Craft Beer Is The Most Jeffersonian Industry in America

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July 3 2014 2:32 PM

The Most Jeffersonian Industry in America

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A bartender pours a glass of "table liquor," as Jefferson would have put it.

Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images

If Thomas Jefferson were mystically resurrected from the grave this Fourth of July, I’m pretty sure he would spend most of the day gawking in horror at contemporary American life, dominated as it is by massive, impersonal corporations and dense metropolitan economies. However, I also like to think he would—as so many Americans will this weekend—take great comfort in American beer, not just because it is delicious, or because the man made his own (it's not like he just drank wine), but also because today’s brewers might be the closest thing we’ve got going to the yeoman farmers Jefferson so adored.

Maybe I’m stretching things a little for the sake of a holiday news peg. But it’s hard to think of another industry that’s been so thoroughly improved by hundreds of tiny, ferociously local operations in recent years. This week, the government delivered its own account of the craft beer revolution, via data from the Economic Census, which is released every five years. All told, it found there were 833 brewers in the U.S. as of 2012, up from a mere 371 in 2007. Together, they employed about 26,000 workers. The vast majority, however, had fewer than 20 employees.

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Precisely how micro- are most of our micro-breweries? To get more specific, we can turn to a slightly different data source. The Census’ 2012 survey of county business patterns finds there were 880 brewery establishments, of which more than half had fewer than five employees. Fewer than 100 had more than 50 people on payroll. Now, an “establishment” is just the technical term for a place of business, like a manufacturing plant or an office. So one large brewer can have multiple establishments. But the point remains that, even if the lion’s share of beer is still sold by multinational behemoths like Anheuser-Busch InBev, most of the companies making beer and pushing consumer tastes forward are absolutely tiny.

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It’s also possible that the government is actually undercounting small U.S. breweries. According to the Brewers Association, a craft beer trade group, there were well over 1,200 brewers (not counting brew pubs) in the U.S. in 2012. Bart Watson, the association’s chief economist, said the government might be missing some because the Economic Census is voluntary, and many small brewery proprietors don’t bother sending in their forms. And because the industry has grown so rapidly year to year, we might simply not know about some of the newer entrants.

Details aside, if any industry stands for the virtues that the author of the Declaration of Independence cherished—smallness, independence, and booziness—I'd say it's craft beer. Happy Fourth!

Jordan Weissmann is Slate's senior business and economics correspondent.

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