California has long been seen as a place where dreams come true. Entire world class industries are centered there not limited merely to Hollywood or Silicon Valley. The majority of the USA’s agricultural produce is grown in California: 99% of the artichokes, 99% of the walnuts, 97% of the kiwis, 95% of the celery, 95% of the garlic, 69% of the carrots, and that’s just an abbreviated list.
The third largest American state in area and largest in population is, by all measures, an economic powerhouse. If its gross state output were likened to a country’s gross domestic product (GDP), California’s economy is slightly smaller than Italy’s and slightly larger than India’s, making California the world’s tenth largest economy.
And now California can brag about one more thing. It’s the USA’s most successful craft brewery producer.
On per capita measures, due to its enormous population of almost 39m, California does not rank in the Top 10. Not in breweries per capita (#20) or in liters consumed per legal drinking adult (#12). It’s where the absolute numbers are considered that California dominates the American craft brew scene. The state ranks #1 in the number of craft breweries, with more than 570 currently in business and another 240 slated to open, according to the California Craft Brewers Association. You’d presume that California leads the nation in the number of barrels of craft beer produced annually. There’d you be wrong. Pennsylvania, with just a quarter the number of craft breweries and a third of California’s population, actually produces almost 20% more craft beer annually. California ranks only #2 in production.
So why then isn’t Pennsylvania considered the top dog in America’s craft beer scene?
The Pennsylvania statistic shows just one limited thing: that the average amount of barrels produced per brewery in Pennsylvania far exceeds the average amount produced per brewery in California. This is a useless stat since beer production is hardly equitable across breweries. Some breweries annually produce and sell 500,000 barrels of craft beer (i.e. Lagunitas Brewing Company of Petaluma, California) while others manage barely 30,000 (the average barrel production per brewery in Pennsylvania).
Surveying the Brewer’s Association’s top fifty American craft breweries based on 2013 sales better illustrates this point. A total of 13 Californian craft breweries show up on the Top Fifty list, more than double runner-up Colorado’s total. Beer darling Oregon only has four breweries appear. Beer “leader” Pennsylvania: just one, the same as Ohio, Delaware, Louisiana, Alaska, and Wisconsin. California’s two largest craft brewers, Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas, produce 44% of California’s craft beer. Californian beers, even those off the Top Fifty list, dominate the name recognition game. Neither Anderson Valley nor Mendocino Brewing make the Top Fifty. Both remain well known and export widely.
California possesses many advantages that got its beers where they are today. The nation’s first craft brewery is considered Anchor, from San Francisco. Although the brewery hails back to 1896, it was only after Fritz Maytag, an heir to the Maytag washing machine fortune, bought the failing brewery in 1965 and altered its production techniques that Anchor started taking the craft shape it presently has. New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma followed in 1976. And in 1980, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company started operation. Albion went out of business in 1982, but survivors Anchor and Sierra Nevada currently rank in the Top Fifty. California has bragged for decades that the future happens there first. A trend that takes California by storm, like craft brewing, soon spreads to other states and countries. California’s craft breweries got an acceptable head start on everyone else.
California is not a top ten American producer in either wheat or barley. Yet it is a major fruit, vegetable, and nut producer, and by the time craft breweries started seeding throughout the state, California’s wine industry was gaining significant recognition. California had a documented reputation of being able to distill quality alcohols and had all the exotic agricultural additions at hand, with some of the world’s best hops just one and two states up the coast. Producing craft beers in California was, for most of its history, more cost efficient than other places.
Over 70% of Oregon’s breweries are located within a two hour drive of Portland. California’s strength is that its brewing regions are diverse and spread throughout the state. The San Diego area alone has more than 70 breweries; San Francisco, close to two dozen; Los Angeles, almost 20. But then there are beer regions few would suspect exist: the Shasta Cascades, the Gold Country, the Inland Empire, the Desert, Napa and Sonoma Wine Country, the High Sierras, the Central Coast, the North Coast, the Central Valley, and Orange County. There is no singular beer valley. Two of the state’s biggest pullers, Sierra Nevada and Stone Brewing, are located almost 1,000 km away from each other.
The state’s unrivaled and constantly growing population and its continued appeal at steadily drawing in new residents from elsewhere has helped sustain its large number of breweries. A high population means more thirsty drinkers which mean yet more breweries. Californian craft breweries didn’t have to look all that far, not even up to their state borders, to look for initial market expansion opportunities.
California’s huge population and its weather have also presented problems which, down the line, could prove detrimental to California’s future domination over the USA’s craft beer scene. As of 2015, California had suffered for the fourth straight year from a serious drought affecting 98% of the state. The governor laid down mandatory water restrictions to decrease urban water usage by 25%.
Copious water usage is endemic for craft breweries. Typically, 7 liters of water are required to produce 1 liter of beer. Sierra Nevada had previously cut its water usage down by 25% but was asked by city officials to curb water usage still further. Bear Republic Brewing pulled its presence from 15 American markets and four countries because it didn’t have enough water to brew.
Sierra Nevada, Bear, and Stone Brewing, as three of the nation’s Top Fifty, can at least afford to spend millions of dollars (and have) on improved water treatment systems. Most of California’s craft brewers, like Fallbrook Brewing Company, cannot. Fallbrook has to employ makeshift water tanks and economical chillers to cut its costs.
Some California breweries have dropped the water usage down to less than 5-to-1. Stone Brewing thinks it can eventually drop that ratio to 3-to-1. California has always been a mecca of ingenuity and progress. If California’s only obstacle in preserving its beer throne is to come up with more ways to get unlimited water on the cheap, the next generation of California’s beer drinkers should have nothing to worry about but the sheer choice.