Bottoms up for craft beer

Boulder-region brewers at GABFAsher Brewing Co., Boulder

Avery Brewing Co., Boulder

BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse,Boulder

Boulder Beer Co., Boulder

CB Potts Restaurant & Brewery,Broomfield

Left Hand Brewing Co.,Longmont

Los Oasis Latin Grill & Cerveceria, Boulder

Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery,Boulder

New Planet Beer Co., Boulder

Oskar Blues Brewery,Longmont

Pumphouse Brewery and Restaurant, Longmont

Redstone Meadery, Boulder

Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery (CraftWorks),Louisville

Twisted Pine Brewing Co.,Boulder

Upslope Brewing Co., Boulder

Source: Great American Beer Festival company listing

If you go

What: Great American Beer Festival

When: Friday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Where: Colorado Convention Center, Denver

Admission: Tickets have long been sold-out, but are still available on Craigslist, StubHub and other websites.

More info:greatamericanbeerfestival.com

As 466 brewers show off their wares this weekend at the nation’s biggest beer festival, they don’t need an industry stat sheet to know they’re onto something good.

Still, the numbers show, well, heady performance.

Sales of craft beer are soaring, and they show no signs of going flat. American consumers increasingly are forgoing their traditional Buds, Coors and Millers in favor of low-volume yet full-flavored crafts.

“People are voting with their dollars, and they want a good-tasting beer,” said Chris Lennert, vice president of operations at Left Hand Brewing in Longmont.

Craft beers tallied $7.65 billion in sales last year, up nearly 12 percent from 2009, according to the Boulder-based Brewers Association.

A one-year burp? Not hardly.

The industry’s growth has averaged 12 percent a year over the past five years.

This year could be bigger. Sales in the first half of 2011 were up 15 percent compared to last year.

On the other end of the beer bar, consumption of mass-produced brews was down 3.1 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to the Beverage Information Group, an industry research firm.

Lingering economic weakness has taken a greater toll on the big players in the industry than on smaller craft brewers, said Paul Gatza, director of the Boulder-based Brewers Association.

“Craft beer is an affordable luxury,” he said. “People are willing to spend a little bit more for something they really want to drink.”

The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as producing less than 6 million barrels a year, having no more than 25 percent ownership by a non-craft alcoholic beverage company, and using only malt rather than adjunct grains for a majority of its production.

The latest numbers come ahead of the the excitement and crowd-mashing fervor of this weekend’s Great American Beer Festival — where 49,000 attendees taste a virtually endless succession of one-ounce pours.

The festival atmosphere has been seemingly present all week at Longmont’s Pumphouse Brewery and Restaurant.

“We definitely see a lot of people coming through this week that are brewery hopping — either industry folks … or they’re beer tourists,” said Stephen Streeter, head brewer for the brewpub at 540 Main St.

The Pumphouse is one of 15 brewers in Boulder and Broomfield counties pouring, touting and talking beers at the sold-out affair. While some breweries strive for the competition element of the event, the festival represents an opportunity for the Pumphouse to showcase its beers, Streeter said.

“Everyone that’s there is excited about beer; they’re very engaged,” he said. “It’s an exhilarating time. A thousand people will talk to you in less than four hours.”

This year marks the third festival for the nearly 3-year-old Upslope Brewing Co., of Boulder. The premier event for craft brewers helps to put the fledgling canned beer company on a bigger stage, said Henry Wood, Upslope’s director of sales and marketing.

“It’s national exposure for our beer,” he said. “That’s just huge.”

Despite its impressive growth, the small-batch beer sector accounts for just 4.9 percent of all U.S. beer sales. Five out of 10 American drinkers go straight to the “light” shelf, with Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite and Natural Lite holding four out of the top five best-selling beer positions.

Even so, the light-beer category saw consumption fall by 1.9 percent last year, said Eric Schmidt, director of information services for the Beverage Information Group.

Schmidt said big brewers are emphasizing consolidation and generating profits, even at the expense of losing ground to crafts.

Industry analysts say the craft industry’s toehold on market share is likely to rise.

“I used to be a light (beer) drinker, but I’m branching out now,” said Kristen Callahan, who on a recent evening sipped an Odell 90 Shilling at the Park Tavern in Denver. “I don’t want something too strong or hoppy, but I want it to have some taste.”

The number of craft-beer enthusiasts has been a revelation to Tim Myers, who with business partner John Fletcher started the tiny Strange Brewing Co. in Denver last year.

After being laid off from their information technology jobs, the pair used their combined retirement savings to start the operation using Myers’ 20-gallon homebrew equipment.

Strange is part of a growing phenomenon of upstart “nano-brewers” whose minuscule production makes even small craft brewers look large.

“People were teasing us that we should be in whatever is below the ‘nano’ category, like maybe a pico-brewery,” Myers said.

But after a year of brewing one-barrel batches and immediately selling the beer in a small central Denver tasting room, Strange has upgraded to a seven-barrel capacity.

Myers said the brewery saw a big sales surge last year after it was one of the participating brewers at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival.

“That was our coming-out party,” he said. “Now we’re going to try to continue growing and serve our customers and make good beer.”

Camera Staff Writer Alicia Wallace contributed to this report.

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