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The irrepressible rise of microbreweries.

The term Microbrewery is fast becoming a misnomer. Something has to change, either the term itself, or its definition of a brewery producing less than 15,000 barrels annually. The perception of microbreweries as being a colorful but statistically insignificant niche of the beer market is one that is rapidly changing. For not only do new microbreweries keep springing up, but the best of them are showing staying power with a steady and sometimes spectacular growth rate.

This rapid growth is even taking many microbrewers by surprise. David Geary, president of the Portland, ME-based D.L. Geary Brewing Company, which is growing at an average annual rate of 30%, speaks for many of his colleagues when he says, "Rapid growth scares the hell out of me, for it's axiomatic that being able to manage rapid growth can be difficult." This is a natural reaction since microbrewers, by definition, think micro rather than macro, and belong to the small is a beautiful way of looking at the world. But shivers of fear are also being emanated from the giant breweries, for entirely different reasons.

The president of San Francisco's Anchor Brewing Company, Fritz Maytag, the godfather of domestic microbrewers, says that he is "increasingly concerned that the bigger breweries might be blaming us for their situation. But probably their sales would be lower and they would be in more trouble if it weren't for us." Yet, though Maytag plays down the threat of microbreweries, it might be that the unhappiness of the bigger breweries is the result of the accurate perception that these apparently little cottage industries really are a threat.

At first glance, this idea might appear absurd. As says Clay Biberdorf, operations manager, Hart Brewing Company, Kalama, WA, "Microbreweries only make up 1%-2% of the market, and if they doubled would still be less than 5%." Yet Biberdorf adds, "I don't know what the market will bear. I keep thinking it will become saturated. Yet microbreweries keep starting up, and not many go out of business, except for those who fail to make a good product or to do so efficiently. But more people are looking more toward quality in food and wine. Who knows, maybe we're looking at a niche of 98%."

Says Geary, "While the growth of microbreweries appears to be phenomenal, to me it simply represents the return of a good idea. We've had about a 30-year hiatus from traditional beer, and beers with good style. There used to be a lot of variety, and great regional breweries in places like Milwaukee and St. Louis. But it reached the point where people were drinking a single national style, a very pale, very bland pilsner. People are tired of it and are looking for something new. There's little doubt that the growth trend of microbreweries will continue."

This optimistic outlook wasn't always so evident. Maytag recalls when he first took over Anchor, back in 1965, "It was very hard to sell in those days. The big breweries made it difficult." Actually, the brewery had been around since 1896, but by 1965 it was down to only one employee making only a single draft beer, called steam, which had about fizzled out.

Maytag, who became full owner in 1969, pioneered the modern concept of making traditional beers and ales with modern equipment. He built a new brewery inside the old one, very small, but very flexible. The company takes no short cuts and makes all its products out of whole hops, whole malts, yeast, and water, with natural carbonation and no additives. Barley is used, which makes for a more flavorful drink than the lighter beers made with rice or corn. There are currently five Anchor beers, Steam, Porter, Liberty Ale, Wheat Beer, and Old Foghorn. A new Christmas ale is brewed every year.

Anchor Steam was originally sold only in the Bay Area, but now is shipped, via over 200 distributors, to about 43 states, and has started making its entry into Europe. "We're very happy with the general state of the brewing business," Maytag says. "We're trying to grow at a speed that will not be financially disruptive. We produced a little over 92,000 barrels last year, and expect a nice increase this year." Rumor has it that a new Anchor beer might make its appearance for the upcoming centennial of 1996.

A very different story surrounds the founding the Celis Brewery in Austin, Texas by the Belgian beermaker, Pierre Celis. But one thing Celis has in common with Maytag is that they both revived an endangered species of traditional beer.

In the 1940s and 50s, there were many local breweries in Belgium making a white wheat beer. Over a period of time these small breweries closed as lager beer became more popular. Celis, as a young boy, had a neighbor who made the wheat beer. He played in the brewery and learned how to make this type beer. This brewery closed its doors in 1958. There was still a demand for this type beer, but Celis was the only man in Belgium who knew how to make it.

In 1966 he started making white wheat beer and brought this style back to life. He became very successful, continually expanding, but with demand always bigger than production. Then in 1985, when the Celis beer was at the height of its popularity, his brewery burned down. He started again from almost zero. Since he had re-invested most of his money into the brewery, he had to turn to outside investors. This brewery grew to be the largest in Belgium by 1990 when Celis sold the brewery to that group.

Celis then pursued his dream of starting a brewery in the United States. For 15-years he had visited this country, and became convinced that there was market here for a quality specialty beer. He built his brewery in Austin, and produced his first beer in March 1992. Celis is now an adviser to the company, the president of which is now his daughter, Christine Celis, who his married to vice president, Peter Camps. "What Pierre noted was that American visitors who went to Belgium praised the good bread, but about 70% of the wheat to make the bread comes from the U.S.," says Camps. "What Pierre wanted to prove was that he could go against imports, to deliver a specialty beer with local ingredients at a cheaper price. Also, the beer is fresher, for it takes about 1-1/2-months for beer arriving from Belgium to reach the U.S."

Basically all of the ingredients are American, made with Belgian knowhow. The beers are all top fermented, made with specialty malts, and are copper colored, with a rich good body. The brewery makes four brands, the famous Celis White, the white wheat beer, with a cloudy appearance, and a citric sweet sour taste flavored with spices and herbs; a specialty top of the line blond colored ale; a pale ale and a European style pilsner made with Czechoslovakian yeast.

The brewery produced 11,000 barrels last year, and expects to do 16,000 this year out of Austin. An irony is that Celis wanted to start shipping to Belgium, but was discouraged from doing so because the import taxes were too high. So, as reports Camps, "We found a partner in Belgium who is brewing our beer there under our license. In just three months we've shipped 55,000 cases." The label on this Belgian-styled beer being shipped to Belgium Camps describes as depicting "a Texas landscape with a cowboy roping a long horn."

While Maytag resurrected an American brew, and Celis brought a Belgian brew to this country, Geary went to England to bring back a classic traditional style to new England. In so doing he founded New England's first microbrewery back in 1985. He uses the old time English process of iceothermetric infusion mash with top fermenting yeast and open fermenters. "We do use refrigeration and electricity," Geary says, making a reluctant nod to the 20th century.

The brewery's original flagship product is Geary's Pale Ale. Also on hand is the Hampshire Special Ale, a strong classic British ale. Geary reports he is now in the process of tripling capacity so that by summer there will be a capacity for 25,000 barrels, that could stretch even to 30,000. At that time another new -- that is to say, old -- British beer will be introduced.

Geary's presence has spread from Maine to about 15 states. "Our presence in the other states is still pretty small, but significant to us, for we do sell beer there, and every year we continue to sell more beer than before."

Geary thinks "the state of the industry is very exciting, and there's no questions that growth is there." But he also sees downside. "There are now too many sneaker salesmen and dentists in the business, people who are packagers and brokers instead of brewers, and I think that dilutes what it's all about. There are some brands, that I won't name, that have no real basis in brewing. I call that checkbook brewing, cute names, fancy packaging and national advertising that contribute nothing but clutter up shelves with spurious products." Geary reaches for a glass of traditional ale. "Now I dare you to print that."

A slightly different variation is offered by Hart Brewing, which also offers English styles, but with an American interpretation, along with a German Hefeweizen. The brewery uses a simple infusion mass process in a four vessel brewhouse with mash mixer, lauter tun, brew kettle and whirlpool, along with a combination of filtration and pad filtration.

"We bill ourselves as the Northwest's wheat beer brewery," Biberdorf says. "We don't back off from assertive hopping, which enhances the flavor and aroma of the beer." Hart makes six year round products, mostly ales, excepting the Hefeweizen, in a variety of bottle and barrel sizes.

In addition to assertive hopping, the brewery is also engaged in assertive marketing, with an updated label and aggressive point of sales material. The Hart beers are now available in ten mostly Western states, traveling to California a year ago and Colorado just a month ago, with plans to reach out to Vancouver, British Columbia. The brewery produced 33,000 barrels last year, with an excess of 60% growth the past two years. "We opened in 1984, so, come this fall, we'll celebrate our tenth anniversary with a special beer," says Biberdorf.

Widmer Brewing Company in Portland, OR also produces a Hefeweizen, but here German beer is not the exception but the rule. No surprise here since the relatives of president Kurt Widmer's mother all hail from Dusseldorf. On hand are seven or eight different styles of German beer, including alt, Oktoberfest, and doppelbock. This unfiltered wheat beer includes nearly 50% malted wheat which adds a fruitiness to the flavor while a complexity is contributed by the yeast.

This very cloudy beer with a unique aroma and taste has been on a steady upward curve since the brewery's opening in 1984. "We are now the largest draft only brewery in the galaxy," says Widmer. "We prefer to stay that way because of our commitment to having the highest quality of draft beer, always delivered in the best manner." The company is in the process of converting from a Golden Gate style of keg to a Sankey, since the latter, Widmer says, "is state of the art, cleaner, easier to handle, and treats the beer a little better."

Widmer has completed an expansion in last August to a capacity of 85,000 barrels, and is planning its next expansion which will provide an ultimate capacity of 500,000 barrels.

The only real problem experienced by all these different breweries is what to call them. Microbreweries will no longer do.
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Author:Major, Michael J.
Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Date:May 16, 1994
Previous Article:Craft brewing in America.
Next Article:California Classic.

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