There other day there was another one of those triumphalist announcements from someone or other on Twitter that brewery taprooms were changing US beer culture forever. Don’t get me wrong. I like them and fully understand this sort of outlook as described in The Guardian:
British craft beer makers are reviving the tradition of brewery tap rooms as an antidote to the national trend of pub closures and the dominance of big brewers. About a third of small breweries now run a tap bar, which lets drinkers sample their wares, according to a report by the Society of Independent Brewers (Siba), which also highlights a burgeoning micropub scene as brewers take over empty shops on their local high street.
That makes sense. It’s new* and there is nothing craft beer likes more than novelty. But the idea that taprooms are going to alter the basic landscape is problematic. Say we have 6,000 US breweries each with the potential to have a taproom. They will have on average likely no more than fifty seats. And if we are honest on average they likely have less than thirty seats. There are many tiny new breweries which, as I noted last week, are where the only real growth is occurring.
I shall now do the dangerous thing and apply some math.** Even going with the higher number, fifty seats times 6,000 breweries is 300,000. In the whole of the USA. Let’s say we get to 10,000 breweries in a few years. That would make it 500,000 seats. For 325,000,000 people. One taproom seat for every 65,000 people. I once lived in Pembroke, Ontario where there were 13 large taverns for 13,000 people. It was a reasonable estimate that there was one seat in a tavern for 10 to 15% of the community’s population at any given time. And on Friday night it was self-evident. That town liked to go out.
For taprooms to even hit a 10% level of community coverage, the US would need 325,000 craft breweries with a taproom average of 100 seats each. Fantasy. Never happening. Which is good. Good beer is always going to be a niche product with a position and price point set by general market forces as well as reliable percentage of reasonably high functioning dipsomaniacs. That being the case, they really fill a spot like high-end cake shops or the fancy butchers folk go to only for a holiday roast.
Why do I care? My concern is, while there is certainly rural and small community infill opportunity, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to come into the market in the way that new breweries might come on line just two or three years ago. The best serve food which makes them really a brewpub but they all can’t offer the same thing, let alone afford the infrastructure of a kitchen.
One stat I would like to see tracked beyond openings and closures is the average duration of a craft brewery’s life cycle. Has the life expectancy shortened as many new players join in the game? As opportunities become more limited, as shelf space ceases to be an option it would be good to know how long a taproom focused establishment can expect to exist. And, accordingly, whether the investment is worth it.
*OK, newish… well, not really all that new.
**Please refer to the title of this post before you wag a digit. And even if I am off by an entire base ten order that sill means 32,500 breweries. Nuts.