Like a high-school friend who shows up to his twenty-year reunion looking almost exactly like he did back then, but richer, Colorado’s craft-beer industry has defied expectations, powering forward with a vigor and energy that seems like it should have faded by now. There are a few wrinkles, sure, maybe the hint of a receding hairline, but you have to look really closely to see them.
In 2015, craft breweries and brewpubs produced $1.7 billion in economic benefits to the state, according to a new study from the Colorado Brewers Guild and the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. That’s up from $1.15 billion in 2014.
Those breweries employed 7,776 people (including part-time staff and restaurant workers), up from 6,912 people the year before. Together, they earned $217 million.
And finally, the number of brewing licenses increased from 269 to 314 between 2014 and 2015; as of the end of August, though, there were 358 brewing licenses in the state. (Some of these haven’t yet opened. Also, the number is slightly padded by the fact that some breweries, like Rock Bottom, Oskar Blues, Dry Dock and others have more than one location.)
Already, 2016 is the third-best year in Colorado for brewery openings — at 44 so far — and is shaping up to land in the second spot by year’s end, explains Leeds School of Business researcher Brian Lewandowski. The best year was 2013, when there were 71 openings.
“We don’t need a study to know we are growing,” says Colorado Brewers Guild spokesman Steve Kurowski, but the specific numbers help the industry get its message across to lawmakers and politicians, as well to breweries themselves, who can use it to gauge their own plans.
And Kurowski says the growth is far from over. “I don’t think we are saturated from a neighborhood-brewery standpoint,” he says, pointing out that “there are no breweries on the Eastern Plains. Why not? Why not Holyoke or Burlington? They deserve them, too.”
But then there are those wrinkles. According to the study, 49 percent of responding breweries predicted that they will grow by at least 20 percent this year, which is good, but that optimism factor was down by 10 percent from the year before. And while small breweries will probably continue to open, mid-sized and regional ones will continue to face ever-stiffening competition.
“When you are a $1.7 billion industry, not everything is roses,” Kurowski says.
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His employer is experiencing some of the problems firsthand. In June, fourteen Colorado craft breweries — including the state’s four largest — broke away from the Guild to create their own organization. The brewery owners cited a lack of strong leadership from the organization, among other issues.
In part, they want to be able to react more quickly and with more force to the rapid changes taking place in the industry. Those include the consolidation of distributors, which makes it harder for small breweries to get access to liquor stores, bars and restaurants, as well as the recent craft-brewery buyouts by AB InBev and other large, international brewing conglomerates.
They are also concerned about a new law that passed earlier this year that will allow grocery and supermarket chains to gradually add stores where they will be allowed to sell full-strength beers. Before that, chains like King Soopers, Target and Safeway were only allowed one location each.
The two sides have decided to work together to see if they can find common ground again. They will hold a meeting in October to solicit feedback from breweries across the state.