On Brewing: California vs. Colorado by the data

By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Jul 02, 2019

Brewing & Distilling Food & Beverage

California and Colorado are both serious craft beer hubs, but they're different animals.

According to the Brewers Association's most recent state-by-state analysis, California had more craft breweries than any other state (841) in 2018, but was 29th on a per-capita basis (2.9). Colorado is second in terms of sheer numbers -- 396 in 2018 -- but fourth with 9.2 craft breweries per capita after Vermont, Montana, and Maine.

The combined 1,237 craft breweries in both states are about one-sixth the national total. That's a significant chunk of the industry, with a market to match.

In California (pop. 39.6 million), there are about three times more potential local customers per craft brewery. The market is more fragmented in Colorado (pop. 5.7 million), but the increase in the number of craft breweries in the Golden State set the pace for the nation in 2017-18 (77).

Colorado saw its number of craft breweries increase 48 in the same time frame, impressive considering the saturation of the market, and a higher rate in percentage terms than California when one might reasonably expect a regression to the mean.

Is it sustainable? Maybe. Colorado is arguably the center of the craft brewing universe, with fewer people drinking more beer. A lot more beer. The average adult in Colorado drinks three times as much beer as a Californian, buoying the industry significantly in the Centennial State.

The economic impact of craft brewing is $7.3 billion in California versus $3 billion in Colorado. That means Colorado leads all 50 states in per-capita economic impact at $764, nearly triple California's $263 number. On a per-brewery basis, it's a closer contest, with a $8.6 million impact in California and $7.6 million in Colorado.

Brewers Association Chief Economist Bart Watson wrote about the data from California in 2018. A couple takeaways from his piece: California craft sales were down nationwide, but up in-state; and exports were up 38 percent. As Watson wrote, "[O]pportunities remain abroad."

What California has in sheer size, Colorado makes up for in envelope-pushing experimentalism and enthusiasm, as well as an industry center thanks to the breweries, their advocates, and GABF.

For all of of the similarities and differences, there is a symbiosis that neither state can afford to ignore. California is a big market that can make or break a Colorado craft brewery's distribution strategy. Colorado is the perfect Petri dish for California breweries looking to test the viability of new products and marketing strategies, as well as to get the word out in an influencer-heavy area.

With breweries looking to bolster their credentials in both states, it's surprising that we haven't seen any California breweries open Colorado taprooms, or vice versa. While we've seen some crossover deals like New Belgium-Magnolia and Epic-Telegraph (although the latter is really Utah-California), I'm not aware of any of the preeminent craft breweries in either market planting a flag in the other.

Maybe the location isn't as strategic as a North Carolina or Texas outpost for a Western brand, or else the beer culture dynamics demanding local product in both Colorado and California make for marketing gymnastics, but the synergy between Colorado's consummate craft beer proving ground and the most populous state (with the most craft breweries) is at least a little compelling.

Would a Stone project fly in Boulder? Could New Belgium go Hollywood? Some foam for thought . . .

Eric Peterson is editor of BreweryWeek and CompanyWeek. Contact him at rambleusa@gmail.com.