What does it mean to be small and local in today’s crowded craft beer market?
The Brewers Association might define all of its members — those making less than 6 million barrels annually — as small, but not all companies are created equal. The craft beer industry has grown to the point where some craft breweries are churning out more than a million barrels of suds each year while other, more niche startups roll out less than 100. In the eyes of the BA, both are considered “small,” but ask a handful of brewers to define what being a small brewer really means, and you’ll likely get some varied responses.
During our Brew Talks Chicago meetup, hosted last week at Revolution Brewing, we dug into the matter with Wirtz Beverage’s craft beer manager, David Kahle; Pipeworks Brewing co-founder Beejay Oslon and Une Année founder Jerry Nelson.
Pipeworks, founded in 2012, is projecting sales of 6,000 barrels this year, triple the amount it made last year. Though small, the brewery has released more than 150 different brands since its conception and has remained exclusively focused on the Chicagoland market. As for Une Année, the company — run by Nelson as its only full-time employee — is even smaller, but sells its line of Saison and Belgian-style beers in Chicago, Wisconsin and Michigan.
So how do the founders of two very different craft startups define what it means to be “small and local?” And how does a distributor — one that represents some of the largest and fastest growing craft brands in the country as well as small brands like Une Annee — sell the narrative of “small and local” to bar owners?
Answers to these questions and many others are included in the video (as well as a condensed and slightly edited dialogue), below.
On the responsibility of being small
Oslon: When we started our company there was three of us. We were one of the few self-distributing breweries in the city. What that meant for us was we had our hands in every part of operations. We were salesmen. We were distributors. I think going about it in that way kept us really close to the community of drinkers we were dealing with and it made us really responsive. It gave us this responsiveness I think maybe larger brewers don’t have.
Nelson: I do pretty much everything myself. I don’t have any full time employees. I have one guy who comes and helps me on my bottling days and that’s it right now.
On what it means to be small
Kahle: Small I think is a tougher thing to discuss and I think it’s less relevant. I don’t think anybody’s business plan is to stay very small and barely make enough money to survive. Everybody’s in a business and everybody wants to grow. But we also want to separate ourselves — craft breweries from macro breweries. It’s more relevant for me selling beer maybe on an account level where you’ve got buyers in an account serving on-premise who are bombarded with people coming in every day.
You need a way to pare down your beer list. Whether saying, “We only want American craft” or “We only want Belgian beers” or “We just want local,” small can be a component in that.
Nelson: Small is relative.
Une Année is not going to be what Revolution is right now. We’re not going to make as much beer as they are right now… I have to realize what my brand is specifically and really try to hone into what my brand can be.
Oslon: For us, it was an organic choice. Our current facility is at capacity and has been for about a year. We literally can’t fit another tank in the building. At that point, you have to either accept where you are in the market and continue to feed that, but if you have more retailers asking for your product, who am I to tell them no? For us it was a very organic decision. More people want our beer; we clearly wanted to grow as long as it’s organic, so long as we’re not pushing ourselves into the market when it’s not wanted.
As you grow, you’re going to lose parts of that business because it’s going to get too big. We’re not three guys anymore. We’re approaching 20 people in our family.
Now you have to start giving parts of that to other people and letting them take the reins. That might mean at other times letting distributors start working with your product, and that’s a scary thing.
On locality as it relates to quality
Kahle: Local is an easy one. I think everyone uses local as a branding and marketing term because there’s a perception of freshness and quality with that. Obviously I say perception because just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s fresh on the shelf.
Oslon: Not everyone’s going to win, there’s going to be bad pints of beer out there. And I don’t think that we can sit here and be like ‘hey this is a small local beer and I’m going to buy it to support this guy even though I’m not enjoying the drink that I’m having.’ Like, I’m always going to go to Lagunitas or Sierra Nevada if that’s the beer that tastes the best. We as small local brewers need to strive to make the best possible beer that we can make because it’s not going to be enough just to be small and local, because now there are 50 small and local brewers.