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How Many Breweries Can the United States Support?

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Last year, the number of breweries in the United States leaped past the 5,000 mark and reached 5,301 by the end of 2016. Thirty years ago, in 1987, there were a mere 150 breweries in the country, and it was hard to find beers that weren’t produced by big players such as Anheuser-Busch and Coors.

Then came the craft beer explosion, and today the United States has, by far, more breweries than any other country — though craft breweries, which each produce less than 6 million barrels annually, account for 12.3 percent of beer sales. (Great Britain has about 1700 breweries; Germany has about 1400.)

In recent years, many have wondered if the U.S. brewery market has become saturated. And it’s true that despite hitting the 5,000 mark, growth has slowed. Sales of craft brew grew 6 percent in 2016, compared to 13 percent in 2015, according to the Brewers Association.

“It’s getting crowded out there,” Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson told BevNet Magazine recently. “We’ve hit a point where the brands are coming in faster than the drinkers. There are a set number of brands in the marketplace and you get more brands that are shrinking. There are only so many shelf placements.”

That’s not necessarily good news for the big boys (who have gobbled up many craft breweries in recent years, though their craft acquisitions don’t account for a significant share of the their sales volumes). Sales at Anheuser-Busch InBev and other huge producers have been flat in recent years. Meanwhile, overall beer sales growth has trailed the growth in wine and spirits sales for the past decade.

Still, it’s too early to call the craft-beer industry a bubble. Sure, growth is unlikely to keep pace with the past decade’s surge of new breweries. But when accounting for breweries per capita, the modern United States still lags significantly behind the golden era of craft breweries—the 1870’s.

In 1873, the United States had 4,131 breweries serving a population of 43 million, roughly a brewery for every 10,400 people. Currently, the U.S. population is about 326.5 million. There would have to be almost 31,400 breweries today to match the per capita ratio of 1873.

So take heart would-be craft brewers. There’s a long way to go.

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