There has recently been a lot of talk about the longevity of craft beer’s explosive expansion. Each of the past few years has seen a near exponential growth in new breweries opening or being actively developed, and many in the industry are worried that the marketplace cannot continue to support this kind of growth. Los Angeles was slow to start, but now more and more new operations are opening in the LA area. How many is too many? Just how many craft beer brewers can our city support?
The answer might surprise you.
The catalyst for this post was a story over at Beervana about using the correct metrics when evaluating the growth of craft beer and the geographic saturation point for craft breweries. The main point was that using a breweries-per-capita number is not a particularly useful way to compare the “beeryness” of different states:
Which is a more beery state, Idaho or California? Intuition tells you that the home of Firestone Walker, Sierra Nevada, Anchor, and Russian River probably bests the home of … er, whatever. Idaho, it turns out, has about double the density of breweries per capita.
His post, and one comment suggesting the focus be narrowed to specific counties, got me to thinking about the craft beer climate in Los Angeles and the explosive growth we’ve witnessed over the past couple of years. Should we be concerned about hitting a theoretical ceiling for the number of breweries operating in our city? With so many new operations opening soon or in the planning stages when will the market be saturated?
Portland Oregon could be a good example of the upper-limit as it is known as one of the most beery spots in the country (Denver CO and Ashville NC are the other most-often cited “craft beer capitols” of America). Craft beer in Los Angeles obviously doesn’t have nearly the penetration into local culture that it does in Portland, or even in the most beery area of California: San Diego.
So just how far does LA have to go before we are as “beery” as Portland or San Diego? I’m no statistician, but here is a little rough cocktail-napkin math for you:
Los Angeles County is home to just under ten million people, and according to a highly inaccurate Wikipedia count there are currently 31 breweries and brewpubs spread out across the 4,000 square miles of the county. This is means that there is approximately one brewery for every three hundred thousand Angelenos.
The San Diego metropolitan area has a population of 3 million people also spread over around 4,000 square miles (population density of 735 people/square mile). The population in this area is served by some 44 breweries and brew-pubs (also via Wikipedia). This gives us one brewery for every 71,000 people in SD county.
There are four times the breweries/person in San Diego than we currently have in LA. These number make it look like the Los Angeles market can certainly support a fair amount of growth in beer producers that call LA home. If LA had the same ratio of breweries-to-population that you see in SD it there would be a staggering 139 breweries and brewpubs in the county.
Now I’m not saying that I want to see well over 100 craft beer producers in LA County, and naturally it takes more than a thirsty population to support the kinda of ratio of people-to-breweries that we see in San Diego or Portland. It takes a large, thirsty, and educated population. Educated on the superiority of locally produced craft beer over multi-national industrial commodity beer. And that is the up-hill fight.
As more new breweries open up in Los Angeles, and more LA restaurants and bars add craft beer taps to their offerings, the opportunities to win the LA population over to craft beer grows. The craft beer industry has the unique position of having a Goliath-like competitor to battle, and even though local breweries have to compete for tap-space, they are much better served by joining forces to combat the Big Beer machine than squabbling with each-other. This is what we mostly see among the local brewers, but could this sense of community and cooperation and collaboration withstand a market with 4 times the number of craft beer producers?
These numbers are just a rough sketch of the scene. They don’t take many aspects of the real environment into consideration and they ask many more questions than they answer, but it is clear that there is plenty of room for growth in the number of Los Angeles craft brewers. As the population continues to discover the value of craft beer the bubble won’t be in jeopardy of bursting for a long time, and we are going to do our best to keep educating our fellow Angeleno about craft beer in Los Angeles!