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Maybe Canada Ain’t So Small After All

While in San Francisco for the American Craft Brewers Conference, I wrote about my awe at the size of both the event and the American craft brewing industry, remarking at the time how much farther we need to go in Canada. Well, I have been chewing that over since my return back home, and I have re-considered that impression.

Craft brewing in the U.S. is big. No question. They have craft brewers who make hundreds of millions of litres of beer a year. In cities like Portland, craft beer makes up a whopping 30% of the market. In 2011 there are almost 2000 craft brewers, with an estimated 250 new start ups each year. That is plenty big. No wonder I felt so small when I first got to San Francisco.

Our breweries are far smaller than U.S. breweries, and nowhere outside of Whitehorse do craft breweries dominate the market. In a way this isn’t surprising – the US has 10 times the population. However, I learned a few things that temper the aw. First, a handful of really big breweries like Anchor, Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer Company and such, skew the averages a bit. The biggest portion of of craft operations in the U.S. are brewpubs – 60% of all craft brewers. There are a lot of small breweries across the 50 states. And, not all U.S. states are equally developed. For every Washington or California, there is a Mississippi or Texas.

That line of inquiry got me thinking about the situation from a different angle. So I went away and did some math. While the volume and reach of craft brewing in the U.S. clearly dwarfs us up in Canada, in some ways we are doing pretty damned well.

For example did you know that Canada has more craft brewers per capita than the U.S.? We do. We have 11% of the population of our southern neighbours. They have 1759 craft brewers. By my count Canada has 275 (and I might be missing a few). We average a brewery for every 124,648 citizens. The States has one for every 176,846 people. I put it in a chart for you to make the picture clearer. A smaller bar is better in this case.

Intrigued, I probed a bit further. I found a document that ranked U.S. States by their breweries per capita. Surprisingly Vermont and Montana come out on top, with Mississippi and Louisiana pulling up the rear. I was taken aback to see California only ranks 21st, and New York is a lowly 39th.

I ran the numbers for Canada’s provinces and inserted them into the U.S. list. And promptly had to pick my jaw back off the ground. Per capita, Yukon (one for every 34,306 residents) would place SECOND overall, behind only Vermont. B.C. wold place 10th, Nova Scotia 11th and Quebec 16th. Alberta, with its relatively weak beer culture, would be 44th, and Manitoba ranks last in Canada at 55th. Saskatchewan was a tough case because they have more than a dozen pseudo-brewpubs and I wasn’t sure whether to include them or not. If I do, Saskatchewan is 5th. If I don’t they are 30th.

In the chart on the right, I compare some Canadian provinces with some high profile U.S. states. We hold our own, thank you very much.

Now I don’t want to take this game of statistical twister too far. I realize that breweries only producing 5,000 to 10,000 hectolitres (a hectolitre is 100 litres) a year, no matter how many you have, don’t have the same impact as one brewery that takes a measurable chunk of market share. In San Francisco, Anchor Steam was everywhere, and other California breweries popped up in the smallest of stores and restaurants. That kind of market penetration doesn’t happen much in Canada. So there still is reason to be impressed by what the American craft beer scene has achieved.

But I think I was too fast to bemoan our fate in Canada. We may not have the market penetration of the U.S., but we hold our own both in terms of quality and diversity. Alberta has as many breweries as Tennessee and South Carolina. Only Colorado, Oregon, Washington and California have more breweries than Quebec. And can anyone in the U.S. claim, as Yukon Brewing can, that in their hometown they sell more draught beer than the big boys COMBINED?

Statistics only tell us so much. But for me running a few numbers helped me develop a fuller perspective. We might be a small pond up here in Canada, but we have an impressive array of good-looking fish. So who cares if they are smaller than the fish in the lake next door? It doesn’t make them any less attractive. Keep on brewing, Canadians!

10 comments to Maybe Canada Ain’t So Small After All

  • Hoser

    One interesting I learnt in the last month, Montreal has the third most breweries per capita of any North American city. Denver being number 1 and Portland,Oregon being number 2.

  • Hunter Ridge Farm

    I can attest to Montana’s strong craft breweries, my wife and I have went on four micro-brewery trips to Montana in the last ten years. More and more of them sprout up every couple of years in a state with a population smaller than that of Calgary. We have frequented at least 20 odd craft breweries in Montana alone. Great beer, great people and the growler tradition really needs to be picked up here. They will fill mine at Alley Kat but at the Wild Rose they refuse to because of their party pigs. How do you refuse a beer sale? Still love ya Wild Rose, but come on, get with it Alberta brewers, get with it.

  • Jonathan

    The US has over three thousand breweries. Your numbers are wrong.

  • robert

    I’ve been living in the states for about 20 years. The biggest problem/difference in the Canada vs USA craft beer debate is this…

    I currently live in rural North Carolina – think hillbillies and overalls – population of the nearest city is about 4,500. I can drive one mile down the road to my little country grocery store, and buy sierra nevada, dogfish head, sweetwater, new belgium, oskar blues, foothills, highland, terrapin, red oak, and beer from a dozen other amazing craft breweries. If I drive a few more miles (maybe ten) I’ll be at a whole foods where I can get crazy obscure beers produced by probably a hundred different craft brewers.

    When I return to Canada, I’m going to the Barrie, Ontario area…about an hour north of one of the biggest cities in Canada…Toronto. The population of the City of Barrie is about 130,000, but if you include the surrounding suburban sprawl I’d bet it is closer to 250,000. Such a huge population, and density of people, and I can’t find any decent beer, and if I do, it’s only offered on tap or in a growler, and requires deep insider information to even find.

    Compare that to the selection offered by my little country grocer in a rural NC town of 4,500.

    This is the real difference between craft beer in Canada, and craft beer in the states.

  • […] about five and a half percent of the market. Fortunately for beer drinkers in our country, hundreds of microbreweries and brewpubs have sprung up on Canadian soil since the 1980s. With these small, local breweries producing high-caliber beer with tremendous flavour, Canadians […]

  • […] century. And in Canada, while there are not as many breweries, hovering around 300, there are more breweries per capita, which is a red flag when gauging saturation of a […]

  • Kevin

    @Hoser, Montreal cannot be the third in North America since in Quebec the first place goes to Saguenay Lac-St-Jean which is host to 8 for a population of 275 000.

    @Robert, That is because you aren’t in the right part of Canada… Quebec and the Maritime drink more beers. Believe me I grew up in a 2500 people town and the local shop had a great selection.

  • […] for beer drinkers in our country, hundreds of microbreweries and brewpubs have sprung up on Canadian soil since the 1980s. With these small, local breweries producing high-caliber beer with tremendous flavour, Canadians […]

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