Craft beer boom in Sonoma County shows no signs of slowing
In many other businesses, a retail competitor moving in about 100 yards down the street would not be welcomed.
But that’s not the case in the mostly congenial world of craft brewing as evidenced recently over at The Barlow center in Sebastopol.
In August, Crooked Goat Brewing Co. opened its doors just a short walk down from Woodfour Brewing Co., which opened its restaurant and brewery in 2013.
“It’s a total rising tide,” said Will Erickson, the Crooked Goat brewmaster and partner with five others. “Especially in this day with consumers who are interested in beer, more is just better.”
Sales in the craft beer marketplace topped $22 billion nationally in 2015. In 2010 the figure for retail sales nationally was $7.6 billion, according to the Brewers Association.
Seth Wood, co-owner and brewer at Woodfour agreed: “It’s the rising tide situation... Beer is so diverse and my main fear is not saturation.”
The trend is toward clusters of breweries in select meccas such as Portland, Oregon, Denver and San Diego. Those areas are leading the way and attracting fans from around the world.
And Sonoma County is on the verge of joining those beer capitals. It already has the history - in the late 1970s, New Albion Brewing Co., widely regarded as the first craft brewery in the modern era, opened in Sonoma.
The county also has legendary brewers such as Brian Hunt at Moonlight Brewing Co. and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Co., both in Santa Rosa, as well as one of the nation’s largest craft brewers in Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma and a regional powerhouse in Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg.
And now it has the final ingredient: quantity. By early next year, there should be 29 breweries operating in Sonoma County with a population of slightly more than 500,000. There were 18 in 2013, according to the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
Crooked Goat and Grav South Brew Co. in Cotati - the first in that city - have joined Barrel Brothers Brewing Co. in Windsor in opening their doors this summer. 2 Tread Brewing Co. is scheduled to open at its Santa Rosa Plaza beer garden location in December and Seismic Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, founded by Christopher Jackson, the son of the late Jess Jackson, is scheduled to open in January.
“There has been talk about a bubble for a while,” Wood said. “I haven’t seen it.”
So how many breweries can Sonoma County support? Some brewers and analysts said they wouldn’t be surprised to see more than 50 if trends hold and the economy doesn’t sputter. After all, they argue, the county has 447 wineries.
“I still think there is plenty of room,” said Bill Drury, co-owner of 2 Tread, who has been working on opening a brewery for three years.
His brewery will join Russian River and Third Street Aleworks, as well as a few independent taprooms, to create a downtown Santa Rosa craft-beer cluster. 2 Tread will have a beer garden featuring a range of styles, from hoppy India pale ales that are ubiquitous in the region to sour beers, and also will serve food that goes beyond the traditional pub selection.
Looking to the future, Portland offers a good example of the scale that’s possible, though its population is much more dense compared to Sonoma County. There are 65 breweries in the City of Roses that serve a population of 632,309 and 96 breweries in its metro area of 2.4 million people, according to the Oregon Brewers Guild.
“It seems to me it’s supporting enough people. They get enough customer base to make it work,” said Lisa Morrison, majority owner of Belmont Station, a taproom in Portland.
A recent spate of breweries have just opened in the southeast sector, Morrison said. It’s in an area with available warehouse space that made it easier to open a brewery. Startup costs can range from $500,000 to $5 million, depending on how elaborate the brewing system as well as rent.
“It’s really becoming a destination,” Morrison said of the new Portland hot spot. “Before, I would never go there.”
The future of the industry growth will be on the neighborhood level, with new breweries producing beer that can be sold directly to consumers on site or to-go with a growler or a 32-ounce aluminum can that can be sealed at the taproom, said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, the national trade group that represents craft brewers.
On-premise sales in California taprooms and brewpubs have increased in recent years, Watson noted, going from around 1.25 million gallons in 2013 to almost 3.5 million gallons last year. Those sales are also much more profitable as the brewery doesn’t have to allow wholesalers and retailers to take a cut of the profit.