American Craft Beer Week arrives Monday, with no shortage of beverages to hoist in its honor.
The market sector has in fact expanded fantastically in recent years, as consumers developed tastes for different beers and brewers set up operations in hopes of capturing a share of the business.
New York state could serve as Exhibit A in the growth of craft beer: It now has 321 breweries within its borders, more than six times as many as in 2011, thanks in part to friendly state policies.
Some of the 326 breweries are quite small, and some don’t even sell their product beyond their own premises. But plenty put beer in bottles, cans and kegs, then look for shelf space and tap handle connections to sell it to the public.
It raises the question of just how many craft brewers the market can support. The Gazette spoke to three veteran Capital Region brewers this week about the changes they’ve seen in the business of making and selling beer. All three got into the business about 20 years ago, and each has weathered previous cycles of waxing and waning popularity for craft beer. Each had his own take on where the industry is going.
And all three brewers were contestants in the online popularity balloting that wrapped up Friday in preparation for Craft Beer Week.
ADIRONDACK BREWERY, LAKE GEORGE
John Carr, owner and founder of the Adirondack Brewery in Lake George, started as a homebrewer in 1988, then interned with a Utah brewer, then opened his own brewery in 1999. It more recently became the first craft brewery in the state to also be a craft distillery (another sector with growth being encouraged by state policy and promotion).
“I watched a couple of different craft bubbles come and go,” he said. The key for the brewers that endure, he said, is a good product.
"I can give you a lot of marketing hoopla, but at the end of the day, if you like the product ... you buy it again,” he said. “If the beer's not good, all the emails go right to my mailbox.”
Whether the craft beer market is becoming overcrowded or saturated in New York remains to be seen, he said.
“New York state consumers have to answer that question,” Carr said. “I think there’s a lot of room to grow if local consumers get up and support it.”
He cites industry estimates showing that only 7 to 8 percent of the beer consumed in New York is brewed in-state, compared with 54 percent in Oregon.
“Fresher, better beer is often made right next door,” he said.
Carr said he appreciates the state effort to goose the percentage higher.
“I commend the governor’s office for what they’re doing,” he said. “It’s just a great fit.”
SHMALTZ BREWING COMPANY, CLIFTON PARK
Shmaltz Brewing Company blends craft with a little bit of Jewish-themed camp, labeling its beers with titles such as He’Brew, Funky Jewbelation and Messiah Nut Brown. There has not yet been a Bris Bock ... but there is a Circum Session Ale.
In case anyone missed the point, Shmaltz calls one of its sampler 12-packs Shtick in a Box.
Shticky labels aside, there is a real effort to produce good craft beer at Shmaltz, and it’s finding its audience: The Clifton Park brewery churned out 1.5 million bottles of beer in 2016.
Owner Jeremy Cowan said he did not forecast that number when he started Shmaltz in 1996.
“I just thought it would be fun and funny,” he said. (The humorous beer names were part of the plan right from the start.) “I had no idea where it was all going. It succeeded beyond all expectation.”
The tale of the tape: Shmaltz is now 125th largest of the more-than 7,000 U.S. breweries that have 25 or fewer employees.
Is a brewery still a craft brewery if it produces 1.5 million bottles of beer a year, and they get distributed for sale nationwide?
A peek inside a brewery provides the answer to that question, Cowan said. A “craft brewer” is distinguished by its ingredients and processes rather than its size, he said. By that measure, he added, Shmaltz is craft. “Our brewers are running up and down stairs,” he said. “I think it's pretty obvious from the nature of the ingredients.”
Cowan said it will be very hard for any one craft brewer to break out of the pack now, and grow like Shmaltz did. But many don’t want to or need to, he added, citing as an example Wolf Hollow Brewing Company in neighboring Glenville, whose founders don’t plan to can or bottle their beer or distribute kegs in too large a radius.
“What’s totally feasible is for folks like Wolf Hollow to be real local beer,” he added.
He does, however, think there is room for all the new and sometimes odd flavor variations being produced by craft brewers.
“One of the beauties of beer is that it’s kind of like food,” Cowan said. “There’s a place for all of the wild beers that are out there now.
“A purist has plenty of options to go back to malt, hops, yeast and water.”
Cowan was hoping Shmaltz would get a lot of votes in the state contest, but says the ideal result is a strengthened New York craft beer industry rather than a list of contest winners and losers.
“We’re trying to say, ‘We’re all in this,’” he said. “That's really the goal -- if we can accomplish that, then we’ve all won.”
BROWN’S BREWING COMPANY, TROY
What is now known as Brown’s Brewing Company opened in 1993 as Brown & Moran Brewing. It was a very different landscape, in more ways than one: The Troy waterfront was blighted, and the Capital Region beer industry was tiny.
“How many more breweries are there now?” owner Garry Brown mused. “I think it was quite the sensation to have a brewery like that.”
The River Street brewpub became a popular eatery and watering hole, and became the starting point for what would be a slow and steady pattern of growth.
Brown opened a dedicated brewery and bottling operation with taproom in a converted North Hoosick mill in 2008, but retained the Troy location. It serves as sort of a test marketing site now: The two brewmasters there created no fewer than 80 different beers in 2016.
“We’re fortunate now that the pub in Troy is essentially research and development,” Brown said. Each new brew is hooked up to a tap, and gets a lot of taste testing. “Then we make a decision whether or not we want to bring that beer to the wholesale market.”
Putting his beer on shelves across the Northeast was a longtime goal for Brown, but also was a major undertaking. The 1950s bottling equipment he started out with became too expensive to maintain, and he recently upgraded to machinery that fills 200 cans of beer a minute.
The brewery capacity is 20,000 barrels a year; the output is split roughly 2-1 between cans and kegs.
The craft beer market has come a long way since Brown got into it.
“Certainly there’s more competition now for shelf space,” he said. “The state and the governor are pushing for even more.”
Through it all, one of Brown’s original beers, oatmeal stout, is still the company's signature brew. It won a gold medal at the 2004 World Beer Cup and remains popular today.
Brown is confident in his brewery’s ability to stand out in the increasingly crowded craft beer market.
But in the contest the state is running online … he was asking bartenders and field reps for a little help spreading the word.
“We’re pitching it on social media to get people to vote for us,” he said.
The state this past week held the Taste NY Inaugural Craft Beer Challenge, in which New Yorkers were invited to vote online for their favorite New York craft brewery. The five that got the most votes when the balloting ended Friday afternoon will be judged at an event Wednesday in New York City attended by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and celebrity judges including chef Mario Batali and football hall-of-famer Thurman Thomas.
The following breweries in the greater Capital Region were in the running:
Adirondack Brewery, Lake George
Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown
Brown's Brewing Company, Troy
C.H. Evans Brewing Co., Albany
Chatham Brewing, Chatham
Cooperstown Brewing Company, Milford
Rip Van Winkle Brewing Co., Catskill
Shmaltz Brewing Company, Clifton Park
The Beer Diviner, Troy
Wolf Hollow Brewing Company, Glenville