A nervous jitter has bubbled up in the world of craft beer. With the rapid increase in new breweries has come rising speculation that it’s all too good to last. There are now more than 2,500 breweries operating in the United States. That’s up from the low point of 1983 when the brewery count had dipped to just 80. Some see the torrid pace of growth as unsustainable. They warn that a correction is in order. But the alarmists may be missing something. This has developed into a grass-roots movement. What many beer drinkers are now looking for is local beer.
There’s nothing new about that. In 1870, prior to the consolidation of the brewing industry, America supported more than 3,000 breweries. The population then was less than a quarter of what it is today. Before the advent of large shipping breweries such as Pabst and Schlitz, beer drinkers expected their brews to be produced locally. That expectation was rekindled in the 1980s with the emergence of microbreweries and brewpubs, which now account for more than 90% of all American breweries. But until recently, these small producers have largely been an urban phenomena. That’s beginning to change, too. You can see it in our own backyard. Within an hour’s drive of the Fox Valley a number of small-town breweries have recently gone into operation. To experience them is to get a taste of a beer culture that had been given up for dead, but now shows renewed vitality.
The City of Marion has a population of just 1,250 and a brewer there is helping to change his hometown’s beer culture. When Nate Knaack helped launch Pigeon River Brewing Company last year, he wasn’t quite sure how the locals would take to beer that wasn’t thin on flavor and big on advertising. But Knaack and company have been pleasantly surprised.
“Selling our beer has been no problem,” he says. “Our goal was to try and convert people here over to craft beer and that’s happening. It’s surprising how many conversions we’ve made already.”
That in itself is an achievement, especially when you consider that Marion had never been home to a brewery prior to the arrival of Pigeon River.
“Part of what makes it work is the atmosphere,” Knaack says. “People come in and they see other people drinking our beer and they feel comfortable trying something new. They may not know everything about a certain style, but they’re willing to try it. Those are the people we end up pulling away from industrial beer.”
The gateway for many of them has been a beer named Townie, a blonde ale that is Pigeon River’s best seller. Brett Hintz is head brewer at Pigeon River and likes what’s happening to his hometown.
“It’s great to see these diehard Busch Light drinkers coming in and ordering a Townie,” Hintz says. “It’s been fun to see the beer culture of a little town in the middle of nowhere change so much in such a short time.”
Part of what’s made that happen is Hintz’s aim to produce interesting beers that are still approachable to the average beer drinker.
“What we always try to achieve is good drinkability,” Hintz says.
You can taste that in his Wet Willy, an oatmeal stout with abundant complexity; yet still an easy drinking beer. And the changing tastes of Marion beer drinkers is prompting Hintz to branch out.
“We want to get a 12 tap tower so we can experiment more,” Hintz says. “It’s hard to do with just six taps, but we try to cover the basic styles, so when people come in and want a hoppy beer, we’ll have something for them.”
Having something for them is one of the primary concerns of Rosholt brewer Rich Kosiec. His Kozy Yak Brewery, which doubles as the Fresar Winery, is the first brewery in Rosholt, a village of just 500 people. And he’s just barely keeping up.
“We brew very small batches, ranging from 5 gallons up to 60 gallons,” Kosiec says. He’s had no problem finding people to drink it. When I stopped in recently, the small brewpub inside Kosiec’s home was filled and the beer was being served as fast as it could be poured. Kosiec describes his local customers as “Traditional hard working beer drinkers. The local customer tends to go for the lighter, session beers like our Chicken Coop Cream Ale and Rosholt Red Beer,“ Kosiec says. “They want a beer they can drink and socialize with.”
But that hasn’t prevented Kosiec from stretching out. The list of beers he’s made since Kozy Yak’s opening in September 2012 is as varied as you’d see in any urban brewpub. And his efforts are being appreciated in Rosholt.
“There is a growing segment of the local population that has embraced the craft brews,” Kosiec says. “There are new converts weekly. This is not your typical downtown Rosholt tavern. Being located in an old house with an eclectic décor was intimidating for some of the traditional beer drinkers. Once we are able to get people in the door and they see that everyone is welcome, they become more open to trying new styles of beer.”
Kosiec is confident that his small brewery will grow, but intends to keep his focus on the local market.
“Eventually we will bottle our beer for retail sale,” he says, “but we plan to stay small scale with the majority of our sales made on site.”
And he sees no problem with the rate of increase in new breweries.
“Even if the current craft breweries all doubled in size, there would still be enough space in the market for another 2,500 – 5,000 breweries,” Kosiec says. “If we are in a bubble, it has a long way to go before it bursts.”
Lee Reiherzer drinks, brews and researches beer in Oshkosh. Visit his blog, Oshkosh Beer, at OshkoshBeer.Blogspot.com