Orange County is suddenly awash in an ocean of great beer.
Recently, the ranks of craft breweries have swollen from a handful to almost 30. And north Orange County, especially Anaheim, has established itself as a key part of the movement, although wherever you live in O.C. you’re probably no more than a short drive away from a tasty brew served in the place where it was born.
This is relatively new. For a long time it seemed Orange County might sit out the craft beer trend.
Sure, we had The Bruery in Placentia, which shortly after its 2008 opening established a national reputation. And local brewpubs, such as TAPS Fish House & Brewery and Newport Beach Brewing Co., turned out respectable beer to go with their food.
But over the past few years, as San Diego has become one of the nation’s great beer towns, and as Los Angeles ramped up its craft-beer output, O.C. beer makers operated under local regulations that, they say, made it hard for a full-blown beer scene to take off.
That changed last year, when Orange County health officials relinquished oversight of beer-making operations to California’s public health department, the state agency that regulates breweries in Los Angeles and San Diego counties among other places. The switch eliminated upfront fees and restaurant-style inspections for local beer makers, sparking an upturn in local craft beer openings.
“There’s a huge market in Orange County, and they appreciate many different kinds of beer,” said Kyle Manns, brewery operations manager at TAPS.
“We’ve found that they’re just as interested in seasonal beers as the regular line-up.”
Manns’ predecessor at TAPS, brew master Victor Novak, discovered a couple of years ago just how serious Orange County’s beer aficionados could be.
TAPS first released Remy’s Pappy, its barrel-aged Imperial Russian Stout, in 2013. TAPS charged $35 for a 750 ml. bottle.
“There were some extraordinary expenses involved in aging beer for a while in bourbon barrels. That set the value,” Novak explained. Soon, the widely coveted libation was selling online for a lot more than the sticker price – up to $300.
Perhaps that’s because TAPS’ barrel-aged beer was already in the stratosphere. In 2013, TAPS’ Trace of Remy scored a phenomenal 99 out of 100 on beeradvocate.com. In 2014, Remy’s Pappy got a perfect 100. Of course, the beer also is rare: only 90 cases were produced.
Remy’s Pappy was sold exclusively through El Cerrito Liquor & Market, a nondescript store near TAPS’ Corona location. On release day, numbers were assigned to avoid line-cutting and associated nastiness. “They sold out in 90 minutes,” Novak said.
With connoisseurship come strong opinions. Local craft beer fans can be as fussy as wine snobs – and they’re just as curious about other parts of the beer world as they are about O.C.’s craft brews.
Wil Dee, managing partner and beverage director of Haven Gastropub in Orange, is careful to offer a mix of beers at the company’s nearby storefront, Provisions Market, which has 30 taps and lists its large and ever-changing beer selection on a wall behind the registers.
“I’ve learned that if I have a bunch of the same kind of beer, then everyone gets bored,” Dee said. “Local has always been my push. But if I can get something from Washington, Oregon or even overseas, then I will definitely put that in to expose the local market to something a little more exotic.”
So who are these beer geeks who’ll pay hundreds of dollars for the right bottle and pack local tasting rooms faithfully?
According to a 2014 report in the Brookston Beer Bulletin, they’re Gen-Xers, for the most part, and – no surprise here – they’re overwhelmingly (95.1 percent) male.
More than 41 percent of craft beer fans are 35 to 49 years old. Most of the rest are split evenly between millennials (25-34) and boomers (50-65).
They’re also well-educated. More than 21 percent have graduate degrees and 8.5 percent have doctorates. They’re also more likely than the general population to buy organic foods, and they’re into biking and running.
Orange County mirrors artisanal beer’s larger trend line.
Nationwide, craft breweries are starting to take a significant share of the overall beer market. Mintel, a respected market research firm, reports that American craft beer will see 22 percent growth in dollar sales this year, to $24 billion. Craft beer made up 8.5 percent of overall U.S. volume sales in 2014, up from 4.5 percent in 2009.
And the craft beer explosion shows no signs of fading. The number of operating breweries in the U.S. grew 19 percent in 2014, to 3,464. There were 615 brewery openings last year and only 46 closings.
That means a big battle is brewing over market share, especially because the global industry’s two biggest beer companies, AB InBev and SAB Miller, recently decided to join forces.
But O.C.’s craft breweries should do fine if they stay focused, said Aaron Barkenhagen, brew master at Bootlegger’s Brewery in Fullerton.
“I think the industry is going into hyper-competitive mode. But I don’t see that as a terrible thing necessarily. It comes down to independent brewers staying on top of their game and introducing new things. Also, we need to appeal to new consumers constantly.”
The small breweries most likely to be affected by the big-beer battle are those pushing for significant distribution beyond their tasting rooms, Barkenhagen said.
“I think (increased competition from bigger beer makers) will definitely force more small breweries into a super-local environment. They will need to be strong in their home market and get most of their revenue from their tasting rooms because it’s going to be more difficult to get distribution. The (craft breweries) that succeed are the ones that are the strongest performers with local consumers.”
For Evan Price, brew master at Noble Ale Works in Anaheim, the key to continued success in an increasingly crowded craft beer market is connecting with his label’s fans.
“We’re going to do everything we can to keep people excited about our beer,” Price said. Toward that end, he said, the brewery will reach out via local festivals and social media, among other things.
Price markets his beer outside the facility, but only to retailers who appreciate the importance of selling local products.
“We don’t currently sell to grocery stores other than Whole Foods and Gelson’s, places that pride themselves on local craft beers.”
Price sees the craft beer movement as part of a larger sentiment among American consumers to buy local products, support neighborhood businesses, and choose quality and individuality over mass-market blandness. He thinks the big beer makers don’t yet grasp this trend – and he’s more than OK with that.
“They are looking at losing a generation of beer drinkers,” Price says of his industrial-size competitors. “They’re all coming to places like ours.”
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