Shop small. Support Local. These two mantras are evidence of a shift in consumer mindsets over the last decade or so. People want to eat food that’s been locally sourced and buy goods from small businesses and local artisans. They want to feel their purchase decisions have an impact on their own community or other communities in need. Brands are well aware, and while some have actually shifted their production practices, others have exploited the appetite for the small and local through marketing and advertising that talks the talk without walking the walk. They may throw around words and phrases like “community-driven,” “local” and “for the people,” but their focus remains trained on the bottom line.
In the midst of this small/local movement is craft beer, a booming industry that exemplifies creative disruption, bucks economic norms and trends, competes with moribund behemoths, and grabs attention and action from lawmakers. Many craft breweries are primary cultivators of community at a divisive cultural moment. As monopolization sweeps so many business sectors, craft beer has been a refreshing beacon of independent growth.
The economic impact of craft breweries has been astounding. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of breweries in the U.S. grew six times over; the number of brewery workers by 120 percent. Last year, 70,000 Americans were employed in breweries—nearly three times the number just a decade prior. In 2016 alone, craft breweries contributed about $68 billion to the national economy.
The surprise is, this happened as Americans were drinking less beer and average beer prices rose by almost 50 percent. We are now drinking less beer, but paying more for a higher quality product. In the same period, the nation’s best-selling beers are registering dramatic drops in sales.
Says Bart Watson, the chief economist at the Brewers Association: “At the end of the day, the craft-beer movement was driven by consumer demand… We’ve seen three main markers in the rise of craft beer—fuller flavor, greater variety, and more intense support for local businesses.” In short, what people want are better products and more opportunities to make positive impact with their purchases.
Recognizing the industry’s growth potential, state governments have rewritten tax codes and enacted legislation to incentivize its development. For instance, some have begun to change laws so brewers can sell their beer by the glass at their breweries in what are now commonly referred to as tap rooms. In New York, where there currently are 390 breweries vs. only 97 in 2012, breweries are required to partly use locally grown products in their recipes if they wish to take advantage of this tap room opportunity.
Mitten faced some backlash from the town, concerned that adding another bar—even one billed as a tap room—wouldn’t help the area. But the brewery’s success has spurred neighborhood investment. Since Mitten opened, a gin distillery, barbecue restaurant, and other breweries have all sprouted up in the neighborhood. Community success stories like this one, with a craft brewery as the linchpin, are happening across the country.
Below, we’ve examined how craft breweries can serve as stewards of history, civic leaders and vital “third places” within their communities.
When scouting out spaces to establish new breweries, Sandy A. Barin, a vice president at Minneapolis-based commercial real estate firm CBRE, says craft entrepreneurs look for “early-20th century buildings with up to 10,000 square feet and lofty ceilings.” Such buildings often conjure up a sense of nostalgia, representing the history of the communities those breweries are locating in. In Greenville, SC, Upstate Craft Beer has given new life to an 84-year old industrial bakery building. Clemson Brothers Brewery in Middletown, NY, occupies an historic saw mill that symbolizes the town’s industrial history. Tacoma’s E Nine Brewery occupies a former firehouse, built in 1907.
Not only can these older buildings be architecturally stunning, more often than not they have been left to decay for years. Many states are incentivizing their preservation movement by offering cheaper rents, purchase prices, and tax breaks not only to take over these spaces but also to make desperately needed repairs.
As economic drivers and symbols of their communities, craft breweries can even inspire change. After the mass shooting at the LGBTQ nightclub Pulse in Orlando, FL, in June 2016, Aeronaut Brewing Company of Somerville, MA, hosted a series of pop-up events and donated the proceeds to an Orlando organization that brought relief and healing to families affected by the shooting. Triple Bottom Brewing Co., newly established in Philadelphia’s Spring Garden neighborhood, has partnered with organizations PowerCorps and PHL in an effort to hire people with criminal records who are struggling to find employment. The brewery’s name itself reflects their three-pillar mission of “profit, planet and people.”
Slowly but surely, brewery tap rooms are taking over from coffee houses as America’s new “third place.” The term, coined in 1989 by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, is defined as a place of social importance outside of work and home. Wrote Olenburg in his book The Great Good Place: “The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends…They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy.”
Tap rooms tend to be spacious because the equipment needed to brew beer is big. This roominess allows breweries to run everything from trivia nights to yoga classes to pet adoption days to live music nights, and do it all in spaces that feel anything but confined. Many tap rooms also are family-friendly, offering games and food for kids to make it easier for parents to join their friends for a night out. Tap rooms are becoming the go-to place for community members to congregate and talk about everything under the sun.
As the craft beer industry continues to grow and disrupt, we hope that their roots as cultivators of community remains top of mind. We are at a time when place and experience are deeply valued by consumers, therefore businesses like craft breweries have an edge with their potential to have strong local support and an identity tied to a community. The symbolic power and communal qualities of craft breweries make them an ideal building block upon which towns and cities can create a promising future, and we believe it is of utmost importance they continue playing a significant role in the resurgence of communities that have often been neglected or forgotten.