HOOPS ON HOPS: Keeping a small footprint in a busy craft beer market

Proudly Small. This is not a mantra heard often in brewery discussions. This week, I want to highlight a very important sector in the brewery world: small breweries with an eye on niche brewing aimed at the very passionate and ever-growing group of beer lovers but also at the local community that supports them.

These nanobreweries and microbreweries come in all sizes and shapes. Some make as little as 100 gallons per year while the largest might brew 50,000 gallons. Both numbers are relatively tiny in the United States, where the mean average across all breweries runs closer to about a million gallons produced.

With many of these breweries, the business model is to remain small and local. In the Duluth-Superior area, we have 11 breweries, and all but two are smaller-producing breweries. The two larger breweries are Top 10 producers in the state but still brew fewer than 500,000-600,000 gallons per year. The remaining nine brewers produce closer to an average of 30,000 gallons or so.

Why would a brewery purposely stay small? There are many reasons. The most common is wanting to remain uber local and to serve a market that knows you and your business. Keeping most of the beer brewed in a small market allows a brewery to better maintain quality control, successful sourcing of local ingredients and makes community involvement a regular occurrence.

There are two Minneapolis breweries that are leaders in this trend. Dangerous Man, a small brewery in Northeast Minneapolis, does not distribute its beer at all and runs a small self-serve taproom and crowler store to sell all their beer on-site. This model has worked great to make them a destination not only for their beer, but for events of all types.

Another great story is Steel Toe Brewery in St Louis Park, Minn. They actually write on their website “We are a small MN craft brewery with big dreams of staying small.” Both of these brewers are good friends of mine and were inspirational in the small footprint brewery I built in Duluth.

There are similar stories all over the country. One of the most highly respected breweries in the U.S. is the Russian River Brewery in Santa Rosa, Calif. The beer brewed by this brewer is in demand nationwide and hard to find. The owners with their “proudly small” motto make only what they are willing to produce. They actually completed a brand-new brewery build-out to maximize efficiency and green processes all the while keeping the new brewery at the same size as the older one and maintaining the same production each year.

This type of unusual thinking in an exploding (for about 12 years now) market is unique. It’s a nice response to the recent and frequent coverage about the number of breweries in the U.S. being too many — now topping over 7,000.

Building a brewery where there is a need and serving a community role as a provider of a quality, locally sourced product, meeting place, event center and family-friendly location will never go out of style.

Of course, the world needs big business, as well as small business, but small business enriches local culture. A few years ago, I wrote a piece called “Your Brewer, Your Neighbor” talking about small craft breweries. In our community, much like other small businesses, it’s very common to see the brewery owner or brewer behind the bar or sitting at a group table chatting with his or her neighbors. This is one of the things I like most about being a brewer in our awesome northern Minnesota region. This age-old trade, a community-based and supported vocation, is much like a builder, a butcher, an electrician, a baker, a plumber and many other tradespeople who support their communities.

It’s great to produce a product that fits into the fabric of peoples’ day-to-day lives.

I hope I speak for all Twin Ports brewers in offering a sincere thank-you to those of you in our area supporting our small industry.

Cheers, and stay warm!

Dave Hoops lives and works in Duluth and is a veteran brewer and beer judge. Contact him at dave@hoopsbrewing.com.

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