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Craft breweries proliferate in Pa., nationally with room to keep growing

| Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Kristina Myer (center) of Lawrenceville shares a laugh with fellow 'brew tender' Kelly Bender (right) of Polish Hill as they work behind the bar at Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville on Friday, Dec. 26, 2014. Myer was working on pouring a few flights of the restaurant/brewery's house beers, which includes 5-ounce samples of eight different beers. The Brewers Association's annual year in review report shows that craft beer grew in terms of volume and new breweries in the past year.

Even as the number of new micro­breweries continues to climb in Pennsylvania and across the nation, analysts and insiders say there is room yet for growth.

A lot of growth.

“Last time I checked, craft breweries had 7 percent of the overall beer market,” said Rich Wagner, a Pennsylvania brewery historian. “They've still got 93 percent of the market to mine, to go after, so it could be that there's no end in sight, that there's room for an infinite number of breweries.

“With the interest in drinking local, in ‘Hey, I know the guy who brews this beer,' I'm giving them a wide berth and saying, ‘Let's see how far this goes.' ”

Wagner and other experts' bullishness on the craft beer movement was buoyed this month by the Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade association whose membership includes 75 percent of the country's professional brewers, which released its 2014 review of the beer industry.

Among the study's findings:

• New breweries open at a rate of 1.5 a day nationwide, while an additional 2,000 breweries — the vast majority of them small craft brewers — are being planned.

• There are more than 3,200 brewers across the country and 4,500 brewery licenses, an all-time high. Thirteen states — including Pennsylvania — have at least 100 breweries.

• While national overall beer consumption fell, craft brewers had 18 percent growth by volume through the first half of the year.

• 38 percent of households bought craft beer in the past year, up from 29 percent in 2010.

“There's a ceiling, but we're nowhere near it,” said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association. “There's still a lot of room to grow. Seventy-five percent of Americans now live within 10 miles of a craft brewer, and the more people get exposed to it, the more they demand it. When a new brewery moves in, we often see a second or third brewery pop up quickly, because people get a taste for it.”

Another encouraging sign: The study showed that women consume 32 percent of craft beer by volume.

That's good news, beer experts said, because it shows that craft brewers need not target niche groups, but can appeal to a wide spectrum of the drinking population.

“There's this stereotype of craft beer being a male thing,” said Pete Kurzweg, co-owner of the Independent Brewing Co., a Squirrel Hill bar that sells only locally brewed craft beer. “But you're seeing craft brewers really diversify with pumpkin beers, stouts with spices, porters that have coffee flavors, fruit beers — there is so much variety that you're going to have a beer for everyone, regardless of their palate.”

Wagner agreed.

“It's not your grandfather's beer anymore,” the Philadelphia-based historian said. “It's attained a gourmet status, and many women are more adventurous with their tastes and palates. It isn't the guys club anymore.”

The study also found India Pale Ales remained the most popular craft beer style, accounting for a 21 percent volume share, and that sales of variety packs are rising. Statistics were culled from a compilation of data provided by Brewers Association surveys, Symphony IRI and Nielsen.

The most important number, experts said, is 7.8 percent, which is craft beer's market share. With so much of the market still up for grabs, the recent surge in new breweries might still be in its infancy, they said.

“I've been to 750 breweries since 1974, and I'm to the point now where I can't keep up with all the new breweries, not even here in Pennsylvania,” Wagner said. “These are young people with a dream, and they're making it happen, not just in their lifetimes, but in five or six years where they're seeing growth that strips the expectations of their original business plan. And that's a beautiful thing.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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