an eye on another facility down the road.”
The Fort Collins brewer has plenty of company in bringing Centennial State craft brews to the rest of the nation – and the world.
Colorado’s biggest producers of craft beer all sell product in multiple states. Some, like Durango’s Ska Brewing, are most reliant on in-state business; the brewery sells 70 percent of its volume here. Others, like Boulder’s Avery Brewing Co., turn that percentage upside-down.
Both strategies are paying dividends. After New Belgium, far and away the state’s top craft brewer, Fort Collins’ Odell Brewing Co. and Longmont’s Oskar Blues Brewery rank 2 and 3. Both expanded their production facilities this year. Odell beer is distributed in eight states besides Colorado, but 80 percent of the company’s business remains in Colorado. Oskar Blues, on the other hand, sells its canned beers in 25 states; only 30 percent of it stays in Colorado.
“We have added three sales reps outside of Colorado in the past year,” said Chad Melis, marketing head at Oskar Blues. “We’re looking to add two more before the end of 2010.”
The brewery’s speedy growth this year included three expansions over three months. Oskar Blues expects its year-end production to reach 44,000 barrels – about a 50 percent jump over its 2009 production of 29,500 barrels. That’s with two fewer states on the roster than last year, too.
“We removed products from two states because demand has exceeded supply, despite constant capacity increases,” Melis said.
Boulder’s Avery Brewing Co. sells fewer barrels – volume of 23,000 barrels is expected for 2010 – but it has one of the biggest footprints of any Colorado craft brewer. Its brews, especially popular with fans of extreme beers, are sold in 32 states beyond Colorado.
“While Colorado sales are growing at a good clip this year, it is out-of-state sales that are driving our significant growth this year,” said C.V. Howe, Avery marketing specialist. He credits California, Pennsylvania and the Washington, D.C./Virginia/Maryland area as some of Avery’s biggest markets.
Colorado’s longest-running craft brewer, Boulder Beer Co., also can be found in 33 states. Boulder has doubled its overall shipments over the past eight years, and expects to reach 28,000 barrels in 2010.
“Colorado sales are thriving,” said Dan Weitz, Boulder Beer marketing director. “We have also seen significant growth in out-of-state markets.” While California is the biggest out-of-state destination for New Belgium and others, Florida tops Boulder Beer’s non-Colorado list, followed by Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Arizona.
“We’ve been encouraged by the cultural shifts in the South toward more acceptance of bigger flavor profiles and higher alcohol content, with great results in the Carolinas – up 100 percent over a year ago – and Virginia, as well as recently entering the markets in Alabama and Maryland,” Weitz said.
Denver’s Breckenridge Brewery isn’t far behind in terms of filling up the map. It already distributes in Colorado and 25 other states, with plans to expand into more markets in November: New York, Massachusetts, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Surprisingly, New Belgium has achieved its domination – production of 583,000 barrels last year; 665,000 expected this year – without yet venturing into the Northeast. By adding the Carolinas last year, the brewery went as far east as it ever had. New Belgium also has limited its footprint to the United States.
Other breweries are looking far beyond the continent when considering markets suitable for spots on their maps. Longmont’s Left Hand Brewing Co. already is in 11 countries. Avery and Ska have gone global, too.
Like Left Hand, three other Colorado breweries – Odell, Oskar Blues and Denver’s Great Divide Brewing Co. – also take part in an export development program that’s administered by the Brewers Association, the Boulder-based trade group that represents craft brewers nationally. Partially funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program has about $460,000 this year to stimulate exports of American craft beer abroad – mainly via educating member breweries about export opportunities and pitching the products to importers, distributors, retailers, media and consumers overseas.
“In many parts of the world, American beer is still seen as industrial light lager, but that is changing pretty darn quickly,” said Bob Pease, the Brewers Association’s chief operating officer. “There’s clear interest from consumers around the world. They are aware of American innovation and the quality of the products now being produced by the U.S. brewing community.”
The top market for U.S. craft beer: Sweden, where Pease says the beer culture is similar to that of the U.S. 30 years ago. It helps that the educated consumer base is beginning to learn about the quality and variety of American craft beer; it helps even more that they have a relatively high amount of disposable income.
Export costs mean a pint of U.S. craft beer in London now goes for about $7.50 in U.S. dollars. This summer, London was the site of the Great British Beer Fest; Pease was there, touting American craft beer, as was one of its makers, Odell founder Doug Odell. (A name like 90 Shilling surely resonates across the pond.)
After Sweden, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and Denmark are the top export markets for U.S. craft beer, Pease said.
“I am bullish on the opportunities for American craft beer in the international marketplace,” Pease said. “The world’s getting smaller, and demand for these products is only going to increase.
“At the same time, craft beer is only 5 percent of the market domestically. We want to get to 10 percent nationally. There is much opportunity to grow at home and a lot of opportunity to grow abroad as well.”
As that growth takes place, expect a Colorado flag to be flying over the new territories. Or maybe a flag emblazoned with a red bicycle.
“Fat Tire has the cache of that brand,” Pease said. “That’s the No. 1 recognized craft beer brand in Colorado and one of the top brands in the country. That holds true in the international marketplace as well.”
Great American Beer Festival shows no signs of slowing down
Some 462 U.S. breweries will set up shop inside Denver’s Colorado Convention Center Sept. 16-18 for the 29th annual Great American Beer Festival, the biggest event of its kind in the country. More than 46,000 attendees will get to sample from more than 2,000 beers – many rarely, if ever, available in Colorado. Tickets for the event, produced by the Boulder-based Brewers Association, typically sell out weeks in advance.
It’s not just about drinking beer – though plenty in attendance will be there for that and that alone. The festival also enables a rare opportunity for the country’s top brewers to engage with each other and with consumers. Want to know how Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione came up with the idea for that crazy beer made with chewed corn? Just ask him.
Food pairings enter the spotlight, too. A farm-to-table pavilion promises a cornucopia of fresh, local fare that complements a variety of beers. Boulder chef Hosea Rosenberg, a past winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” is among the presenters slated for the fest’s beer and food pavilion.
For more information, visit www.GreatAmericanBeerFestival.com
Among the better ancillary events timed to coincide with the GABF: the Boulder County Brews Cruise, set for Sept. 15. Two bus packages are offered, with stops at up to six Boulder County breweries. For information, go to www.lefthandbrewing.com and click on BCBC Tickets.
Because the GABF always results in some disappointed suds lovers outside the convention center without a ticket, others around the city and state have launched alternatives. For the second year, Visit Denver is spearheading Denver Beer Fest, a 10-day stretch that reflects the glow from the GABF and LoDo’s Oktoberfest onto establishments and smaller events around town. For details, go to www.denver.org/denverbeerfest.