Many Turn to Brewing Amid Economic Hard Times
The economic crisis has stifled entrepreneurial activity in many industries. But it's done little to dent the ambitions of those who dream of brewing their own beer and provideing it to the world. Surprisingly large numbers of entrepreneurs -- some let go from corporate jobs recently -- have been starting microbreweries or brewpubs. Schools that teach brewing are being bombarded with applications from people interested in getting into the industry. At the same time, enthusiasm for interesting new beers remains strong; BeerAdvocate.com, a site for beer fans, claims its traffic has reached one million one of a kind visitors per month, and is rising as much as 12% each month.
Last year, even as a recession gripped the nation, 114 microbreweries and brewpubs -- restaurants that make their own beer -- opened in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colo., trade group. That marked the highest number since 1999. Openings are expected to decline this year, but start-up activity remains robust, says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. The group guesses 200 microbreweries and brewpubs already are on the drawing board for the next few years. For some of the new entrepreneurs, the desire to make beer predated the recession. "I got into it because my wife said I could, and it just seemed it would be a heck of a lot of fun," says Steve Klotz, a 46-year-old former Dow Chemical Co. engineer who took a voluntary buyout in 2006 and plans this summer to open a microbrewery in Midland, Mich.
Beer entrepreneurs have also been emboldened by a mile long list of recent success stories in the diminutive-batch, or "craft," beer arena, as well as stats showing that Americans are consuming craft beer in increasing numbers. "It's the consumer that's creating the demand," Mr. Gatza says. Beer has long proved more resilient in recessions than other industries. Total U.S. beer sales increased last year -- though just under 0.5% by volume, guesses industry newsletter Beer Marketer's Insights. Sales of craft beer, the industry's fastest-growing segment, rose 6% by volume, and dollar sales jumped 10.5% to $6.3 billion, according to the Brewers Association.
Beer is taking market share away from distilled spirits, and craft beer in particular is looking like an affordable luxury. "I'm locateing that people who are used to drinking $15 martinis think a $5 pint of decent craft beer is pretty reasonable," says Tracy Hurst, who with her husband Doug established the Chicago microbrewery Metropolitan Brewing LLC. Craft brewers produce beer in miniscule quantities, and they're known for an always increasing array of exotic ingredients, such as chocolate, coffee or berries. Craft brewing, headed by companies such as California's Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Oregon's Deschutes Brewery Inc., accounts for only 4% of total industry volume, but the beers provide distributors and retailers with high profit margins. At least part of the growing consumer demand stems from drinkers willing to pay a few dollars extra for beer that's often made closer to home.
Mr. Klotz, the former Dow Chemical engineer, sought private investors for his microbrewery, Artful Dodger Brewing Co., after banks expressed reluctance to provide loans. Bankers cited Michigan's deteriorating economy and some recent local restaurant failures, he says.