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Historical Brewing Levels Outpace Modern DMV Production

Last month, the Washington City Paper's Tammy Tuck asked an interesting question. The article looks at the contemporary number of breweries in the District, Maryland and Virginia:

Greater Washington’s brewery boom merits a hearty hoist of the pint glass. After all, the number of breweries in the region has grown from a mere dozen to more than 75 in the past five years, with several more on the way. But most are in Virginia and Maryland, with only 12—six production breweries and six brewpubs—in D.C. proper. City swillers find themselves crossing state lines with envy, wondering why the District isn’t seeing more substantial growth.

Tuck argues that DC’s real estate and regulatory costs are causing more breweries to open in the exurbs, and to a lesser extent the suburbs, because of the relatively lower overhead costs and more lenient regulatory environment. Despite those barriers, we still have 12 breweries doing business in our fair city. As many things do, the relative number of breweries in the DMV caused me to think from a historical perspective. So I thought I’d put the present-day number of breweries up against the number of breweries from a century ago.

In 1916, DC and Virginia both had 3 breweries, while Maryland had 16. In 2016, DC has 12 breweries, Virginia has over 160, and Maryland has 44 by this count, including both production breweries and brewpubs. The "brewery boom" that Tuck's article focuses on is part of a nationwide increase in American independent breweries, and certainly Virginia is leading the charge in our area.

The national number of breweries currently stands at over 5,000, the most in American history. But DC's historic high was set in 1870, when there were 13 breweries operating. This is according to the 1901 publication 100 Years of Brewing.

Brewery counts aside, how do production figures in 2015 numbers stack up against those from last century?

In 1915, the District brewed 169,978 barrels of beer, Maryland brewed 1,116,811 barrels, and Virginia 164,517. In 2015, DC brewed 29,727 barrels of craft beer, Maryland brewed 258,926 barrels, and Virginia brewed 274,111 barrels. To summarize, compared to a century ago, DC brewed more in 1915 than 2015. Maryland brewed more barrels of beer in 1915 than 2015. Only Virginia eclipsed its 1915 number a century later, and it did so by over 100,000 barrels of beer.

 

1915

2015

 

Total Barrelage

Barrels Per Capita

Total Barrelage

Barrels Per Capita

D.C.

169,978

0.47

29,727

0.04

Maryland

1,116,811

0.80

258,926

0.04

Virginia

164,517

0.07

274,111

0.03

Per capita figures based on 1915 and 2015 data from the U.S. Census Bureau

[Ed. Note: Maryland was cranking out almost a barrel (that's two full kegs) of beer per person per year in 1915. Maryland was probably so much more fun back then.]

Getting back to Tuck's thesis, Virginia and Maryland may be lapping DC, but the Land of Pleasant Living is also getting lapped by the Old Dominion. Virginia’s beer production has increased in the past 100 years, while Maryland and DC's has gone down. Why? Do the factors Tuck cites account for these decreases? “First, it takes a lot of cash to get started. D.C. rents are high.” Tuck is unquestionably correct here. DC rent is ridiculously high and as such all of DC’s breweries are in the “warehouse district,” or more accurately in several neighborhoods throughout Northeast. “Brewery start-up costs often exceed $1 million, and it can be difficult to secure loans and investments” again, Tuck nails it. She goes on to write “Production breweries, on the other hand, can only operate in manufacturing zones...There are far more ready-to-brew sites in the abundant industrial parks of Virginia and Maryland.” Certainly there are perks to doing business in Virginia, having a governor who wishes to make it the most brewery-friendly state in the nation is one.

Another advantage is local government's ability to stand on the side of small business and even influence it with grants or tax credits. For example, Alexandria’s own Port City benefits from an expansion with $250,000 coming from the Virginia Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development fund and Alexandria matching part of the brewery’s expansion with an additional $250,000 grant. Hard to imagine one of the 12 breweries in the District who would turn down a half a million dollar matching grant.

Of course Virginia is much larger than Maryland and the District so there are more customers for breweries on top of space for them. Per capita, Virginia has many more people than Maryland. So it makes sense that Maryland has 1.4 breweries per 100,000 adults 21 and over (34th in national rankings) Virginia has 2 breweries per 100,000 adults 21 and over (21st in national ranking). The District (with much less land and fewer residents) has 2.2 breweries per 100,000 adults 21 and over, according to the Brewers Association. We have previously provided the regulatory analysis of the District and Maryland which provide a framework for understanding.

Getting back to history, our area’s aggregate barrelage in 1915 was much higher than it is in 2015. With today’s higher populations and brewhouses that produce beer more efficiently, how could this be? Could it be today’s breweries around the country focus on smaller markets than breweries did back then? In 1915, there were very large regional breweries in our area, but we don't see these at anywhere close to the same scale as we once did in the District or Baltimore. Another distinction between now and 2015? The fact that we distinguish between “craft” and non-craft beer. The barrelage figures I include here for 2015 don’t include all of the beer produced in a state, just the barrels that count as “craft” (small, independent, and traditional, per the Brewers Association’s definition). The combined craft barrelage of the District, Maryland, and Virginia (562,565 barrels), doesn’t come close to big beer. “Currently 500 employees brew up to 8 million barrels of beer a year” at the MillerCoors brewery in Elkton, Virginia, but if we considered all of the beer production in a state in a given year, it would certainly paint a different picture. Given that craft brewing production is about 13 percent of the beer market by volume, the production differences we see between 1915 and 2015 are less dependent on consumer behavior or business environments (a visit from Mayor Bowser will not single-handedly bolster the District’s brewing scene, neither will a visit from Governors McAuliffe or Hogan) and much more dependent on where a macro brewery sets up shop and what we’re including in our production figures. This site’s preferences and desires aside, it will be a long time, if ever, that any state’s craft brewers, let alone an individual brewery, will trump the Lite/Light market.

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