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Are taprooms the future of craft beer?

A growing number of brewers are deciding to skip on distribution and focus on selling beer over their own bartops.
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Guests enjoy a flight of beer at Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.'s taproom

Guests enjoy a flight at Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.’s taproom

In a 2016 interview on The Brewing Network’s Sunday Session podcast, Fieldwork Brewing Co. co-founder Alex Tweet said this:

“I am pro-local beer; I am pro-fresh beer; I am pro-supporting your local brewery. And I don’t think beer tastes good when it’s distributed. I think distributed beer is, for the most part, bad beer.” tweet

Now, to put that quote into its proper context, Tweet was talking about his reasons for supporting the still-oft-debated New England-style IPA; he felt that part of the reason people were so enamored with the style is because, in his opinion, it shouldn’t be distributed and must be enjoyed at the source. But it does also speak to the broader ethos that Tweet and his Fieldwork co-founder Barry Braden have employed in the operation of their two-year-old brewery. Nearly every drop of Fieldwork beer is served over the counters of the brewery’s taprooms in Berkeley, Napa and Sacramento, and soon-to-open taprooms in Monterey and San Mateo will only increase its ability to serve customers directly.

Other young breweries seem to be taking a similar approach. Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. co-founder Patrick Ware recently told Good Beer Hunting that he had no interest in stepping into the distributor-driven three-tier game; the brewery self-distributes to four bars in Arizona but otherwise sells all of its beer on draft in the brewpub and attached tasting room, or during weekend bottle and can sales. Beloved Massachusetts breweries Trillium and Tree House both sell nearly all the beer they produce out of their own locations.

It was working for a brewery whose business model was based on national distribution—Boulder, Colorado’s Avery Brewing Co.—that led the founders of Denver-based Call to Arms Brewing Co. to focus fully on self-distribution and taproom sales.

“I used to go home to New York and find an Avery beer from three years ago sitting warm on a shelf,” Call to Arms co-founder Jesse Brookstein says. As the brewery’s packaging manager, a major part of his job was quality control, and to put so much effort into creating a perfect beer and then you find it dead in a bottle shop hundreds of miles away, he says, was frustrating. “The more we talk to people in our industry, the more we see people moving from those traditional distribution arrangements to a more local focus,” Brookstein says.

According to the Brewer’s Association, craft brewers sold an estimated 2.3 million barrels of beer out of their own taprooms and brewpubs last year. That number would mean own-premise sales accounted for about 9.4 percent of the total production volume and 9.5 percent of the domestic sales volume of the breweries the BA defines as “craft.” It also indicates a 2-percent increase in own-premise sales from the previous year’s data.

Now, about half a percentage point of that boost is due to mega-brewers purchasing large regional breweries and removing their (mainly off-premise) sales from the BA’s data set. That most new breweries enter the market with onsite sales as a large portion of their business model also skews the data somewhat. But it does seem as if more breweries are focusing on growth via taprooms and own-premise sales. Twisted Pine Brewing Co. made waves last year when owners announced they were ceasing all distribution to focus entirely on sales out of the brewery’s taproom in Boulder, Colorado. Twisted Pine distributed beer to a dozen states at its peak.

Even breweries that do have large distribution networks are increasing their taproom presence. Bend, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewing Co. will open a tasting room in Roanoke, Virginia, this summer. Lagunitas Brewing Co. opened one of its own in Azusa, California, in April. Next winter, Founders Brewing Co. will open a second taproom in Detroit.

Why go to the trouble? There’s also some indication that breweries with tasting rooms grow more quickly than ones that don’t have a venue for people to try out the beers. Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson explored this in a recent post, and though he states there are some limitations to the data, it does show that breweries with tasting rooms grow much more quickly year-over-year than those without. In the case of breweries making between 1,500 and 4,999 barrels annually, in fact, those with tasting rooms grew an average of almost 15 percent more than those without.

Taking these numbers in tandem with news that sales for large legacy breweries like Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Boston Beer Co. have been slowing in recent months, it would seem that a majority of the growth potential for breweries is no longer in competing for shelf space, but in owning and operating taprooms in underserved areas across the U.S. In coming years, as more breweries realize this, we may see more brewers setting up satellite locations and focusing on establishing their breweries as neighborhood and tourist destinations that bring people to the beer, rather than the other way around.

One Comment

  • So…

    As “distributed beer is, for the most part, bad beer,” is most brewery-self-distributed beer, ipso facto, bad beer? Is most imported beer, therefore, bad? Is most craft beer shipped from a brewery –simply because it is shipped from a brewery– bad?

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