Illinois lags in craft beer renaissance | WBEZ
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Illinois lags in craft beer renaissance


On Tuesday I wrote about Illinois’ legal restrictions on craft brewers. In short, for brewers to be treated at all differently than industry giants in Illinois they must agree to brew no more than 30,000 barrels of beer each year.

A new story from the New Yorker puts that limit into context. Using data from the Brewers Association they created an interactive map that charts the speed of growth in the craft beer industry across the country. Given that, recent developments in Illinois appear less impressive.

With just 67 businesses that fit the Brewers Association’s definition of craft breweries, Illinois ranks 11th out of 50. We were also 11th in growth from 2011 to 2012 with a 37.32 percent increase. It gets worse from there. Our total production of craft beer in 2012 was 87,993 barrels- good enough for 26th place. Worst is the ratio of craft breweries to citizens- 2.6 per 500,000 people, or 34th place.

None of the 50 largest craft breweries are located in Illinois and only Half Acre cracks the top 50 fastest-growing breweries list (at 45).

While the new crop of breweries that opened in Illinois last year is fairly robust, one can’t help but wonder if the limits of our licenses will slow their development. The New Yorker article points out that one of the only states that produced less craft beer is North Dakota. Their analysis of the decline sounds vaguely familiar:

The former, where production fell by nearly ten per cent despite an ongoing oil-fuelled economic boom, may serve as a cautionary tale: onerous licensing and distribution policies, as well as production maximums, have historically made the state what one beer entrepreneur, in a 2010 article in the Bismarck Tribune, called “a dead zone for craft brewing.”

At least Illinois now has a clear-cut way for brewers to get started with the craft brewer’s license, but it is telling that the biggest craft beer operations in Illinois are a California brewer’s expansion (Lagunitas, number six on the 50 largest breweries list, is opening a Chicago facility later this year) and an operation owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev (Goose Island’s being owned by Anheuser-Busch disqualifies them from being considered a craft brewer by the Brewers Association’s standards).

That leaves this beer enthusiast wondering why Illinois can’t find a way to define craft beer in a way that more closely resembles the rest of the industry.  

Here’s the Brewers Association’s definition:

An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional.

Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purposes of this definition.

Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.

Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

That’s a difference of 5.97 million barrels a year from Illinois’ craft brewer license. While there is a value to the license for beginning brewers, it could soon prove a damper to growth in the industry. One commenter on my Tuesday story suggested that Illinois needs to add different levels of licenses. Perhaps the 2014 General Assembly will get to work on that. Right after they vote on pension reforms and same-sex marriage.

Andrew Gill is a web producer for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.

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