You Asked, We Answered: Is N.H.'s Craft Beer Hype Actually Brewing Big Business?

Jul 13, 2017

If you’ve visited the grocery store beer aisle lately, you might have noticed a growing number of beer options, many of them brewed right here in New Hampshire.

These hoppy IPAs, porters, and session ales are all part of the craft beer movement.

As part of Only in New Hampshirea continuing series in which we answer your questions about the Granite State, I tackled this one from Concord's Benjamin Kramer:

"Is the craft beer hype in New Hampshire actually generating business? Is there factual, significant growth?"

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I met up with Benjamin at Concord Craft Brewing Co., which recently opened for business a few blocks from the New Hampshire State House.

"What made you ask this question in the first place - you just a big fan of craft beer?"

"I went to UNH and having a Smuttynose beer always made me feel really good, " he told me.

Taxonomy on tap

But before I could start looking for answers to Ben's question, I knew I had to clear up one of my own:

What qualifies as a "craft beer?"

Bart Watson is the chief economist - and the only economist - at the Brewer’s Association, a national trade group made up of American craft brewers.

"Here at the Brewer’s Association we don’t define craft beer...we recognize that may have different interpretations in the eye of the beer lover," Watson said. "What we do define is a craft brewer, one that’s small, independent, and traditional."

Producer Taylor Quimby got a look at the brewing equipment at Concord Brewing Co.
Credit Taylor Quimby for NHPR

The Brewer’s Association’s concept of “small” is loose enough to allow Sam Adams to be considered “craft,” but tight enough to exclude Redhook, which is owned in part by Anheuser Busch Inbev.

According to their guidelines, about 60 out of New Hampshire’s 65 brewers qualify as craft, enough to account for a sizeable boost to the state's economy. Watson says that boost amounted to $359 million when the organization last measured it in 2014.

That big figure includes retail sales, but also accounts for beer festivals, specialty beer stores, brewery tours, and all of the other economic ripples associated with the industry.

At the Everyday Cafe in Contoocook, tap lines are loaded with locally-produced brews
Credit Via the cafe's Facebook page

The nano-explosion

But to really answer Benjamin’s question, we can’t just look at craft beer numbers. We also have to look at growth.

And that's where it gets complicated.

While “craft brewing” may not have a legal definition here in New Hampshire, another type does: "nanobrewing."

In 2011, New Hampshire started offering a discount on licensing fees to nanobreweries, or operations that make fewer than 2,000 barrels of beer per year.

Jim Barbuti is a supervisor at the New Hampshire Liquor Commission.

"The number of manufacturers have grown tremendously in New Hampshire," he said.

In fact, since the nanobrewery rules were implemented, the number of breweries in the state has more than tripled.

But Barbuti also said that despite that growth, overall beer production in New Hampshire is actually shrinking. 

Why is that? The answer is scale.

In 2016, nanobreweries produced just 4,376 of the nearly 1.9 million barrels of beer brewed in the Granite State.
Credit Sara Plourde for NHPR

New Hampshire's beer economy has been chugging along for decades thanks to three very big breweries: Anheuser Busch, Redhook, and Smuttynose. In 2016, the state produced around 1.9 million barrels of beer - Anheuser Busch alone accounted for 1.68 million  -  with just over 4,000 produced by nanobrewers. 

A Barbuti explained, most nanobreweries use a one-barrel system, so they can only make thirty one gallons at a time.  So while those 4,000 barrels represent huge growth for the little guys, they're a drop in the state's overall beer bucket.

There have also been big declines in production seen at the three large breweries, which made a combined 58,000 fewer barrels of beer than they produced in 2015, largely a result of the growing popularity of craft brands.

While craft brewers and nanobreweries have been popping up across New Hampshire in recent years, Anheuser Busch has had a major manufacturing facility in the state for nearly five decades.

So even though New Hampshire has a lot more local brewers today than it did a few years ago, it's actually making a lot less beer.

But, according to Barbuti, that's not all bad news.

Although the state's not seeing more tax revenue from beer production, he said, local breweries are helping grow the state's tourism industry. 

In a recent survey conducted by the Brewers Association, half of the craft-drinkers who responded copped to traveling more than two hours from home to visit a brewery in 2016.

In other words, these beer lovers don't want to just go to their local market pick up a six-pack. They want to go where its made.

Related: Click here to see the Beer Map created by BREW NH, a promotional group focused on the local brewers.

Credit Sara Plourde for NHPR

Have we passed Peak Craft?

While the state's market share growth of craft beer has been positive in recent years, Barbuti and others acknowledge that the New Hampshire market is getting tight, and growth is slowing down.

That’s part of a national trend, as Bart Watson from The Brewer’s Association explained.

"Last year we saw more than 800 brewery openings and less than 100 closings. In the long run that’s unsustainable...you can’t have an industry where people only open and no one closes."

A tighter market means that grocery store shelves and bar tap lines are so jam-packed with new craft beers that there’s just not much room left for growth.

But not everybody thinks that the craft beer boom is flattening out.

The beer garden at the Throwback Brewery in North Hampton.
Credit via Throwback Brewery's Facebook page

Nicole Carrier is one of the co-founders of Throwback Brewery in Northampton, New Hampshire.

"Frankly, there’s about 5,300 breweries in the U.S....there’s like 10,000 wineries? You don’t see anybody saying, 'Hey there’s too many wineries.'"

For Carrier, production size and distribution is only a part of the picture. She’s one of a just a few crafty beer-makers to graduate from nano-status to become a full service brew-pub. She’s even growing her own hops and farm-to-table food on site.

"So right now you can sit in our beer garden and look at the pigs that are eating the grain that were used to make that beer, or watch our farmer farm the kale that may go in the salad you are eating."

Credit Sara Plourde for NHPR

Back to business

So let’s revisit Benjamin’s original question.

"Is the craft beer hype in New Hampshire actually generating business? Is there factual, significant growth?"

Over a beer, I tell him what I've learned, that while overall amount of beer being produced in the state is down, the number of craft brewers, and the quantity of beer being produced by them, is up. And the regional-focus of brewers appears to be a win for local economies.

"So that’s about it… what do you think?"

"It’s good to know where my beer comes from," he said.

"I’ll toast to that."