Arkansas brewery output improves in 2017, but still lags the rest of the U.S.
The Brewers Association released its state statistics for 2017. I hate that we have to wait until May to catch a holistic glimpse of what happened the year prior, but it is what it is I guess.
The tale of the tape is this...
The number of breweries increased from 28 in 2016 to 35 last year. The number of barrels produced went from 35,846 to 42,294 over that same period of time. While these are positive trends to celebrate, there is still much to improve upon.
For example, Arkansas' breweries per capita ranks a paltry 41st among states in the union, and gallons per 21+ adults is even worse at 47th. For anyone wondering if there is room to grow in Arkansas beer, the answer is an emphatic 'yes.'
Of course Arkansas has suffered from the teetotalism that has existed within its borders over the last century or more. The same can be said for the rest of the American South. For that reason, it is helpful to look at neighboring states for comparison purposes. And controlling for population levels the playing field a bit considering Arkansas' diminutive headcount.
Growing up I can recall an old saying that still resonates today. 'Thank God for Mississippi,' was a popular retort when statistics for poverty or teenage pregnancy hit the news. Amend that to say 'Thank God for Mississippi and Oklahoma,' and you may capture the feelings of many craft beer drinkers in the Natural State. They are the only states in our vicinity as destitute of good beer as us.
There has been a lot of chatter recently about what it will take to grow the beer industry in Arkansas. Some wonder if the growth we have experienced to this point is a bubble, destined to pop.
Let's take that last question first. Is Arkansas's beer industry experiencing a bubble? Sometimes it seems like that because the number of breweries is increasing at an alarming rate. But the numbers clearly show that our state trails the rest of the country in our move to craft beer. But James Spencer of Basic Brewing Radio said it best in his forward to my book, 'Arkansas Beer'--
"Fizzy yellow stuff still reigns supreme among the masses. During hunting season, twelve-packs of macro brew still come in blaze orange boxes. Convenience stores are still packed with beers that appeal more to the wallet than the palate."
In other words, there are a ton of people in Arkansas who have yet to be converted to the religion of craft beer. People in the state still generally favor quantity (or perhaps thrift) over quality.
As far as growing the industry in our state is concerned, I think the most recent brewery arrivals represent the model for the future of Arkansas beer.
Crisis Brewing Co. in Fayetteville opened a few weeks ago and devoted itself exclusively to taproom sales. The brewhouse is tiny and the retail space is just as small. It's a nano-brewery dedicated to the local community instead of regional or statewide distribution. Crisis caters to the people who live within a 10-15 minute drive of the brewery.
The same can be said of Slate Rock Brewing in Amity, Rapp's Barren Brewing Co. in Mountain Home, and Norfork Brewing Co. Their niche is hyper-local and focused on consumers in their immediate vicinity.
If there is a mindset that Arkansans can identify with it's 'local.' They have long possessed a healthy mistrust of anyone from outside the state's borders. People here would rather rub elbows with friends and neighbors than spend time with 'furners.' It only makes sense that they will gravitate to brewery taprooms that are run by people they know, even if the beer is full of hops instead of rice or corn.
In my estimation, our state can support another 20+ breweries that employ a similar model. That number could increase significantly if Arkansas ever decides to rid itself of the archaic county-by-county laws that keep some wet, while others are dry as a bone.
So don't fret over the Brewers Association's recent numbers. Arkansas still lags the rest of the United States in terms of craft beer output and consumption--but the eternal optimist says there is nowhere to go from here but up.