Buy Local – A Blessing or Curse for Craft Brewers?

One of the most significant trends emerging in the modern world is the shift to “buying local”. More and more people are choosing to support local butchers, farmers, dairies and other businesses. While prices might be slightly higher when shopping with smaller organizations rather than the “big boys”, the benefit to the local economy is certainly significant. However, the “buy local” situation can be problematic for many, particularly for small brewers trying to remain afloat in an increasingly competitive industry. What’s the issue here? Let’s take a peek at why buying local might not always be possible (or preferable) for local breweries.

Buy Local – It’s Not Just for Consumers

The “buy local” mantra has largely been seen as applying to consumers. That is, residents of a specific area are encouraged to buy their goods and services from local businesses. However, the rule is being applied to those companies now, too. That means that the entire supply infrastructure for those companies needs to come from the region in which they are located. For many businesses, this isn’t a huge issue.

For instance, consider a dairy – most dairies are able to purchase the food needed for their cattle from local farmers. They’re often able to purchase their equipment from local suppliers. Even the bottling and packaging of cream, milk, butter and other products can be handled locally. So, what’s the problem for brewers then?

The problem for small brewers is that many ingredients for beer are not available from local suppliers. For example, hops are pretty particular in the regions in which they thrive and are not available in all areas. Many local areas don’t have the supply of grains needed, nor are there malting facilities available from which to source malt for their brews. Packaging and bottling are not usually big concerns here, but sourcing basic ingredients is.

Why Is It an Issue?

In most areas of the US, sourcing some ingredients from the local area and others from elsewhere isn’t a huge problem. However, in Massachusetts, things are getting a bit hairy for small brewers. The government is instituting a 50% rule for small brewers mandating that they purchase or grow at least 50% of any grains or hops used in brewing their beer. Buying half of the needed ingredients doesn’t seem difficult, at least on the surface. However, when you dig a bit deeper you see the real problem. It’s simply not feasible.

The climate in Massachusetts is not necessarily ideal for growing all grains needed for brewers, nor are there ample supplies of locally grown hops. Most breweries have neither the time nor the ability to grow and process their own supplies either. So, what happens to small breweries that are unable to meet these regulations? Most will fail and go out of business. That’s certainly not a good way to maintain the “buy local” mindset or grow the local economy.

Change Is Coming

While “buy local” might not be particularly feasible for small brewers today, change is on the horizon. Local hops growers are once again beginning to emerge, and there are even independent malting facilities that are beginning to sprout up. However, growth is slow in these areas, largely due to the cost involved with getting these types of operations up and running. For instance, the cost of developing a hops yard can be as high as $10,000 or more for a single acre of land. That cost also doesn’t account for the pelletizing process used to transform dried hops into the form usually used in brewing (though whole-leaf hops can be used).

On top of the problems associated with development and production costs, small hops and grain producers are just that – small. They might sell their entire crop to a single brewery, leaving nothing for other struggling breweries. 

Change is coming, but it’s a slow thing. Few entrepreneurs are willing to take a chance on starting such a business if there’s not a huge demand and a guaranteed profit to be made. The initial costs alone keep all but the most passionate from getting into the act as well. 

What’s to Be Done?

There are conflicting suggestions as to what should be done to help small breweries struggling with buy local laws and regulations. Some suggest widening the concept of what “local” means to include regional sellers. For instance, a brewery in Massachusetts might be able to purchase hops from a hop yard in Maine and still have it considered local. A brewery in Georgia might be able to purchase grains from a grower in Alabama and still consider those “locally produced”. It all depends on the legal definition of what is considered “local”.

Another suggestion is that governments mandate the buy local rule for only some of the necessary ingredients for beer, leaving those that are not widely available in a specific area off the list. That would allow breweries to purchase supplies available in their area from local producers, benefitting the economy, but would allow them to source others from different areas. This would help them remain afloat without crippling regulations forcing them out of business.

In the End, It’s in Your Hands

Ultimately, the success or failure of local breweries is in your hands – the consumer. This goes far beyond buying craft brewed beer to consume at home. It has more to do with encouraging lawmakers to realize that crippling breweries is not the best way to stabilize and grow the local economy. It’s about voting for local government officials that take a different view toward brewing and those who are not beholden to lobbyists and campaign contributions from Big Beer pundits.

In the end, ensuring that local breweries are not only able to remain afloat but to flourish largely comes down to the decisions that you make regarding the elected officials behind whom you put your vote. If craft beer and buying local is important to you, make sure you make your voice heard.