Despite decades of booming growth for craft beer, the beverage industry has only just set a new record for the number of breweries in the U.S. The Brewer's Association, a craft beer trade group, announced that as of the end of November there are 4,144 active brewers. This surpasses the previous high-water mark of 4,131 set in 1873.
After 1873, breweries began to consolidate and grow larger, instead of more plentiful, expanding from a neighborhood scale to regional and national markets. The decline continued until 1978, when it bottomed out with less than 50 breweries. About the same time, home brewing was legalized and the earliest craft brewers began to open shop after testing their ales and lagers in their kitchens.
While we're supporting more breweries than ever in the U.S., it's worth noting that in 1873, only 42 million Americans were around to patronize those thousands of brewers. Scaled up to today's population, we'd see more than 31,000 operations serving beer. That's an unlikely goal, says Bart Watson, the Brewers Association's chief economist, due to the presence of national brands that 19th century brewers didn't have to contend with. But Watson still sees big growth beyond today's 4,144 brewers.
"This is a remarkable achievement, and it's just the beginning," says Watson. Though some worry that a bubble is looming on the craft beer market — an impressive 680 new operations opened in the last 11 months — Watson says there's plenty of room left for small-scale brewers serving local communities. "There are still thousands of towns currently without a brewery, but with populations potentially large enough to support one."
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