How Craft Brewing and Distilling Are Breathing Life Into Some Embattled Corners of America
In communities from Montana to New Hampshire, breweries and distilleries are becoming touchstones.
When Jeff Grant and Paul Marshall founded Draught Works Brewery in Missoula, Montana in 2011, there were signs the brewery’s blue-collar, formerly industrial pocket of the city was starting to recover from a decades-long economic struggle.
“When I was growing up, this was kind of the poor part of town,” Marshall recalls. He says there were glimmers of a resurgence—some young families moving in and a few businesses scattered about like seedlings. “But there was no investment really on this side of town.”
That’s changed. Since Draught Works opened its doors and started attracting thirsty locals, its street has added several new enterprises, including a video production company, a coffee roaster, and other businesses are popping up left and right. Two new major apartment complexes have gone up within walking distance of the brewery. “I don’t think we can take the credit, but I think we definitely accelerated what was starting to happen here,” Marshall says.
Draught Works is not a national operation, but the ways it has benefited its section of Missoula are measurable. And, along with dozens of other craft breweries, it’s aiding not just the local economy but also the State of Montana’s.
Along with providing jobs and incomes, craft breweries “are playing an increasingly important role within the state, invigorating neighborhoods and bringing communities together,” according to a report from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.
That report, which, it is important to note, was funded by the Montana Brewers Association, estimated that craft brewing funds more than 1,000 full-time jobs and adds $33 million in personal income to Montana’s economy. And the jobs the industry is creating in the state are not just at the breweries. Marshall says all his brewery’s malt and many of its other ingredients come from local producers or growers who also benefit from craft’s growth.
The story of Draught Works and craft brewing in Montana is one you could tell about craft in many other states in the country. In the industrial sections of cities like Detroit and Denver, and in rural towns from Maine to New Mexico, craft is helping to revive or enliven the economies of many of America’s forgotten places. In its most recent economic-impact report, the non-profit Brewers Association found craft beer contributed $68 billion and more than 450,000 jobs to the American economy in 2016.
“I think beer, wine and spirits used to be inherently local, and we’re getting back to that,” says Steven Grasse, an ad-man-turned-spirits-maker (but still mostly an ad man) who a few years ago founded Tamworth Distilling in a mountainous, off-the-beaten-path part of New Hampshire.
Grasse says Tamworth’s workforce is almost entirely local, and most everything they use to produce their spirits—from the water and grains, to the spruce tips they use in one of their gins—are sourced from New Hampshire or Maine. “I think more and more people want things made ethically and authentically with pure ingredients and local ingredients,” Grasse says.
Marshall reiterates many of these points. “Food and drink are very personal, and I think people like to see the guys making their beer,” he says. “I think the closer people feel to the product being created”—whether it’s his beer, or the coffee being roasted and brewed down the street—“the more of a psychological pull there is.”
It’s not yet clear whether the success of craft beer and spirits can translate to other once-local industries. More and more people today do their shopping online, and many local and Independent businesses have fallen victim to the allure of inexpensive, mass-produced goods.
But the popularity of craft brewing and distilling—and the benefits they’ve recently bestowed on many small U.S. towns and cities—are proof that many consumers still value local and small-batch, at least when it comes to what they drink.