Special/Signature Issues » 2014 Beer Issue

A Craft Beer Bubble Brewing in Richmond?



Jacob Brunow, the head of the craft beer department at Brown Distributing, hears it all the time.

"They say, 'Oh, it's a bubble,' or, 'Oh, it's going to pop,'" he says. "Everyone's seeing these spots open left and right and wonders, 'How many do we need?'"

But hold off on those comparisons between the rush to open breweries in Richmond and the now-fizzling frozen yogurt craze. Brunow and others in the industry say there's plenty of room for growth, even with 11 breweries operating in and around Richmond and another handful on the way.

"Can there be a brewery on every corner? Maybe not," he says. "But can the city support 11? I think that's a very small number."

Richmond breweries won't be competing against each other as much as they'll be chipping off market share from out-of-state breweries that until recently have dominated the local craft market.

In some ways, the drastic increase in area breweries could help the industry locally rather than strain it, says Patrick Murtaugh, who co-founded Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in 2011.

"I think to an extent," he says, "the more breweries that open, the more people will open their eyes to the beer and consider ordering it out at a restaurant."

Bart Watson, the staff economist at the national Brewers Association, says craft breweries have yet to reach their potential market share. Craft beer represents only 14.3 percent of sales, he says. By contrast, he says, in other sectors high-end retailers dominate closer to 40 to 50 percent of sales.

David Gott, the vice president at Legend Brewing, questions whether the market growth supports the increase in breweries. The city's oldest operating brewery, Legend recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

"For those of us who have been around a while," Gott says, "it seems like there's less and less room for our products."

"We will reach a point where we'll have hit a mature marketplace," Watson says, "but I don't see any indication that we've reached that point or are anywhere near that point."

Watson acknowledges that there will be increasing competition for space on bar taps and store shelves. But the opportunity for small breweries that operate more like small-scale, neighborhood bars, is growing.

That's the model Triple Crossing Brewery is pursuing — at least for now. Co-owner Jeremy Wirtes says he and his partners, who opened the brewery in April, are focused on sales in the tasting room, which feels more like a bar than a brewery.

"There are a lot more breweries opening lately," Wirtes says, "and it's probably going to continue. But when you look at the size of Richmond and how fanatic the beer scene is — I think this town can support quite a bit more."

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