The Advantage of Getting There First

Note: I've tried to clarify the text from the first paragraph, and also added Saxer in the footnote.

I was over at Full Sail yesterday to try the new Black Gold barrel-aged imperial stout and brewer John Harris told me a remarkable fact. Not about Black Gold--I'll review it separately. No, what he told me was about brewery sizes and the date of founding. We were discussing the remarkable success of Ninkasi, which brewed many tens of thousands of barrels this year--just four years after it was founded. John and I were both marveling, and then he observed that Ninkasi is the only Oregon brewery to pass 10,000 barrels that wasn't founded in the 80s.*

Think about that. It's been 20 years, a period of absolutely remarkable growth in craft brewing, and still, no brewery before Ninkasi had grown to the fairly modest threshold of 10,000 barrels.

This is probably more extreme in Oregon, where we favor brewpubs over production facilities, but that's the trend nationwide, too. Have a look at the 20 largest craft breweries and their date of founding:

  1. Boston Beer, 1985
  2. Sierra Nevada, 1979
  3. New Belgium, 1989
  4. Spoetzl Brewery, 1909
  5. Pyramid, 1984
  6. Deschutes, 1988
  7. Matt Brewing, 1888
  8. Boulevard, 1989
  9. Full Sail, 1987
  10. Magic Hat, 1994
  11. Alaskan, 1986
  12. Harpoon, 1986
  13. Bell's, 1983
  14. Kona, 1994
  15. Anchor, 1896
  16. Shipyard, 1992
  17. Summit, 1986
  18. Stone, 1996
  19. Abita, 1986
  20. Brooklyn, 1987
This list doesn't include Widmer ('84) and Redhook ('82), which the Brewers Association has booted from their list of craft breweries for reasons unclear to everyone. The point is clear with or without them: of the largest 20 (or 22) craft breweries in the US, none was founded more recently than 15 years ago and 17 (or 19) were founded in the 80s or earlier. Two were founded in the 19th century!

Ninkasi will join the list of largest breweries soon and stand as the exception both in Oregon and the country. Probably they represent a new wave of breweries that will ultimately climb up that list. Still, it's remarkable what a huge advantage those first breweries had.

*Two now-defunct breweries, Nor'Wester and Saxer, did manage the feat in the 90s, but were later absorbed by Portland Brewing and the brands eventually died off.