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Big Bend Brewing

Is the craft brewing business in a slowdown?

Item one.

Alluring as those wide-open skies and rugged vistas may be, the hardscrabble life in West Texas can be unforgiving. And so it was last year for the region’s popular and award-winning craft brewer, Big Bend Brewing Co., despite a planned expansion to San Antonio that might have turned its luck around.

In December, the 6-year-old brewery surrendered to multiple challenges and announced it was shutting down Big Bend Brewing’s hometown operations and taproom in Alpine and abandoning the move to San Antonio.

“We had high aspirations and lofty goals, and we did everything we could to achieve them,” read the Dec. 21 Facebook post announcing the closure. “We remain hopeful and are working hard to make the stoppage temporary. The goal is to come back better than ever. We are no stranger to adversity – forging a craft beer brand in the rugged frontier of West Texas is no easy task.”

[…]

“The main trend is if you’re a local brewery doing small-batch beers, with an old-school small brewpub and restaurant model – those that are still popping up – if they are well-enough financed, they seem to be doing OK as local or hyperlocal places,” said Travis Poling, co-author of San Antonio Beer: Alamo City History by the Pint.

“But the time of the large regional breweries seems to have kind of come and gone,” Poling added. “Everybody wants to be the next Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams, but … the barrier to entry is a lot higher because there’s a lot more competition not just from larger regional brewers, but also the regional breweries bought up by Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and others.”

The Brewers Association reports there are 6,372 breweries in the nation, and of the $111 billion overall beer market, craft beer accounts for $26 billion, up 5 percent in 2017. Texas ranks ninth in the country for most craft brewers with 251 total breweries, or 1.3 per capita. The industry had a $4.5 million impact on the state’s economy in 2016.

In March, Brewers Association Chief Economist Bart Watson wrote, “Compared to many parts of the U.S. economy, craft’s 5% growth rate [in 2017] is quite strong. That said, it’s probably not as strong as many breweries expected as they built their business plan.”

“It’s a difficult time to invest in craft beer,” [Mahala Guevara, vice president of operations for Big Bend Brewing] said. “There’s been an enormous number of breweries opening in the last five years, and we’ve seen a lot of high-profile closures and reductions-in-force and layoffs. Five years ago, the market was going wild, everyone was making money, experiencing tremendous growth. Now there’s depressed investment in craft beer, so even though people are interested, everyone wants to wait out the business cycle.”

I don’t think the cash flow problems of one brewer in a rural part of the state is representative, but I’m keeping an open mind. Item two:

“I think people think Houston is getting saturated, because they haven’t been to a big beer city,” Platypus Brewing’s head brewer Kerry Embertson told me last week during an interview. “Like, Houston’s beer scene is relatively new. Yes. There are the St. Arnold and Southern Stars that have been around forever. But there’s a bunch of people like us that have been around three years or less. There’s plenty of room to make good beer, and customers will come to your place. Especially as spread out as this city is.”

John Holler, who co-owns Holler Brewing along with his wife Kathryn, just a couple blocks from Platypus echoed his colleague’s thoughts.

“I think Houston can definitely accommodate more breweries,” Holler said, during that same interview for an upcoming story. (Sorry! No spoilers!) “The key is, you know, we can accommodate probably 20 or 30 more Platypuses or Hollers. But not 20 or 30 more Saint Arnold.”

This story was based in part on a recent NYT story on the slowdown in growth of the craft brewing industry, and noted the switch from beer to cider at Town in City Brewery. As far as Houston goes, I think John Holler is exactly right. There’s still plenty of room here for small breweries that mostly serve the neighborhoods they’re in and a few bars and restaurants in town. Very few, if any, of those places are going to grow up to be Saint Arnold, or Karbach. Nothing wrong with that, and no reason to panic. Just a bit of perspective.