A love affair has blossomed between local microbreweries and craft beer aficionados
In 2013, when Eric Williams and his partners opened Mispillion River Brewing in Milford, Williams pictured himself “owning a great brewery, making all this beer and having a lot of fun.” All of that came true, but so did a sober reality: “It’s a really hard business to be in,” he admits. “We’re putting out a good product, but now there’s a lot of competition with some really good Delaware beers.”
In the past year, Big Oyster Brewing (inside Fins Ale House & Raw Bar) near Midway, Crooked Hammock Brewery outside Lewes and Dewey Beer Co. in Dewey Beach all opened. Revelation Craft Brewing Company unveiled a tasting room in West Rehoboth in July. Next year, the company hopes to put a brewpub on the site of a historic Belltown church on Route 9.
These newbies joined 16 Mile Brewery Company in Georgetown and regional competitors such as 3rd Wave Brewing Co. in Delmar, Burley Oak Brewing Company in Berlin, Md., and Evolution Craft Brewing Co. in Salisbury, Md. And then, of course, there is Milton-based Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, which started it all in 1995.
The good news is that a cluster of breweries makes the beach resort area a destination for aficionados. The bad news is that opening a brewery or brewpub here still requires determination, perseverance, sacrifice and the ability to stand out from local, regional and national competition.
The rise of craft beer
Coastal Sussex County wasn’t always the brewing epicenter of the state. John Medkeff Jr., author of “Brewing in Delaware,” found no significant pre-Prohibition activity here. “I theorize that there were several reasons for that, not the least of which was the general lack of a large population or population center in the county,” he says. “The influence of religiously based temperance advocates in Sussex throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries also played a role.” What’s more, many of Wilmington’s large pre-Prohibition breweries owned stakes in Sussex County hotels and saloons, so those brewers “had a lock on the business,” he notes.
Prohibition was the death knell for most Delaware breweries, even after repeal in 1933. By the end of 1955, the state’s last brewery had closed, according to Medkeff. By 1980, the top 10 breweries in America, including Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Pabst, produced 93 percent of the beer.
Craft breweries, which produce 6 million barrels of beer (186 million gallons) a year nationally, took hold in the 1990s. The Brewers Association, an industry trade group, defines a craft brewery as, in part, an operation that is less than 25 percent owned or controlled by the “big beer” companies (Budweiser, Coors, etc.). For fans, the real difference between craft beer and “big beer” is the flavor, which usually comes from bucking mainstream traditions and adding innovative ingredients.
In 1995, when brewpubs were becoming trendy and home-brewing kits were the rage, Sam Calagione decided to open Dogfish Head as a brewpub in downtown Rehoboth. But first he successfully lobbied legislators to reverse a state law against brewpubs that dated back to Prohibition. He brewed up a business using a shoestring marketing budget, charisma that made him the darling of the industry and, most importantly, a reputation for creating esoteric beers that consumers embraced. The main brewery operation moved to the Nassau area near Lewes in 1997. In 2002, it relocated to Milton. (The brewpub’s on-site equipment is now used for one-off beers and test beers that customers can sample.)
While brewpubs and breweries popped up in northern Delaware and surrounding states, Sussex County stayed quiet, perhaps owing to the seasonal population. Indeed, there was a craft beer bust in the late 1990s; if a brewery had an inferior product or a brewpub served lousy food, it was likely to fail by the turn of the century.
The interest in craft beer didn’t die, however. Instead, it steadily increased, and a new generation of home brewers and craft beer fans decided to turn their hobbies into businesses. In 2009, Georgetown-based 16 Mile opened, as did Delmar-based Evolution. (The latter moved to Salisbury in 2012 and 3rd Wave moved into Evolution’s old digs.) The industry continued to gather steam: In 2015, U.S. craft brewers experienced a 13 percent increase in volume. It was the eighth consecutive year of double-digit growth. With 4,269 breweries, the craft beer industry has a 12 percent market share, according to the Brewers Association. In Delaware, craft beer in 2014 had a $264 million impact on the state’s economy, and the number of breweries has grown from seven in 2011 to 15 in 2015, with the bulk of activity in southern Delaware.
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