The Washington Post

Craft brews bubble up to eager Washington fans

Cans are prepared to be filled at local craft brewery D.C. Brau. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The District-based ChopHouse & Brewery ferments nine types of craft beer on site, and its servers can describe each one like a sommelier would a fine wine.

Head brewer Barrett Lauer said microbreweries’ tailored approach has contributed to craft beer’s rising popularity over the years: When Chophouse opened 15 years ago, small brewers comprised just 1 percent of the national beer market. Last year, it was nearly 6 percent.

Furthermore, craft brewers saw their sales increase 14 percent last year, even as overall beer sales fell by 1.3 percent over 2010, according to a trade group report released last week.

In the Washington area, last year alone saw the opening of D.C Brau. Brewing Co., 3 Stars, Chocolate City Beer, Port City Brewing Co. and others. Across the country, there were 1,989 craft breweries operating in 2011, an 11 percent increase from the previous year, the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association said.

The increase represents a shift in consumer tastes toward local, artisan products, analysts say.

“If you look at demographics, craft beer drinkers tend to be more economically affluent and they tend to be younger,” said Warren Solochek, who follows beverages for the NPD Group consulting firm.

No ad men required

Bill Butcher founded Port City in Alexandria last year. He has a 30-barrel system, which is big for a microbrewery, and now distributes in four states.

But as is typical for a craft brewer, he did it all with a very limited marketing budget.

“We allocated zero dollars for advertising, to be exact,” Butcher said.

Instead, he relied on word-of-mouth among brew connoisseurs and used Twitter and Facebook to stay in touch with die-hard beer lovers.

“People love to talk about craft beer with their friends,” Solochek said. “So they often don’t have to do a lot of advertising to be successful.”

Despite their local successes, craft brewers have historically faced challenges in gaining national market share. The distributors who bring beer from suppliers to retailers still make most of their revenue from national brands, and the sheer number of craft beers makes it hard for them to predict which ones will do well.

“The volume is still with the big brewers,” said David Henkes, who follows the beverage market for consulting firm Technomic.

Some small brewers opt to circumvent the distributor issue entirely: With brew pubs, almost all the beer brewed is consumed in an adjacent tap room or restaurant.

The Alexandria-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns Birch & Barley and Churchkey, both in the District, aims to capitalize on the brew-pub model with next year’s slated opening of Bluejacket near the Southeast waterfront.

Megan Parisi, the Bluejacket brewer, said there are some logistical drawbacks to operating as a half-restaurant, half-brewery: Refrigerators and beer kettles compete for space, for example. But overall, she said doing business has gotten easier for craft brewers as suppliers catch on to the ripe market for smaller batches of hops and malt.

“There are so many vendors now that can accommodate breweries my size than even 10 years ago,” she said. “I’m going to have a chance to work with a whole new world.”

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