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How many more breweries can Charlotte support?

A customer samples the beer selection at the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014.
A customer samples the beer selection at the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

On Tuesday I wrote that 21 breweries have been announced for the Charlotte area. If all of them opened, that would bring the Charlotte-area total to 48. But, like I said in that earlier story, that’s one big “if.” Many of those — most, probably — won’t open at all.

Seven of the breweries from the list I wrote about seem on track to open this year. Just for arguments sake, let’s say five do — that’s still 32 breweries in the Charlotte area.

If that happens, people are going to keep asking the question I’ve already heard a bunch of times: Can Charlotte support this many breweries?

Short answer: Yes. Longer answer: Yes, and it can probably support a decent amount more.

When I interview someone opening a brewery, I always ask the “Can Charlotte support it?” question. The answer is always “yes.” Of course it is — they wouldn’t be opening a brewery if they thought the market was saturated.

“Charlotte could have 150, 200 breweries,” Legion Brewing’s Phil Buchy told me back before the brewery opened. “There’s still a big hole in the market.”

Why? Because breweries are changing, reverting back to an earlier form. These new breweries aren’t massive “macrobrews,” mass distributing all over the world. They’re small, neighborhood breweries acting as corner pubs for locals.

Charlotte is the perfect example: If you live in South End, you probably hang out at Triple C or Sycamore or Lenny Boy, or others. If you live in Plaza Midwood, you’re probably hanging out at Legion. I know there are other parts of Charlotte that would love to have a brewery to call their own.

In 1873, there were 4,131 breweries in the U.S. We just hit 4,000 again in this country last September, according to the Brewer’s Association. And just think about how many more people are now in the U.S.

“What it means to be a brewery is shifting, back toward an era when breweries were largely local, and operated as a neighborhood bar or restaurant,” Bart Watson, chief economist of the Brewers Association, wrote in a post about the country hitting 4,000 breweries. “How many neighborhoods in the country could still stand to gain from a high-quality brewpub or micro taproom? While a return to the per capita ratio of 1873 seems unlikely (that would mean more than 30,000 breweries), the resurgence of American brewing is far from over.”

And this brewing resurgence is relatively new in Charlotte. The Old Mecklenburg Brewery is the oldest in town and it opened in 2009.

beeryoga
MARK HAMES mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Some other things to think about:

– Since The Olde Mecklenburg Brewing Company opened in 2009, only one Charlotte brewery has closed — Four Friends.

– Not only are the breweries staying open — they’re thriving. NoDa just opened a second location; OMB and Birdsong expanded; Triple C bought a neighboring building; Sycamore bought its own building; and Lenny Boy plans to expand.

– Per capita, we don’t have nearly as many breweries as some other beer-heavy cities. Take Asheville — Beer City USA — for example: 17 breweries for 87,882 people means a brewery per about 5,169 people. Charlotte proper has 16 breweries for 809,958 people — one per 50,622 people. Lots of room to grow.

Sure, it’s possible that one day we’ll hit a brewery ceiling in Charlotte. But it probably won’t happen any time soon.

Photos: Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer; Mark Hames/Charlotte Observer

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