In 2007, there were just over 1,500 breweries in America. In 2017, that number passed 6,000.
To some, the industry's explosive growth may look like a bubble on the verge of bursting. But other numbers make brewers optimistic. Namely, they point to the amount of people drinking the beer made by the vast majority of those 6,000 breweries — small, independent craft producers like the ones in Cayuga County.
Local statistics aren't available, but those producers estimate that the market share for craft beer in Cayuga County lies in the single digits. In Portland, the U.S. city with the highest share, it's almost 40 percent. So those local producers can grow, and even more can join them, if they keep raising their share — if they keep converting "big beer" drinkers to craft.
Farm-to-table restaurants, craft breweries, specialty agricultural producers, bakeries, wineries ... Cayuga County has all of them, and in num…
Since they began opening in fall 2014, Cayuga County's breweries have been seeing that conversion happen. Each has stories of the people they've won over in their tasting rooms, and each has expanded to meet the surging demand. But they're still working to overcome the obstacles keeping people away from craft beer in the first place. The biggest, they said, is perception.
Mark Grimaldi, co-owner and brewer at Aurora Ale & Lager Co. in King Ferry, said the first craft beer most people try is the most popular style: India pale ale. But because IPAs can be aggressively bitter and high in alcohol content, he said, they tend not to woo people accustomed to the light lagers that dominate the market.
So Grimaldi and other brewers are trying to show those drinkers what else craft beer can be. At Aurora, that means suggesting they try the Stephen Urquell Pilsner — the same style as Budweiser.
"It's not adventurous, but it blew people's minds because they're used to their pilsner being Budweiser," Grimaldi said. "It's a real pilsner with real mouthfeel and flavor."
Aurora's Little Kim Blonde Ale and K.R.E.A.M. Kölsch are also low in bitterness and less than 5-percent ABV, making them good "gateway" craft beers, Grimaldi said. Its award-winning Goseface Killah gose, a light, tart ale with salt, is "like drinking lemonade," he said. And even the brewery's IPAs follow the burgeoning New England style, which is fruit-forward and minimally bitter.
"It might just be a quality thing. People are coming in and tasting what a quality beer is like. They're leaving behind the notion of what they thought beer was, which was a crappy one from any old store," Grimaldi said. "So us just existing is almost enough to turn a Bud Light drinker into a craft drinker."
For that same reason, Lunkenheimer Craft Brewing Co. has made it a point to have its Buster kölsch on tap at all times. Co-owner and brewer Derric Slocum said that since Lunkenheimer opened in Weedsport in October 2014, he's seen regular customers go from cautiously sipping Buster to drinking "anything I put on the board."
By establishing that trust with customers, Slocum said, breweries can turn them into advocates. And through word-of-mouth, those customers then work to convert others to craft beer.
One bitterly cold January afternoon, Joe Shelton and Mark Grimaldi walked into Prison City Pub & Brewery with some concerns.
For those who don't have friends pestering them to try an IPA, however, another perceptual challenge remains. That's the image of craft beer — and, more specifically, the image of the people who drink it. A 2016 Budweiser Super Bowl ad reinforced that image before a nationwide audience, painting craft drinkers as pretentious hipsters and their beers as "fussed over" and "fruit cups."
The irony of the ad aside — Budweiser parent company AB InBev has bought more than a dozen craft breweries since 2011 — the image is disproven at any Cayuga County taproom. Slocum and Grimaldi said most of their breweries' regulars come from nearby rural areas — "people bred to think American beer is Budweiser or Miller," Slocum said.
The local origins of Cayuga County craft beer may be another source of its appeal, the producers said. But Thirsty Pug Craft Beer Market owner Mike Sigona questioned the strength of that appeal. Though some people do appreciate local products, he continued, others lobby for more national chain restaurants to come to the area.
Sigona also used a food analogy to address a related factor that stops people from trying craft beer: price. If they're used to buying a 12-pack of "big beer" for $10 or a bottle of wine for $15, he understands why they'd balk at buying a four-pack of craft beer for $20 or a bottle for $30. But, Sigona explained, you get what you pay for.
"It's like going to a fast food restaurant and getting a $1 burger vs. going to a local restaurant and getting an angus burger for $10," he said.
Still, plenty of craft beer options approach the affordability of "big beer." Many IPA six-packs on the shelves of Sigona's Auburn bottle shop are $10, and Aurora Ale & Lager and Lunkenheimer sell pints for $6 or less. Craft breweries and taprooms also offer toe-in-the-water options like free samples, single can or bottle sales, and flights (a set of 5-ounce pours of different beers).
The key to finding the craft beer that'll convert someone, Sigona said, is communication. He usually starts by figuring out what new customers already like to drink. Taste-wise, coffee matches up well with stouts and porters, wine with sours, and whiskey with scotch ales and barrel-aged beers, Sigona said.
The Thirsty Pug owner said Auburn's breweries make flavorful examples of those gateway styles: Prison City Pub & Brewery's stout, porter and schwarzbier are "well-made and easy-drinking," he said, while The Good Shepherds Brewing Co. serves "a nice scotch ale if you're coming from a whiskey background." Sigona also praised Aurora and Lunkenheimer's kölsches, among other beers.
Slocum called the process "finding that flavor connection." But aside from continuing to do that, he doesn't know what else Cayuga County's small breweries can do to convert more palates to the beer they're producing. Nor do Sigona and Grimaldi. They just know the numbers — the ones that say they're growing, and the ones that say they can continue doing so for awhile.
"I think we're doing a good job breaking down those barriers more and more," Grimaldi said. "The demand is there and the demand is growing."