Craft beer? Good things brewing in Montana

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Beer has had roots in this country for centuries. Virtually every Founding Father either made or enjoyed it. Today, thanks to the ingenuity of small and independent brewers, the United States has moved beyond offering only light American lager and now has more beer styles and brands to choose from than any other market in the world.

Montana’s brewers are helping lead the way. Now with over 35 breweries making fine handcraft beer, in 2011 the Montana craft beer industry represented almost $50 million in economic output, had an employment impact of over 430 Montanans, represented almost $12 million in compensation, and $1.5 million in state tax revenues. Montana has more breweries per capita than all states but Vermont, producing over 100,000 barrels of beer per year.

This is a movement — and one that is growing quite rapidly. In 2011, craft beer grew nationally 13 percent by volume and 15 percent by dollars, with retail dollar value estimated at $8.7 billion. Montana’s craft beer industry grew 18 percent by volume, 39 percent in employment (full and part time), 23 percent in compensation paid, and 20 percent in sales. By mid-2012, the growth has continued and dollar sales for craft brewers nationally were up 14 percent, while volume of craft brewed beer sold hopped 12 percent.

Yet even as craft grows, those who dominate the market are large international conglomerates. A-B InBev, headquartered in Belgium, and SABMiller, headquartered in London, now control 75 percent of the U.S. beer market between them. Heineken and Modelo (Corona) and other imports are 14 percent, and A-B InBev has a deal in place which, if approved by the Department of Justice, would allow them to buy the half of Modelo it doesn’t currently own.

While America’s small and independent craft brewers have reached a record 6 percent market share, they lack the economies of scale and the huge marketing resources of the big brewers. They’ve relied on grassroots efforts, an appreciation for local, and authentic and delicious products to attract their consumer base.

Beer enthusiasts have responded by embracing these breweries and their unique, innovative and flavorful beers, brewed locally by neighbors and friends who are very visibly involved in their communities. They have chosen to support small-business entrepreneurs, who are the embodiment of the American dream. These entrepreneurs are the underdogs bent on reviving a sense of independent craftsmanship.

Noting the expansion of the craft brewers’ niche and also that many beer drinkers are turning away from the mass-produced light lagers that they are historically known for, the large brewers started producing their own craftlike beers. However, they don’t label these faux-craft beers as products of A-B InBev and MillerCoors. So if you are drinking a Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer, you are not told it is a SABMiller product. If you crack open a Shock Top, you are not told this brand is 100 percent owned by A-B InBev.

Today, there are craft breweries in just about every city in the country, and in Montana there now are breweries located in 22 communities, including small towns such as Wibaux (Beaver Creek Brewing), Wolf Point (Missouri Breaks Brewing), and Phillipsburg (Phillipsburg Brewing).

The large brewers employ 25,000 people in their stateside brewing facilities but across the entire U.S., small and independent craft brewers employ more than 103,500 Americans in local, Main Street jobs!

Montanans are known to enjoy their beer, and if you think craft breweries are a good force in America, take the time to familiarize yourself with who is brewing the beer you are drinking.

Is it truly from a brewer that is small and independent? Or is it a product of a large international brewer, capitalizing on the unprecedented growth of the sector to produce a faux-craft beer?

It makes a difference. By supporting small and independent craft brewers across Montana, and the country, we are giving them a chance to compete and thrive.

Charlie Papazian is the president and Bob Pease is the chief operating officer of the Brewers Association, the trade association representing America’s small, independent brewers. Tony Herbert is the executive director of the Montana Brewers Association.