10 Biggest Small Beer Brewers in the U.S.

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The small brewer is on the rise in the United States, no matter what name you refer to it by.

There were roughly 80 brewers in the U.S. in the early 1980s and about 1,600 breweries in America back in 2009. According to the Brewers Association craft beer industry group, there are more than 2,500 breweries in the United States today, with more on the way.

The Brewers Association craft beer group credits most of that growth to "craft" brewers, who saw sales grow 15% in volume and 17% in dollars last year even as the entire beer industry grew by less than 1.5% after years of post-recession losses. Meanwhile, "craft" beer's retail value hit $10 billion for the first time in 2012.

Yet that includes only the breweries the Brewers Association considers "craft" under its pedantic and ever-changing definition of the term. Of the nation's 2,538 breweries, the association says only 2,480 are "craft." That leaves 58 brewers who fall outside that definition.

The nation's two largest brewers -- Anheuser-Busch InBev and SAB Miller/MolsonCoors joint venture MillerCoors -- are obviously out. Just as well: A-B has seen sales slump since the start of the recession and ended its string of bad luck last year with a scant 0.7% sales uptick. MillerCoors, meanwhile, saw U.S. sales slip 1.1% in 2012.

That leaves 56 breweries the Brewers Association doesn't feel are part of the gang. There's a little list to consult just in case you're curious about who's "craft" and who's "crafty." That list includes brewers such as Minnesota-based August Schell, which was not only founded in the late 1800s and persevered through prohibition without selling out or changing its recipe, but saw demand increase from 89,000 barrels in 2008 to 132,000 barrels this year.

In fact, there are more than a few brewers on the Brewers Association's list that produce fewer than 3 million barrels a year and have shown remarkable growth over the past five years or so. But the definition of "craft" is too narrow to accommodate them and, to small brewers' detriment, discounts the true growth of the small brewing industry here in the United States.

Tax-related beer legislation in Congress would change beer brewing categories and, ultimately, kill the term "craft beer," but lawmakers have shown as little will to pass those bills as they have to do much of anything lately.

Instead, it falls on industry observers to take a closer look at the numbers and see which brewers are really driving growth in the industry. The folks at Beer Marketer's Insights play no favorites and focus primarily on the industry as a business made up of several segments.

They've come up with a category known solely as "small/specialty brewers" that separates small U.S. brewers from their larger competitors and importers. It doesn't separate by "craft" and "crafty." It doesn't care how many breweries a brewer operates or what kind of beers they make. It just tells the story of small brewing by showing its production numbers, which are booming.

Consulting their data -- and only their data -- we've come up with a list of the 10 most successful small breweries in the country. Regional brewers, "craft" brewers and brewers who fell from craft grace all make the cut. Feel free to debate the merits over a can, bottle or pint, but just realize that all of the brewers below are making the bar and beer cooler more diverse, fun places for beer drinkers to be:

10. Lagunitas Brewing
Petaluma, Calif.
2012 production:
235,000 barrels

It's been one wild ride for Lagunitas founder Tony Magee since he opened his first brewer in 1993 in Lagunitas, Calif. He outgrew his pastoral Marin County surroundings quickly and moved the whole works to Petaluma in 1994 and watched production increase from 27,000 barrels in 2004 to 57,000 barrels in 2008 to more than 230,000 barrels last year. He's expanding the current brewery to 600,000 barrels of capacity and is opening a similar-sized brewery and taproom in Chicago. It's a huge leap for a company that had an employee arrested for marijuana possession during a Lagunitas tasting in 2006 and turned the incident into the popular Undercover Investigation Shutdown Ale. It's also the same brewery that named its weed-flavored Copper Ale "Censored" after the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau nixed the name "The Kronik." With small brewers on the grow and states taking an increasingly lenient stance toward marijuana -- with Washington and Colorado voters emphatically embracing it last year -- Lagunitas brews such as Hop Stoopid IPA and its laid-back Northern California disposition are getting exponentially more popular across the country as the nation loosens up a bit.

9. Deschutes Brewing
Bend, Ore.
2012 production:
253,000 barrels

A member of the fabled "Class of '88" that included Fort Bragg, Calif.'s North Coast, Chicago's Goose Island, Cleveland's Great Lakes and Deschutes' Oregon neighbor Rogue Ales, Deschutes has grown into the largest of all of them -- at least the ones not owned by A-B. It's still growing, opening a brewpub and small-batch brewhouse in Portland's Pearl District in 2008 and adding an extra 105,000 barrels of production capacity to its Bend facility just last year. Though Deschutes still distributes to only 21 states -- and in Philadelphia only on the East Coast -- founder Gary Fish clearly has bigger plans for his Black Butte Porter, Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Inversion IPA and Jubelale.

8. K. Spoetzl Brewery
Shiner, Texas
2012 production:
524,000 barrels

Do not discount Texas' love of beer. While small breweries are making big advances in Austin, Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth and San Antonio, there's still a whole lot of love for those yellow Shiner Bock labels. Spoetzl's history dates back to 1909 and coasted through the recession selling ice and alcohol-free beer. It wasn't until the early 1980s, however, that Shiner started to catch on and develop a cult following among Texas country musicians, South By Southwest and Austin City Limits attendees and Texas drinkers in the know. In recent years, however, Spoetzl has added variations including Premium, Bohemian Black and Hefeweizen to the Shiner lineup, as well as a full slate of seasonal and small-batch beers. Shiner production that lingered around 36,000 barrels in 1990 grew to 393,000 barrels by 2008. Now owned by the San Antonio-based Gambrinus family of brewers -- which also owns Portland, Ore.-based BridgePort, the California-based production facility of Austria's Trumer Pils and the defunct Pete's Wicked craft beer label -- Shiner is available in 40 states and still spreading the Texas love to any barfly willing to take a sip.

7. Craft Brew Alliance ( BREW)
Portland, Ore.
2012 production:
675,000 barrels

Brothers Kurt and Rob Widmer founded Widmer Brothers Brewery in Portland, Ore., in 1984. Paul Shipman and Gordon Bowker first started Redhook in Seattle back in 1981. Because they decided to join forces in 2008 and give Anheuser-Busch a 32.2% stake in their newly formed company in exchange for access to its distribution system, though, they were cast out of "craft" heaven by the pearly gatekeepers at the Brewers Association. That's a real shame, as their production has only increased from 571,000 barrels in 2008 even after the sale of one-time Craft Brew Alliance member Goose Island to A-B. The company has also finally set up its brands in a way that makes sense. Widmer Brothers is still the high-potency, experimental craft label. Redhook, which has been rudderless since Shipman's departure, has found new life as a gateway beer for the sports-loving masses -- teaming with sports radio host Dan Patrick, chicken-and-big-TV casual dining chain Buffalo Wild Wings ( BWLD) and the supporters group for Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders on signature beers and promotions. Its Hawaii-based Kona Brewing brand aims right at casual beer drinkers who might otherwise gravitate to a Corona or Red Stripe, while its Omission gluten-free beers and Square Mile Ciders are geared toward drinkers that the beer world tends to leave behind. If the gatekeepers considered the Craft Brew Alliance "craft," it would be the fourth-largest craft brewer in the country. Since it doesn't make the cut, however, its brewers will just have to make do with increasing popularity and a bunch of new friends in corners that craft beer either ignores or outright dismisses.

6. New Belgium Brewing
Fort Collins, Colo.
2012 production:
765,000 barrels

Co-founder and brewery head Kim Jordan just finished selling the company's shares to her employees to ensure its longevity and independence. Its growth from 495,000 barrels in 2008 will only increase further once the brewery's new facility in Asheville, N.C., is complete. Its Fat Tire Amber, Ranger IPA, Shift Pale Lager, Lips of Faith experimental series and seasonals including its Pumpkick pumpkin ale and Accumulation White IPA are appearing in an increasing number of states and its commitment to its original mission of melding Belgian and Western U.S. brewing techniques remains intact. If its recent series of commercials on Hulu are any indication, expect to see a lot more of New Belgium in the near future.

5. Sierra Nevada Brewing
Chico, Calif.
2012 production:
966,000 barrels

Ken Grossman started this brewery nearly 35 years ago and has watched it expand into a nationwide brand with a sprawling lineup. Tastes may have shifted from its Pale Ale to its Torpedo IPA and the company itself is spreading its California roots to a second brewing facility in Asheville, N.C., in the near future, but Sierra Nevada has managed to flirt with the 1 million barrel mark while keeping its independent spirit intact. The company is still committed to its pioneering environmental initiatives, is still pushing boundaries with new specialty brands and will still be in Grossman family hands when the next generation begins running the Asheville location. Sierra Nevada has been around long enough to be the craft beer of choice for some new drinkers' dads. It's remained relevant enough to become one of that new generation's favorites as well.

4. Mark Anthony Brands (Mike's Hard Lemonade)
2012 production:
1.425 million barrels

We warned you that Beer Marketer's Insights didn't play favorites. This is a flavored malt beverage line owned by a Canadian wine company, but its effects on the beer industry and the alcoholic beverage industry in general trump its beer credentials. A recent Nielsen ( NLSN) survey found that Millennials, women and just about everyone but white men are more likely to pick up a flavored malt beverage than they are to knock back a craft beer. Why? Because Mike's Hard Lemonade doesn't berate its drinkers for enjoying a refreshing beverage that tastes like fruit. It doesn't imply that they should be having a "real" drink instead or insist that adding a fruit flavor to a beverage with alcohol in it is "everything that's wrong with this country."

Instead of snickering at someone drinking a raspberry wheat beer or muttering about how brewing blueberries and watermelon into beer are equivalent to putting a lime on a light lager -- it isn't, at all -- the folks behind Mike's Hard Lemonade just put out a whole bunch of sweet flavors and watched their production ramp up from 835,000 barrels just five years ago.

While snooty, insecure brewers and their sycophants could just laugh off Mike's and the like a few years ago, now they have to approach it as a real threat. Mike's has expanded into the hard cider market that is already taking a large, gender-equitable gulp out of the beer market. It's also getting into the beer business by experimenting with a line of shandies, which MillerCoors has already found success with thanks to its Leinenkugel's brand. Mike's Hard Lemonade is making a large, diverse group of friends that should be making the brewers below it nervous. That they and their fans would rather insult Mike's in the slam books than take a lesson from it and offer drinkers something they might actually want speaks volumes about how long it will take to clear up some of "craft" beer's demographic difficulties.

3. North American Breweries
Rochester, N.Y.
2012 production:
2.715 barrels

Even if this umbrella company and its brands were considered craft, it wouldn't do the craft beer world any favors. This mess of a beer company is the result of Magic Hat's acquisition of Pyramid Brewing, KPS Capital Partners' acquisition of those breweries and others and Costa Rican food and beverage company Florida Ice & Farm's acquisition of all of it last year.

Even if stripped down to its most craft parts, North American Breweries would still have its issues. Back in 2008, Magic Hat and Pyramid combined produced 336,000 barrels of their product. Last year they put out 337,000 barrels. That's only after production slipped as low as 322,000 barrels in 2009. With Magic Hat and Pyramid largely stripped of the brands, styles, personalities and owners that made them beloved in Vermont, the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, they've become the equivalent of Costco's ( COST) generic Kirkland "craft beer" cases.

The sad fact is that those brands don't even do most of the heavy lifting for NAB. That task falls to the Genesee, Labatt's and Dundee brands cherished -- or at least drunk for a reasonable price -- by Western and Central New Yorkers. Those regional favorites still account for roughly 2.4 million barrels of production, which is more than double the output of all but one "craft" brewer in the U.S. It pushes NAB into Beer Marketer's Insights' "major supplier" category, but so what? Its nearly 1% uptick in production last year was better than MillerCoors or Diageo-Guinness could muster, and it came on the backs of supposedly bland, old brands with no creativity or identity.

The fact is that those core brands have more presence and loyalty on their home turf than Pyramid does in brewery-saturated Washington or Magic Hat does with small-brew darlings such as Alchemist's Heady Topper and Hill Farmstead's brews right down the road. In this industry, that's worth quite a bit.

2. Boston Beer ( SAM)
2012 production:
2.727 million barrels

Back in 1984, founder Jim Koch brewed his first batch of Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Nearly 20 years later, the company he founded isn't just about Sam Adams or Boston anymore.

The Boston brewery serves largely as a research-and-development facility, while much of the production takes place at larger breweries in Cincinnati and Pennsylvania's Lehigh County. And that's only the beer produced under the Samuel Adams name. Boston Beer launched its Alchemy & Science branch in Burlington, Vt., last year as not only a research facility, but as a conduit for brewery acquisitions. The facility has produced a shandy to go up against MillerCoors' Leinenkugel's shandy line and has acquired both Los Angeles-based Angel City Brewing and Clinton Park, N.Y.-based Coney Island Craft Lagers. Both of those beers will be brewed at their current facilities for the time being.

But Boston Beer has far more interests than its beer-specific name suggests. Back in 2000, it launched the Twisted Tea line of hard iced teas that continues to boost Boston Beer's bottom line to this day. Just last year, the company launched its Angry Orchard line of hard ciders that was successful enough to become the best selling line of hard ciders in the country less than a year into its existence.

The Brewers Association still considers Boston Beer "craft" and changed its definition of that word to accommodate the growing giant, but Beer Marketer's Insights has it straddling both its small and major supplier categories. Considering its identity crisis is the crux of the debate between two competing pieces of beer tax legislation in Congress -- where the 6 million-barrel limit created by BA for Boston Beer is considered the cutoff for "craft" brewers -- publicly traded Boston Beer will continue to find itself in the tough spot between its small, kitchen-brewed past and its large-scale future.

1. D.G. Yuengling & Son
Pottsville, Pa.
2012 production:
2.79 million barrels

Founded in 1829, Yuengling is the oldest active brewery in the country. It skated through Prohibition as a dairy and is still owned by family member Dick Yuengling to this day.

It is the largest U.S.-owned brewer in operation and has breweries in Pottsville and Port Carbon, Pa., as well as Tampa, Fla. -- the latter of which just recovered from a recent fire. It's still primarily known for its lager, pilsner, Black & Tan and Porter, but has expanded its line in recent years to include Lord Chesterfield Ale, Yuengling Bock and an Oktoberfest.

Despite being a member of the Brewers Association and despite Dick Yuengling's appearance at Brewers Association events, though, Yuengling isn't considered craft. BA doesn't like the fact that Yuengling uses adjuncts such as corn in its beer, though German and Czech immigrant brewers commonly used maize in their original recipes in the 1800s to make up for the shortcomings of inferior U.S. barley. It also doesn't seem to like its use of a light lager as its flagship beer.

For its part, Yuengling doesn't seem to give a damn. It partners with small Pennsylvania brewers on state tax and distribution legislation and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with them arguing for more brewer-friendly laws. It comes to Philly Beer Week each year, it lends advice and some occasional equipment to small brewers and is still seen as a point of pride in Pennsylvania, where brewers of similar heritage and longevity still dot the landscape. Besides, Yuengling production has jumped from 1.811 million barrels in 2008 to nearly 2.8 million barrels last year.

That's basically akin to building Sierra Nevada over a five-year span in fewer states. When you're that beloved of a regional brewer and have built your success on your beer alone, who cares what anyone but your drinkers thinks about you?

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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