PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Massachusetts beer drinkers are among some of the most discerning and nuanced in the country, which is putting them in high demand among the nation's brewers.
Its Northeast Corridor neighbors in New York (where Michgan's Bell's Brewery and St. Louis-based Schlafly made their Northeast debuts) and Philadelphia (the only Northeast town with access to Oregon's Deschutes and Colorado's New Belgium, by way of Delaware) can make similar claims. However, recent developments in Massachusetts suggest that it's the toughest market to crack out of the lot.
Back in April, Pottsville, Pa.-based D.G. Yuengling and Son stormed back into Massachusetts after a nearly 20-year absence. It rolled into more than 6,000 packaged goods stores, liquor stores, bars and restaurants in the state and increased the reach of a brewer that already produced 2.7 million barrels of beer in 2013. Among U.S.-owned breweries, that's second only to the 3.4 million barrels produced by Massachusetts' own Boston Beer Company and its Samuel Adams and Traveler brands. Long a high-quality, low-priced alternative to big brewers' light lager in the Mid-Atlantic and New York metro area, Yuengling steered clear of a market that long swore allegiance to Samuel Adams and recently revived Narragansett.
In early July, the San Antonio-based Gambrinus Company that owns Trumer Pils and BridgePort Brewing Company announced that its Spoetzel Brewery would begin distributing its Shiner brand to Massachusetts. The longtime Texas favorite had already worked its way up I-95 through New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, but is finally cracking the Massachusetts market nearly 105 years into Shiner's existence.
So why are these brewers suddenly so comfortable in Massachusetts? Well, for one thing, it's a big market with a somewhat small brewing presence. The Brewers Association counted 57 breweries in Massachusetts in 2013. That's up from 45 in 2011, but still ranks it 16th in the nation in brewery count and 24th in breweries per capita with just 1.2 breweries per 100,000 people. The more than 329,000 barrels it produced last year rank it 12th in the nation, but the 2.1 gallons it produces per drinking age adult ranks 17th.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the 26.2 gallons of beer consumed by each drinking-age Massachusetts resident ranks just 40th in the nation. However, if you want to open up New England's biggest beer-drinking markets, Massachusetts is a fine place to start. It gets a lot of visitors and draws a lot of beer from neighboring states including Maine (No. 10 in consumption with 34 gallons per resident), Vermont (No. 7 with 35 gallons) and New Hampshire (No. 2, with a whopping 43.9 gallons).
Massachusetts is also home to one of the largest craft beer events in the country, the American Craft Brew Festival held by BeerAdvocate and Harpoon Brewery each May. This year, the event featured 640 beers from more than 140 U.S. brewers and drew more than 15,000 guests to what has become the East Coast's largest beer event. Want to taste a Duck Rabbit stout from North Carolina or a Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA from San Francisco? This is usually your best opportunity to find one in New England.
Well, here or at the Craft Beer Cellar chain. Owners Kate Baker and Suzanne Schalow started with one shop in Belmont, Mass., in 2010 before expanding to four other Massachusetts locations and going national with outlets in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Missouri and Florida. More locations in Connecticut, California and Mississippi are in the works.
It's a state that's more enthusiastic about its beer than its brewers can handle, and it's been a great incubator for beer ideas. Boston Beer Company, which celebrates its 30th year in Massachusetts this year, has used its Samuel Adams brewery in Boston Jamaica Plain neighborhood as its research and development center for the brand. It has rolled in barrels and bottling lines for small batches, opened its doors for monthly tastings and basically used the Greater Boston Area as a proving ground for other products including its Angry Orchard line of ciders and its Traveler shandies.
Harpoon Brewery, meanwhile, opened in 1986 and was one of the few places in Massachusetts that would fill a growler until the last half decade or so. It has not only expanded its Boston facility to include a tasting hall and events, but just announced that its employees will take the reins with help from an Employee Stock Ownership Plan similar to those used by New Belgium and Oregon's Full Sail. That conversion to an employee-owned brewery ensures that the 12th-largest craft brewer by volume and the 19th-largest U.S. brewer overall won't be going anywhere for a long time.
With Boston's recently opened Trillium Brewing seeing lines around the block, Framingham-based Jack's Abby helping lead craft beer's lager renaissance, the Monks of Spencer Brewery making the only Trappist ale in the U.S. and both the Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project and Notch Brewing showing that great things can come from contract-brewed beer, Massachusetts has become a hub for beer drinkers in the know. Perfectly situated among great brewers like Vermont's Hill Farmstead, Lawson's Finest Liquids and The Alchemist (maker of Heady Topper IPA); Maine's Maine Beer, Allagash and Marshall Wharf; and New Hampshire's Smuttynose and Portsmouth breweries, Massachusetts also has its pick of some of the best beers in the Northeast.
But brewers from elsewhere see that relatively small number of breweries and see a vacancy sign in a massive market. In 1996, Redhook brewery saw its chance to bring its beers from coast to coast and opened a brewery just over the border from Massachusetts in Portsmouth, N.H. That brewery is now a gateway into New England and the rest of the Northeast for the Craft Beer Alliance's Kona and Widmer Brothers brands.
Meanwhile, brewers from California (Sierra Nevada and Green Flash) and Colorado (Oskar Blues and New Belgium) have either opened or begun building breweries in Virginia and North Carolina just to expand their presence on the East Coast. All have designs on pumping more beer into the Northeast, while New Belgium (the eighth-largest brewer in the country) just wants to get its beer into the Northeast for the first time ever.
An enthusiastic beer base in Massachusetts certainly helps, but so does the situation out west. Califronia (381 breweries, 1.4 per 100,000 residents), Washington (201 breweries, 4 per 100,000), Oregon (181 breweries, 6.3 per 100,000) and Colorado (175 breweries, 4.7 per 100,000) are all beer-soaked states packed with breweries. Any gains in any of those states would be nominal compared to the market potential in more sparsely brewery populated East Coast and Northeast states.
Texas has room to spare (only 96 breweries and 0.5 per 100,000), but Shiner has such a strong presence there already that it can better expand its base of drinkers by heading into unexplored territory. Yuengling, meanwhile, continues to express its desire to remain a regional brewer and to stay somewhat glued to the East Coast. In that mindest, Massachusetts isn't so much a conquest as it is reclaimed territory.
Massachusetts has developed a reputation for being provincial and pedantic, but neither of those traits carry over to its beer drinkers. They've proven time and again that they're up for trying the best beer that the U.S. has to offer. They just need access to it.
With the nation's brewery count up to 3,000 and uncharted beer areas getting harder to come by, closed markets like New England and portions of the South are getting a lot more difficult to ignore. The future of craft beer isn't in Portland, Ore., Seattle, Denver or San Diego, but in Portland, Maine, Boston, Asheville and Biloxi. In a small batch of new markets, Massachusetts offers some of the biggest potential.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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