Wednesday, June 19, 2024

From prohibition to today: The demystification of local, craft beer

After passing pre-prohibition numbers two years ago, the ceiling is the roof

Wilmington’s independent craft brewery scene has been booming since 2014 and doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing down. (Port City Daily photo / JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Wilmington’s independent craft brewery scene has been booming since 2014 and doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing down. (Port City Daily photo / JOHANNA FEREBEE)

Editor’s note: This is the final part in our series looking at Wilmington’s craft brewing culture.

WILMINGTON — Although it sure may seem (and taste) magical, what will happen when the craft beer honeymoon is over?

“From a business side, you have to realize, if you’re relying on people coming in going ‘ooh and ahh’ every day, and that’s how you make your money, then you’re out of your mind,” said Harrison Hickok, senior business analyst for Untappd.

Untappd is a Wilmington-based, nationally recognized application with seven million users. Hickok’s day-to-day spanning the past decade has been crunching craft beer numbers from every angle. He sees the demystification of brewing beer as a natural and inevitable process all young markets must go through.

After spending time as head brewer of Pennsylvania-based Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company, which won a Great American Beer Festival medal (the Oscar of the craft beer world) under his wing, and then working the cellar and outbound sales for a variety of breweries along the east coast, Hickok now spends his time in Wilmington pouring over craft beer analytics for Untappd.

“It’s just a restaurant or a bar that makes and sells beer, it’s not a magical, mystical thing,” Hickok said.

Hickok says the market is recession-proof and has a long way to go. He points out that before prohibition, a neighborhood brewery was no different than a neighborhood bar or restaurant. With the prohibition equation in the back of his mind, he isn’t worried at all by the idea of a brewery bubble burst.

Prohibition boomerang

In 2015, the United States saw the same number of craft breweries for the first time since prohibition, with 192 million more people. (Courtesy of the Brewers Association)

In 1837, the United States hosted 4,131 independent craft breweries. In 1920, Prohibition landed and disbanded legal means of producing hops, completely disrupting and devastating an otherwise robust craft brewery industry.

Just two years ago, the country, with 192 million more people, surpassed that pre-prohibition number for the first time in 180 years. For the nation to reach the same number per capita, the market has room for approximately 20 times as many breweries as it hosts now.

These rough estimates are reflective of the economic and social boomerang that’s swung back in craft beer’s direction over the last decade. Of course, times have changed and we’re in a different world, but the prohibition argument is a unique factor to consider when speculating market saturation on a national or regional level.

Diversification

After the honeymoon comes a solid routine. Several brewers in town say that Wilmington’s more stable market is bound to see some diversification. Hickok has seen it in comparable markets and hasn’t seen a clear answer to which brewery will set themselves apart philosophically from the next quite yet here.

“That’s what I’m curious about here because right now it’s exciting enough because they’re all new, but how do you long-term set yourself apart?

“What are you? Are you an IPA brewery, do you have an awesome lager, what is it?” Hickok asked.

Supply shops are intricately connected to the craft beer equation, with their boom and occupancy in the market coinciding with the presence of breweries and craft beer enthusiasts. Stephen Henson, owner of the Brewer’s Kettle which opened in 2015, is looking for craft beer diversity as well.

“I think the question is saturation, but if you brew Coke and I brew Pepsi, yeah those are different, but if you brew Dr Pepper and I brew ginger ale, now we’re talking about two different things, both of them equally different,” he said. “I think that’s what we need more of.”

Read the whole series:

Part I: With more breweries per capita than Charlotte, is Wilmington poised to be another Asheville?

Part II: Canning is becoming the future of small brewery distribution

Part III: Is there room in Wilmington’s market for more breweries?

Part IV: For a craft brewery culture to survive and thrive, it takes a little help from friends

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