At the Maine Brewers Guild Summer Session, a friend asked me if I thought that opening a brewery in Maine would be a worthwhile pursuit, considering how many breweries there are, and potential for the market to be “saturated.”
First is the question of how many breweries exist in Maine there are at the moment. Counting them, unfortunately, is a bit complicated. First, we have a few breweries with multiple locations both producing beer. Take, for example, Bissell Brothers Brewing who have opened a second facility in the owners’ hometown of Milo earlier this summer. Should this be counted as a new brewery, or counted with Bissell Brothers proper? Then there are a few that are only open seasonally and others that have their packaged beer produced at other locations (e.g., that are contract brewed) or may have just pilot brew systems at their tasting room, with their main production elsewhere. Add to that the breweries waiting in the wings – those that have received all the required licenses, but have not yet officially opened.
By my count (which includes multiple production locations, but excludes those who have not opened to the public yet, despite their active license status), Maine currently has 115 breweries, but that can change in days or weeks as new breweries open. Since January, 16 new breweries have joined the state’s booming scene – that’s roughly two per month. I have heard of at least 13 more that have announced their plans to open. While that does seem like a high number – especially compared to a few years ago – I wondered how that number stacked up nationally.
Thankfully, the Brewers Association, the trade association dedicated to small and independent American craft breweries, regularly tracks statistics on growth, opening rates and overall volume of craft sales in the United States. It goes by the status of the permits held by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (known as the TTB to those in the industry). In its mid-year report, conveniently released just a few days ago, there is a set of numbers that’s pretty staggering.
As of June 30, there are 6,655 active breweries in the U.S., with an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 breweries in planning. Last year, there were 5,562 at the same time last year.
If you do a little bit of quick math, you’ll find that, on average, every state would have 133 breweries – a statistic that Maine is rapidly catching up to, even despite our relatively small population size when compared to other beer powerhouse states like California, Colorado and Oregon. And when it comes to production, the smaller local breweries – those serving a small distribution footprint around their breweries – are growing at a faster rate than their regional neighbors who may distribute statewide or to multiple states.
So back to the question. If we keep adding breweries, there is, of course, the potential for the competition to get harder for a new brewery to overcome. Established accounts at restaurants and bars are precious and few, and rotate frequently to whatever is the hot new thing. The affordability of packaging beer has led to an explosion in cans showing up to market, and when everyone shows up to the same party at once, it can feel a little crowded.
In the face of all that, however, I’m still confident that we have room for more beer in Maine. Look at the list of breweries that have opened and take a peek at their locations. The communities that are being served by new breweries like Brickyard Hollow in Yarmouth, Odd Alewives in Waldoboro, Grateful Grain Brewery in Monmouth, Fogtown Brewing in Ellsworth and Two Gramps Brewing in Gardiner are not huge cities with multiple craft beer bars to try to wrestle into. They are smaller towns and cities that are either growing or evolving from other past industries or have enough beer fans to maintain a demand for breweries. And in terms of geography, there are plenty more communities that are still underserved when it comes to craft beer.
If you are wondering if it would be worthwhile to open a brewery, consider the real-estate mantra “location, location, location.” If your goal is to become part of a community and grow slowly but sustainably, look to the small communities that have yet to get a brewery of their own. Southern Maine in particular has plenty of towns that could thrive if a brewpub or small brewery went in, including the Berwicks, York and even Eliot. There are plenty of openings in interior Maine, such as the smaller towns away from the coastline like Rangeley, Farmington or Belgrade, or even other communities in between, like Durham or Lisbon.
The quantity of new breweries opening nationwide is impressive and, according to some experts, may be record-breaking come the end of the year. In Maine, our brewery landscape can seem crowded or oversaturated, but when you visit the communities that have rallied around their breweries, you can still see that there’s plenty more room to grow.