The most important brewery of the past year was your local one.

By Mike Pomranz
December 11, 2018
Jack Andersen/Getty Images

Over 800 breweries poured at this year's Great American Beer Festival, and as I walked from booth to booth trying different participants' wares, I began to notice an unexpected trend: A lot of breweries — what felt like the majority of breweries — were offering a bizarrely-flavored, sometimes wild-colored, sour beer.

In many ways, that experience feels like a microcosm for craft beer in 2018 in general. The industry continues to grow and set records, though not with the eye-popping numbers of even a few years ago. Instead, breweries are looking for their own way to stand out in the crowd. In a non-literal sense, everyone is looking for their "unique sour beer" in what has become a sea of "unique sour beers."

The craft beer trade group the Brewers Association (BA) seemed to have a similar sentiment in its "2018 year in craft beer" review released today. "The brewing landscape is shifting, yet small and independent breweries continue to find market success," Julia Herz, the BA's craft beer program director, said in the announcement. "Brewers are finding ways to differentiate themselves in a competitive market, become pillars of communities, and embrace new experiences and occasions to connect with beer lovers."

The biggest news of 2018 — for Joe Sixpacks who don't really care for "economic impact" stats — is that, somewhere mid-year, America crossed the 7,000 brewery milestone. Even though production growth has slimmed down to (a still impressive) 5 percent increase in volume year-over-year, the number of breweries in the U.S. appears to be slated for a 20-percent increase at the end of 2018 compared to 2017. That is remarkable: To put it another way, about one in every six breweries in the United States has opened in the last year.

And so tucked in the middle of all of the BA's stats for 2018 is one number that probably has the most real-life impact for drinkers: 85 percent of drinking age adults in the U.S. now live within at least 10 miles of a brewery. The BA refers to this as the "Community Hubs" effect. In April, I wrote a piece called, "Are Breweries the Next Bars?" and that concept has continued to hold true: In 2018, the most important breweries are the ones that are closest to you. At a big beer event like the Great American Beer Festival, brewers might feel the need to try to stand out from the crowd, but in your own backyard, breweries have drinkers' attention simply because they are making good beer.

Yes, it might mean that the industry as a whole doesn't have any huge takeaways to flaunt for 2018, but the good news is that if you head to one of those breweries near you, whatever they have on tap will probably be more exciting than a bunch of statistics.

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