Bellingham’s Brewery Boom: Just how many can this city sustain?

By |2018-10-18T13:30:39+00:00January 16th, 2015|

With every new brewery that opens in Bellingham, I hear the same question in one form or another: Can Bellingham support yet another brewery? My short answer is a resounding YES. What follows is my long answer.

Currently, there are five breweries in Bellingham – Boundary Bay, Chuckanut, Kulshan, Wander, and Aslan. (Some also count Menace because its owners run The Local Public House in Bellingham, which serves Menace beers, but the brewery is actually in Ferndale.) Additionally, there are at least three more breweries planning to open in Bellingham – Gruff, Stones Throw, and Stumblebum. By the end of 2015, Bellingham could be a seven- or eight-brewery city, which is a very respectable number for a city of 82,000. But I believe it could sustain even more.

Keep in mind, I’m not saying the breweries we currently have are lacking in any way, or that they are not meeting the demand of Bellingham drinkers. I just believe that there is more love to go around.

In the last few years, three new breweries opened in Bellingham, yet business at Bellingham’s oldest brewery, Boundary Bay Brewery, hasn’t waned. In fact, the brewery went through a major capacity expansion last year, and it still sells a whopping one-third of its beer in house.

“This is an exciting time for Bellingham and Whatcom County,” says Janet Lightner, general manager of Boundary Bay. “I love the idea of neighborhood brewpubs and craft beer bars where people can easily walk or ride their bikes.

[New breweries] help to diversify this scene and keep it connected and exciting.”

Brewery growth here is just a reflection of the national growth we’ve been witnessing in recent decades. Bellingham may be a little late to the game, but it seems to be making up for lost time.

PALATE PROLIFERATION

The pool of beer drinkers in Bellingham is not finite. Just like the rest of the nation, the craft market share continues to grow, as it garners new believers, including the likes of former Blue Moon (made by Coors) and Shock Top (made by Anheuser-Busch) drinkers. Expose a so-called craft beer newbie to a beer like Wanderale Belgian Blond (made by Wander Brewing), and she might find herself on a transcendent ride of flavor bliss.

Once people take the step into this new domain, it’s usually a permanent shift. After discovering the beauty of a perfectly hopped India pale ale, as an example, one rarely goes back to that “triple hops brewed” Miller Lite.

People are also shifting to craft at younger ages these days, unleashing a new crop of discerning drinkers on the market every year. When I was a poor college student in the early 1990s, all I could afford was Busch Light. But even if I had the money, there were not many other options. Nowadays, I regularly see mid-20-somethings at local breweries and taphouses drinking beer styles that I had never even heard of when I was 21. In fact, some of today’s styles didn’t even exist back then.

Before I get ahead of myself, it must be noted that craft beer lovers like you (I’m assuming you’re a beer lover because you’re reading this blog) and me tend to frequent good beer joints and surround ourselves with like-minded folk, so it’s easy to forget that we make up less than 10 percent of beer consumers. Granted, cities like Bellingham drink a higher percentage of craft beer than many other cities in the nation, but we are still in the minority, so there’s a lot of growth potential.

DRINK LOCALLY, EXPORT GLOBALLY

People in Bellingham tend to be open-minded and they embrace the locavore movement, so I believe small, local and independent craft breweries fit seamlessly into this area. If a new brewery opened in my neighborhood, I would surely visit it often, but it wouldn’t mean I’d visit other breweries in town any less. I’d just go out more.

Bellingham breweries are not bound to only sell to Bellingham residents, either. Packaged beer (bottles, cans and kegs) can be sent out of town. Chuckanut Brewery, for example, sends a good amount of its beer to Seattle, and it even exports some to Japan.

SIZE MATTERS

Yes, scores of breweries are opening up across the nation (and in nearby British Columbia), but an insanely high percentage of them are small brewpubs with limited amounts of production. So they are not adding much volume to the overall marketplace.

The total number of breweries in Bellingham isn’t the question people should be asking. Really, they should be asking about the size of these breweries, how much beer they make, and how much they sell on premises versus out of town.

Even though Whatcom County has seven breweries, with at least a few more on the way, they are all considered very small or relatively small, and all of them produce less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year, placing them well within the Brewers Association’s smallest market segment. (Although, Kulshan and Boundary Bay both might surpass that number this year.)

QUALITY MATTERS

We are lucky to have so many award-winning breweries in Bellingham, but as more open, it will be critical that they all continue to focus on quality – with their beers and their service to consumers, retailers and distributors.

Lightner agrees, and she believes in the-rising-tide-raises-all-boats concept, “but the beers need to be consistent and high quality for it to work.”

CRAFT IS NOT A FREE PASS

Even though I believe more is better when it comes to breweries, they must be QUALITY breweries. Not all “craft” breweries make good beer. A few make horrible beer.

More breweries will bring more competition, and more competition will mean the quality bar will be raised. Some breweries will struggle and some will close. This is a good thing for beer lovers, though, as losing some of the weak and sick members to the wolves will ensure the long-term health of the herd.

INNOVATION MATTERS

Increasingly, craft beer fanatics are becoming riddled with short attention spans.

Wait, what was I talking about? Oh, right …

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty of this. Dangle a newly released, barrel-aged something or other in front of my face and you’ll have my full attention. Until the bottle is empty, that is.

Easily distracted by shiny objects, many craft beer drinkers are constantly on the lookout for new seasonals, special one-offs and limited-release infusions of this or that. Breweries shouldn’t abandon their standard lineups, but they need to continue to innovate and differentiate themselves to stay viable.

INCREASING COMPETITION

Even though there seems to be more collaboration than competition in the craft beer world, breweries still must compete for palates in an ever-crowding marketplace. Fierce competition is not yet necessary, but as more and more breweries open and/or expand their production into other markets (i.e., breweries from other cities and states selling into our market), the landscape will undoubtedly become more competitive.

Last July, the Brewers Association reported that the number of breweries in the U.S. had surpassed 3,000 (plus a couple thousand more in the works), which is roughly double what it was just six years ago. This may seem like a lot, but it shouldn’t be cause for alarm. It’s actually a return to the way things were before Prohibition, when there were thousands of small, local breweries scattered across the country – serving a much smaller population, no less.

USperCapitaBreweries

3,000 is also not a big number when you compare the breweries-per-capita ratios between the U.S. and other European countries. If the U.S. had the same ratio as Switzerland, for example, we would have more than 14,000 breweries right now. If it were the same as Germany, we would have 5,300.

HowMany

Prohibition set us back. Then the bland, post-Prohibition industrial beers that followed appeased the masses at the lowest common denominator. Adjuncts such as corn and rice were used to save money and dumb down flavor, rather than to enhance the beer.

Fortunately, sometime in the 1980s, the craft beer movement began to pick up steam as people slowly became more educated and enlightened to beer styles beyond the omnipresent, light, American-style pilsners.

Craft beer is not a trend. It is here to stay, and the exponential growth we’re seeing is just the ship continuing to right itself after listing for decades.

Historical

How long will this growth continue? No one knows for sure, but many believe we’re just getting started.

“[Growth will continue] as long as the consumer demand for full-flavored beer continues, and it shows no signs of slowing,” says Bart Watson, staff economist for the Brewers Association. “The craft revolution isn’t just built on innovative businesses, it stems primarily from a changing set of consumer preferences away from light adjunct lagers and toward full-flavored beers for more occasions.”

The craft beer industry is not a bubble that’s about to burst, either, but this is a separate topic for another day.

nonbubble


COULD BELLINGHAM BECOME THE NEXT BEND?

Bend, Oregon, which has about 1,000 less residents than Bellingham, is home to between 15 to more than 20 breweries, depending on where you draw the physical and semantic lines. Most of them are not only thriving, but they are expanding. Bend is also home to Deschutes Brewery, which is the 6th-largest craft brewery and the 12th-largest overall brewery in the nation.

When you compare the breweries-per-capita ratio of Bend to Bellingham, one can easily deduce that we can support more breweries. Additionally, Bellingham has a major advantage over Bend because it is nestled right between two major metropolitan areas – Vancouver, B.C., just 60 miles to its north, and Seattle, just 90 miles to its south.

British Columbia is a burgeoning craft beer market (roughly two dozen breweries opened in B.C. in 2014, and most were in the Vancouver area) and Seattle is one of the most established craft beer markets in America. Both markets continue to garner new breweries at incredible rates. Both are also filled with educated and insatiable beer drinkers, some of which like to visit Bellingham to see what our breweries are doing.

Here’s one final thought to my long-winded answer: Washington may have more than 200 operating breweries with many more on the way, but this state also has nearly 800 wineries, yet, for some reason, no one seems to question if that’s too many.

About the Author:

Aubrey Laurence
Aubrey has been a craft beer fanatic since the mid '90s and he has written about beer for a wide variety of publications in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado for well over a decade. He has judged beer in multiple competitions, plus he has rated and taken notes on thousands of beers from all 50 states and 68 countries -- visiting 16 of those countries on 6 continents. He is also a Certified Beer Server with the Cicerone Certification Program, an avid homebrewer, and a hop grower. In 2013 & 2014, he spearheaded Bellingham Beer Week. When he’s not drinking beer, he’s probably climbing a mountain somewhere. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and three cats. Follow him on twitter @AubreyLaurence.