The smell of freshly-picked hops greeted me as I arrived at Paul’s house, located within walking distance of North Conway’s newest brewery, Ledge Brewing Company. It was a crisp and sunny afternoon in September, and Ledge’s two owners, Ian Ferguson and Silas Miller, along with head brewer Cody Floyd, had gathered with a few friends at the house to barbecue, sample beers, and fill buckets with freshly-grown hops to be used in an upcoming brew. The craft brewery was embracing community, locally-sourced ingredients, and adventurous experimentation all at the same time.
Prior to the late 1990s, beer consumption was largely focused on simple and mass produced beers. Beer drinkers rarely paid attention to the type of hops that went into their pilsners, where the ingredients came from, or the production process used. All that mattered was how cold, crisp, and refreshing their beverage of choice was. The simple flavor profiles of beers like Budweiser, Miller Light, and Heineken met the bulk of demand.
But at the turn of the century, a monumental shift began. Craft breweries — smaller scale, independent breweries that can be broken down into subcategories of microbrewery, taproom, brewpub, and regional brewery — began popping up across the country. In fact, the Brewer’s Association reported 9,124 craft breweries in the U.S. in 2021, up from 1,487 only two decades earlier. The most significant growth took place between 2010 and 2021, with nearly a 514 percent increase.
The smaller-scale nature of these breweries allowed them to experiment with fewer traditional domestic methods of brewing, putting creative spins on European-style beers. Before long, craft beer connoisseurs were debating how to differentiate the production process and flavor profiles of New England and West Coast-style IPAs, while craft brewmasters were experimenting by adding various locally-sourced fruits to their wild-fermented sours and farmhouse ales.
And while craft breweries and their followers have been the brunt of jokes in the mainstream, with memes of heavily-bearded millennials sipping their favorite brews circulating across the internet, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that these breweries are not only here to stay, but could be the future of the beer world.
“I think [large scale] breweries started to become less popular in the mid-2010’s because of the relationship dynamic,” said 12-year veteran Cody Floyd, who was a brewer at the Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Smuttynose Brewing Company before gaining his current position as the head brewer of Ledge Brewing Company.
“Working at a massive brewery, I was face-to-face with the truck drivers and sales managers, not shaking hands across the bar or with the hops growers. I think people are putting more value into relationships built with local businesses and not the 12-pack you can pick up at Hannaford [supermarket].”
While the pandemic put a strain on many smaller breweries that struggled to keep the door open due to shutdowns and supply chain issues, it also emphasized the importance of these face-to-face interactions and social settings in society, solidifying a place for these smaller brewpubs and taprooms in our towns and cities.
According to Sean Lawson, owner of Vermont-based Lawson’s Finest Liquids, a focus on flavor, quality, a story, and values are other driving factors that led to this craft brewery boom over the last decade.
“I think people like to know the story behind the brewery they’re supporting and spending their money on,” Lawson said. “We’re a values-driven business — we put our values and core mission front and center. So I think the biggest difference is knowing the brand and story behind it. And of course, the flavor and quality.”
Lawson’s brewery has gained an almost cultish following, with beers like its flagship Sip of Sunshine IPA highly-sought by beer drinkers nationwide.
Unusually enough, along with the continuous rise in popularity of craft beers and breweries seems to be the decreased interest in beer, which is being replaced with beverages like alcoholic and non-alcoholic seltzers and pre-made cocktails, forcing many breweries to offer alternative options.
“It seems like a lot of craft breweries are jumping into the game of offering a hard seltzer, or dabbling with ready-to-drink cocktails if they have or partner with a distillery,” Lawson said.
But as long as the trends continue to follow their current trajectory and breweries continue to adapt to the demand of their customers, it seems that the craft beer scene will continue to grow.
Of course, the unprecedented and seemingly unstoppable growth often raises the question of what the industry can handle. In small towns like North Conway, where the year-round population was just over 2,400 in 2020, one local brewery has turned into four.
According to Floyd, the competition between breweries is positive, serving as a driver of innovation and building a tight-knit community.
“I can call any of my friends — brewers, owners, operators, and bartenders for advice and ingredients,” says Floyd. “And I think here in the Mount Washington Valley, while we all share a demographic, we each play different roles in the beer scene.”
For those who appreciate good beer, the higher number of breweries only serves as more of a reason to visit a destination.
“I live just over an hour away from one of the highest per capita brewery cities in the country, and I love going there for the diversity,” Floyd added. “I find it to be a draw, and while I definitely have my favorites, I’m more drawn to the new breweries than the old ones.”
Where Floyd does warn over-saturation can occur is when too many breweries in a region focus on brewing the same styles, which luckily hasn’t become much of an issue in his hometown.
While you’d be hard pressed to visit any city or tourism-focused town in New England without at least one (and many with more) brewery, taproom, or brewpub, it seems like the ceiling for growth is nowhere in sight, especially as long as they continue to work together to create community and a diverse lineup of beers for their guests.
“Wherever we land in the next five to 10 years, there will be breweries in communities all across the country, unlike 10 to 15 years ago,” said Lawson. “While I think there will be a bit more of a shakeout, both of some of the really small players and some of the bigger players, I do think small breweries are here to stay.”