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The State of Craft Beer In Illinois: Can We Avoid Bursting The Bubble?

By Lorna Juett in Food on Aug 28, 2012 6:00PM

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Photo By Gary Eckstein

Richard Florida of The Atlantic drew our attention to the status of craft brewing in the United States last week. Focusing on data collected by Brewers Association, his article breaks down the number of breweries in each state. Currently, California has the most craft breweries in the nation with 261, while Illinois barely cracks the top 15, with 57 licensed craft breweries.

What Florida doesn't note is that 67 new breweries plan to open in Illinois within the next year, and that number seems to grow weekly. Judging by more data from Brewers Association regarding the beer industry as a whole, it appears we're not alone. We’ve hit a 125-year high in brewery numbers and, of the 2,126 breweries currently operating in the United States, 2,075 of them are classified as craft brewers. While overall beer sales have been slow since 2011, the market share for craft beer is steadily growing, reaching to almost 6 percent in volume, and 9 percent in revenue. The study also counts 1,252 breweries in planning today nationwide compared to 725 a year ago.

These numbers make it look like we’re living in a beer renaissance. But is it possible that we’re living in a beer bubble?

Even though Illinois isn't a top producer, Chicagoans want good beer and we're willing to pay for it. We seek it out at fine dining restaurants, corner dives, stalwart beer bars, and local liquor shops. That philosophy has allowed many out-of-state breweries to send their product our way, and we welcome it with open Midwestern arms, giving us a huge and varied market of beer. This market growth is a blessing and a curse to consumers as it can make beer shopping an exciting adventure, but can also overwhelm even the most well-informed drinker. What’s more confusing, there are some duds on those shelves that might even turn people off of craft beer altogether.

So how do we stop mediocre beer from entering our market, either from Illinois, or elsewhere? As a fan of beer, Florida posits that city and state incentives to court craft breweries aren't the solution, but supporting efforts to fuel more organic growth may be the key to measured expansion and better beer.

We agree with Florida that a slow-and-steady expansion of our state's brewing industry is a good thing. But how can we control it best? As new breweries open and vie for our attention, growth in both size and quality will be aided by more selective spending. By spending our money on good beers, including those from Illinois, we can support quality product. We can spend our money in a way that allows our talented brewers to grow great recipes and make high-quality beers, and not support flash-in-the-pan business people with sub-par product looking to cash in on what might just be a craft beer bubble. Of course, measured consumer spending requires consumer education, and is just one potential solution to a multi-faceted issue.

Regardless, perhaps Illinois craft brewing shouldn't strive to be the biggest, but with careful growth, maybe we can be the best.