The love affair Massachusetts has with beer might seem like a contradiction in a state where the remnants of a strictly Puritan ethos still lingers. A strictly enforced 2:00 am closing time if you’re lucky? Check. A transit system that shuts down shortly after midnight? Check. An Alcohol Beverage Control Commission licensing system that seems Kafka-esque at best? Check. But close to 200 different breweries throughout the state? It’s not a checkmate, but it’s pretty close.
It’s something we should be proud of. It’s something craft beer drinkers love to point out. And yes… we are in the top twenty states with the most breweries. So is Indiana. Ohio. Virginia. All of whom rank higher on the list. Boston doesn’t even make the list of the top 25 cities with the most craft breweries. Kalamazoo does. Yakima, Washington does. But Boston? We’re number… well, no one’s really certain.
But it’s quality you want from a brewery, not mass production—no matter how many cans of Natty Ice you might find littering your front stoop on any given day. And Massachusetts has historically seen some pretty formidable names over the past ten years; Night Shift, Jack’s Abby, Idle Hands. All a far cry from the days in which Jim Koch’s adenoidal bleating was synonymous with independent beer in Massachusetts.
Last year saw the introduction of almost 30 different independent breweries in the Commonwealth. That’s the good news. Particularly if you’re on the North Shore or Western MA, both of whom commanded the lion’s share of that amount. The bad news? Twelve different breweries and taprooms ceased production in 2019, and these aren’t just nanobreweries or even nano-nanobreweries. Boston Beer Works ceased on-site brewing operations at its two main Boston locations, Mystic Brewery and Plymouth Brewing. Even Down the Road Beer Company, one of the City of Everett’s chief attractions outside of a fledgling multi-billion dollar casino operation. All casualties of a record year for brewery closures.
What’s to blame? Is it the same the craft beer bubble poised to burst that Teetotaling Thomases have been predicting for years? Is it a highly publicized push among Millennials to embrace sobriety? Is it the sudden and inexplicable explosion in the popularity of hard seltzer?
Not quite. Each of these 12 closures reveals distinct factors that aren’t necessarily motivated by waning interest or market saturation, long-term health issues or commercial property disputes, unwieldy regulatory statutes, debt or simply bad marketing. It’s not that fragmentation is plaguing the local craft beer market. But independent brewing is a specialized and still burgeoning industry. One that faces absolute unpredictability as much as it faces… well, draconian licensing laws. Casualties will happen and collateral damage is never far away in any industry.
It’s been estimated that 20 breweries are slated to open in Massachusetts in 2020, and we’re still not even halfway past January. Whether any of them survive the next three years remains to be seen. Whether any of them will produce any innovative offerings also remains to be seen. But they deserve your support. Quit heralding the death of independent breweries like Chicken Little armed with a PowerPoint presentation and a truly punchable sense of smugness. They deserve your patronage. They deserve better than predictions of fallibility. They don’t deserve to be a statistic. They don’t deserve specialized regulatory constraints. And you don’t deserve to punish yourself by drinking Truly. That crap will rot your teeth faster than any malt liquor (and you know exactly who you are….)
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