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At a time of huge financial strain and unpredictability for American small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, including for brewers, the number of Maine breweries actually continues to grow. That is pretty remarkable.
According to Maine Brewers’ Guild executive director Sean Sullivan, 15 new breweries have been licensed since the start of 2020. This includes some breweries that have opened second locations, or changed ownership. Four Maine breweries have closed since the start of 2020.
A headline in the Bangor Daily News last week read, “Maine now has the most breweries per capita of any U.S. state.” The Brewers Association, a national non-profit trade group for brewers, isn’t so sure about that.
In the association’s 2019 craft beer sales and production statistics, Vermont had the most breweries per capita and Maine had the second most. The 2020 state data is forthcoming but not available yet, and Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson expects Vermont to retain its place at the top.
There are some differences between the recent BDN analysis and the Brewers Association analysis, including that the association looks at breweries per capita based on the population of people age 21 and older rather than the entire state population. It also appears that there are different interpretations of and measurements for what counts as an active brewery. We’re not looking to get bogged down in those details here.
“By any means, no matter how you calculate this, both states have a tremendous amount of breweries,” Watson told the editorial board. That, to us, is the point to focus on.
Second place is far from a participation trophy. This isn’t an “If you’re not first, you’re last” situation. First or second, Maine should be raising a glass to the state brewing industry. Especially this year.
“It’s been a little bit scary at times for the brewers, for sure,” Sullivan told the BDN editorial board. He noted that federal and state support, like the Paycheck Protection Program and a Maine Department of Agriculture , Conservation and Forestry program that provided funding for food processing infrastructure investments, “literally made the difference between success and failure for a lot of our brewers.”
Adaptation from both brewers and their consumers also has helped, as have new state laws such as bars and restaurants being able to serve alcohol to go.
It certainly hasn’t been all roses and sunshine over the past year. There have been layoffs. Overall beer production was down among breweries both in Maine and nationally. But like in Maine, the number of breweries also grew at the national level.
According to the Brewers Association, there were 716 openings across the country compared to 346 closings in 2020. Watson said he “would not have bet” on the number of breweries increasing in the past year. We wouldn’t have either. But it’s great to see.
Watson said that individual states see success in the brewing industry based on a combination of factors, including a long brewing history, a population that likes to support local products and local beer, and a regulatory environment that is conducive to small beverage production.
It seems safe to say that Maine has been checking all of those boxes. And importantly, Maine brewers continue to work together, despite being competitors.
“The collaborative spirit has really been maintained,” Sullivan said. “This is the time to stick together.” Sullivan also said brewers are heading into the summer feeling optimistic. Cheers to all of that.