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Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Advantage of Getting There First

Note: I've tried to clarify the text from the first paragraph, and also added Saxer in the footnote.

I was over at Full Sail yesterday to try the new Black Gold barrel-aged imperial stout and brewer John Harris told me a remarkable fact. Not about Black Gold--I'll review it separately. No, what he told me was about brewery sizes and the date of founding. We were discussing the remarkable success of Ninkasi, which brewed many tens of thousands of barrels this year--just four years after it was founded. John and I were both marveling, and then he observed that Ninkasi is the only Oregon brewery to pass 10,000 barrels that wasn't founded in the 80s.*

Think about that. It's been 20 years, a period of absolutely remarkable growth in craft brewing, and still, no brewery before Ninkasi had grown to the fairly modest threshold of 10,000 barrels.

This is probably more extreme in Oregon, where we favor brewpubs over production facilities, but that's the trend nationwide, too. Have a look at the 20 largest craft breweries and their date of founding:

  1. Boston Beer, 1985
  2. Sierra Nevada, 1979
  3. New Belgium, 1989
  4. Spoetzl Brewery, 1909
  5. Pyramid, 1984
  6. Deschutes, 1988
  7. Matt Brewing, 1888
  8. Boulevard, 1989
  9. Full Sail, 1987
  10. Magic Hat, 1994
  11. Alaskan, 1986
  12. Harpoon, 1986
  13. Bell's, 1983
  14. Kona, 1994
  15. Anchor, 1896
  16. Shipyard, 1992
  17. Summit, 1986
  18. Stone, 1996
  19. Abita, 1986
  20. Brooklyn, 1987
This list doesn't include Widmer ('84) and Redhook ('82), which the Brewers Association has booted from their list of craft breweries for reasons unclear to everyone. The point is clear with or without them: of the largest 20 (or 22) craft breweries in the US, none was founded more recently than 15 years ago and 17 (or 19) were founded in the 80s or earlier. Two were founded in the 19th century!

Ninkasi will join the list of largest breweries soon and stand as the exception both in Oregon and the country. Probably they represent a new wave of breweries that will ultimately climb up that list. Still, it's remarkable what a huge advantage those first breweries had.

*Two now-defunct breweries, Nor'Wester and Saxer, did manage the feat in the 90s, but were later absorbed by Portland Brewing and the brands eventually died off.


  1. I don't think you mean "first to 10,000 barrels." I think you mean "fastest to 10,000 barrels."

    - Æ

  2. That is very interesting. I hadn't ever looked at date vs size.

    I think that's probably due to the fact that growth takes (should take) time. Slow, responsible growth is what I think most craft beer drinkers would like to see in contrast to the scorched Earth policy of growth and expansion you see in the mega-breweries. Frankly, it makes me question why a brewery's in the business when they expansion is their primary goal. Largely, though, it's good to see craft beer growing and it's great news when you see the possibility for long term success in the market.

  3. Aesop, I went to correct the text, but then I couldn't quite figure out what I'd done wrong. Could you quote the offending text?

    Flagon, I think there's more to it than that. When I first started writing about beer in 1997, the big Oregon breweries were mostly well past 25,000 barrels. Full Sail, Widmer, and Portland were north of 50k. That was in less than 15 years.

    BA doesn't provide barrel totals (sadly), but my guess is that a lot of these breweries are in that 50k range--possibly even less. Surely it was possible for one brewery to have reached that level in the last decade.

    The reason they didn't is because there were already other breweries with product on the shelves and mastery over local tap handles. That advantage was a big leg up in maintaining large barrel volumes. Getting to 5k seems like easy enough work. Getting to 50k is going to be altogether another matter for most breweries.

  4. Part of this is choice. Not to take anything away from Ninkasi's achievement at breaking 10,000 barrels, but many brewers just really don't have an urge to grow to that size, even if they could. I don't see either of those paths as more "correct", it just depends on how people want to run a business and what is important to them. I don't really believe in the "grow or die" slogan though, I think that's a bit of a hyperbole.

  5. Hey Jeff - I'm traveling, so may not be reading things right. However, I think New Belgium was faster past 10k and beyond 15K, the magic no-longer-micro figure. NB opened in 1991 (not 1989) and sold 18,951 beers in 1994 (4th year of operation). Sold 5,837 in 1993.

  6. Stan, Ninkasi's sold just over 30,000bbls in year 4.

  7. Like Aesop, this is the passage that is confusing to me:

    "Ninkasi was the first brewery since the initial spate of founding breweries in the 80s to brew 10,000 barrels"

    Without further clarification, the statement itself is untrue. Plenty of breweries have hit the 10k barrel mark that weren't founded in the 1980s. I'm probably reading it wrong, but the quoted passage is misleading at best.

  8. Anon, I'm not sure how to better phrase it, but I've tried reworking the text. All the Oregon breweries currently brewing more than 10,000 barrels were founded in the 1980s--except Ninkasi, which just joined their numbers.

  9. Thanks, that clears it up. The way it was originally stated made me think that the claim was that Ninkasi was the first brewery *period* to pass the 10k barrel mark as there wasn't a mention of Oregon until the third paragraph.

    Ninkasi is the first *Oregon* brewery founded after 1990 to pass the 10k mark. Got it. Pretty remarkable when you think about it.

  10. Aren't we really just talking about marketing of today vs. pioneering of yesterday?

    New belgium grew leaps and bounds post big Fat Tire marketing. It became the beer that made them known, which is a shame, because their belgian beers should have become their tradmarks.

  11. Hey Jeff,

    Anonymous had the same concerns as I. It's fixed.

    Keep up the great work.

    - Æ