Archived Story

Craft beer has boomed in Albert Lea

Published 11:04am Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Column: Pothole Prairie

My, how things have changed at the liquor stores and restaurants in Albert Lea.

Six years ago about the only craft beers a customer could find was Samuel Adams, Summit or else a few craft-beer knockoffs produced by large companies, such as Coors-made Blue Moon or Miller’s array of Leinenkugel beers.

Some people might consider any beer that isn’t a pale yellow beer a craft beer. The Brewers Association defines a craft beer not merely by the beer but the size and independence of the maker.

I had moved here from Washington state, where the grocery stores had ample choices of craft beer. The college town I resided in even had a small brewery.

I don’t really like drinking a lot of beer. I do like, however, drinking a good beer. I’ll pay for quality and drink my beer slowly, rather than find a good bargain and consume can after can. In fact, most of the time, I pour my beer out of the bottle and into a pint glass. It elevates my beer-drinking enjoyment.

Am I crazy? Maybe, but the numbers are growing in my favor. Just stop down to Collective Spirits, the home-brewing store on Blake Avenue, and have a chat with any of the customers. Or stop in at Worth Brewing in Northwood, Iowa, and talk beer for a moment. Craft beer is big.

I remember going around Albert Lea six years ago and asking stores if they could carry Red Hook ESB because I knew it was distributed in the area. I had seen it in Owatonna. Getting on the trucks was always the biggest obstacle for these craft beer brewers, but Red Hook had sold a minority share to Anheuser-Busch for the sake of distribution.

Some stores told me no. They said they had tried craft beers a couple of years prior and it hadn’t sold. I tried to explain that the trend is coming, they had just made their attempt too early. If it was big on the West Coast, it will work its way here eventually.

Though some said no, some stores told me yes. Suddenly, in addition to all these yellow domestic beers, they had a six pack of Red Hook on the shelf. Yay!

And then something beautiful happened. It sold.

I went to one store that said yes and suddenly there was none. Worried, I wondered if they had discontinued it. Being me, I had to ask. Nope. It was just out until more arrived.

And then I delighted each time these stores expanded their selection: New Belgium Brewing (Fat Tire), Deschutes Brewing (Mirror Pond), Lucky Bucket Brewing (Lucky Bucket IPA) and others. Today, I can find beers from all kinds of brewers. The stores compete to have the most choices of craft beer.

In fact, the other day I noticed an advertisement from one of the stores that had told me no. It proclaimed what a good selection of craft beer the store had.

Clearly, the owner was minding the industry numbers. These numbers were showing the tastes of customers were diversifying nationwide.

On Friday, USA Today had a story about the craft-brewing boom.

“Even as U.S. beer consumption overall is flat, the craft brew market is booming, with double-digit sales growth last year,” the story said. “The Brewers Association says that since 2004, craft brews have doubled their market share to nearly 6 percent, and that 250 breweries opened last year. The 1,940 operating in 2011 were the most since the 1880s, the industry group says.”

Why? The story says there are several reasons. One is that more consumers are buying local, and that includes buying beer made locally, such as beer from St. Paul-based Summit or New Ulm-based Schell’s. Another is that consumers are more knowledgeable about pairing which beers with which foods, and restaurants are doing a better job of accommodating these customers.

There is no doubt some local restaurants have expanded their on-tap beer selection. Kudos to them. Plus, I have time again heard people choose where to dine based on which place had a good beer selection, even if they were only going to drink a single beer.

It’s like being a kid in a candy store. You might only buy one box of candy, but it is a delight to have so many from which to choose.

Another reason for the boom, the USA Today story said, is that craft beer is an affordable luxury during the recession. People are tired of a down economy.

“Maybe we are just tired of this recession and we are going after affordable luxuries more,” Jennifer Litz, who covers craft brews for Beer Business Daily, told USA Today.

And, finally, the story said a reason for the boom is that younger drinkers are used to more variety in food and drink. Older drinkers grew up with about four beer brands and their light versions, and dining out was mainly American-style food. Now, people can find sushi even in a place like Albert Lea, and there is a surprising selection of ethnic food in our city. That same diversity has happened across the country.

Whatever the reasons, I am glad the stores and restaurants have a wide selection. It wouldn’t have been possible without the customers. I raise my glass to Albert Lea’s taste buds. Thank you for your support.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.