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The Business of Tasting Rooms

And now, the debate about the business of tasting rooms. Somehow, one of the best developments ever to come along in craft beer is being characterized in some quarters as not a good thing because it’s disrupting one of the more sacrosanct elements of the business side of craft beer: The three-tier system.

When it comes to growth of tasting rooms, I think it’s been a bi-coastal development. California led the way by allowing breweries to open as many as six – the state once again proving itself to be ground zero for craft growth.

In terms of population growth in tasting rooms, I believe the nod there goes to the small breweries in Vermont that pioneered the juicy, hazy IPA style. How so? Tasting rooms are hopping (pun fully intended) in no small part because brewers are now experimenting with historically high hopping rates in IPAs, which helps keep things lively – if not downright convivial. Compared to the faux excitement of a noisy, chic restaurant or the generic humdrum of sports bars, one can enjoy a truly hopped up atmosphere in tasting rooms.

There’s a demographic at work as well. The boom in tasting rooms can be attributed to the age group of 21 through 39 (aka millennials), which is perhaps an age group that is craving a real-life outlet to engage with friends while enjoying new sensory experiences.

Alas, what’s good for craft brewing does not necessarily pass muster with everyone. Some retailers and distributors are complaining about losing a portion of their business to direct sales at breweries.



Fremont Brewing's tasting room in Seattle, Washington.

Photo Courtesy Flickr/Bernt Rostad


Perhaps it’s time to have the debate about doing away with the three-tier system instead of jawboning about tasting rooms. Many of the distributors, some of whom are snapping up smaller operations like frogs tagging flies, are legacy businesses. One of their primary stocks in trade has been growing with the help of a monopolistic requirement that producers must rely on a third party for retail sales.

Tasting rooms embody much of what makes the craft beer movement what it is. They bring people of various backgrounds together in an atmosphere that is conducive to conversation and exchange, something a polarized America could use more of.

Increasingly, breweries and their tasting rooms anchor redevelopment in cities and small towns where increased commercial traffic is desirable, helping to rebuild communities. These developments are considered important by macro brewers, too; when they buy independent craft breweries, established tasting rooms are important criteria.

Overlooked, perhaps, is the fact that tasting rooms may be converting people to beer at a time when the overall beer market is static at best. An increase in craft consumption can be attributed in no small part to tasting rooms – and some of those drinkers are new to beer.

“We saw about 400,000 barrels of growth in direct at-the-brewery sales last year, about a third of total craft growth, and there are new customers coming in through that,” said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association.

More than one survey confirmed, said Watson, that people were choosing breweries and eschewing bars.



Tasting rooms embody much of what makes the craft beer movement what it is. They bring people of various backgrounds together in an atmosphere that is conducive to conversation and exchange, something a polarized America could use more of


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