Weyerbacher Brewing co-owner weighs in on growth of company, craft beer industry
Pennsylvania produces more craft beer than any state in the country, having churned out 3.9 million barrels last year, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association, a trade group for small and independent breweries.
It helps that America’s oldest and largest craft-beer producer, D.G. Yuengling and Son Inc., is based in Schuylkill County.
The commonwealth also benefits from the Boston Beer Co., maker of Samuel Adams, the nation’s No. 2 craft-beer company, which has one of its three U.S. brewery facilities in the Lehigh Valley.
As president of the Brewers of Pennsylvania, Chris Lampe is well aware of these facts. The statewide trade group for craft brewers has experienced tremendous growth this decade, swelling from about a dozen members in 2011 to more than 150 today.
Lampe is co-owner and production manager at Weyerbacher Brewing Co. in Easton, one of a small group of Pennsylvania breweries that have been around for more than 20 years. Its peers include Derry Township-based Troegs Brewing Co. and Harrisburg-based Appalachian Brewing Co. in Central Pennsylvania.
They have watched the beer industry bubble up in Pennsylvania, as it has nationwide. There were more than 5,200 craft breweries in the U.S. last year, more than double the number in 2012.
Despite the growth, craft brewers still face some challenges. Among the association’s top legislative priorities is giving breweries more flexibility in distribution agreements with wholesalers.
Current law requires breweries to distribute their products through a single wholesaler in a territory under contracts that are difficult to break, unless the breweries handle their own distribution. The association wants breweries to be able to buy their way out of existing distribution agreements, achieving what it calls beer equity.
With the explosion of craft-beer producers, the industry now contributes nearly $68 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the Brewers Association. That number comes from “the total impact of beer brewed by craft brewers as it moves through the three-tier system (breweries, wholesalers and retailers), as well as all non-beer products that brewpub restaurants and brewery taprooms sell.”
The association’s report also tracks the number of people employed by the craft beer industry, which rose to 456,373 “full-time equivalent jobs” in 2016.
Pennsylvania’s craft-beer industry accounts for nearly 40,000 of those jobs and is No. 2 among states for economic impact of craft beer at $5.8 billion, trailing only California ($7.3 billion).
Lampe, who will be the keynote speaker at next week’s Business of Beer symposium in Lancaster County, spoke with the Business Journal about his company’s evolution and the hop-filled expansion of his industry.
Scheduled for Oct. 11, the Business of Beer is the first-of-its kind event to be hosted by the Business Journal. Targeted to people interested in the brewing industry, it’s geared toward the business investor, the craft beer hobbyist or someone ready to take their beer-brewing business to the next level.
Q: Some people in Central Pa. may not be familiar with Weyerbacher. Can you give me a brief history of the brewery and your involvement in the company?
A: Weyerbacher started in 1995. I have been tangentially involved since the beginning. However, I came on full-time with the organization in 2004. We have gone from producing 2,500 barrels a year to just shy of 20,000 barrels a year. We have gone from five employees to somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 full-time equivalent employees. And we are now in 22 states.
With the recent changes in state liquor laws, including flexible packaging options for beer distributors, is it easier for people to discover and buy craft beer? Are you experiencing growth at Weyerbacher?
Yes, of course. That had been the case for 49 other states for at least five years. It works very well for them.
As Weyerbacher, it has increased our ability to sell products to the consumer that they want without having to buy a full case.
As a consumer, I prefer to be able to buy a six-pack over a case of beer. It’s not very often I take a case of beer home from my brewery. It’s normally a six-pack. So from a consumer standpoint, I think that’s where this is helping everybody out.
You’re now in 22 states at Weyerbacher. How do you pick new states to enter these days and why is geographic expansion still so important? Is every state in the long-term plan?
For Weyerbacher to continue to put out the quality of beer that we want to and maintain the quality employees that are going to be able to do that, we need to expand. As other entrants come into the market, we can lose shelf space to all of the rest of the people that are there.
In all honesty, it has been somewhat of an organic process. We haven’t necessarily had the plan to get to the size that we are, but we’re just continuing to work with it as it goes. There is no plan to be in all 50 states. If it happens because people want the beer, it happens.
What is your capacity in Easton and will you soon need to expand?
We are about 18,000 barrels (per year) right now and have the ability to make 30,000.
Not just yet. It’s at least three or four years down the road before anything like that happens.
Can you talk about regional craft-beer growth? The Lehigh Valley is strong, but what do you think of Central Pa. and how it compares?
The Harrisburg market has gotten to be quite good. Between Artie (at ABC) and Troegs, they really started the whole thing. With Brandalynn (Armstrong) over at Zeroday, I can’t say anything less than positive about what they’ve been doing. It continues to grow there.
Is there pressure for craft breweries to sell to larger companies or investment groups to scale the business? How often does that come up for companies of your size?
I can only do Weyerbacher. All I will say on that is we’ve had no calls from any of those large guys.
After 20-plus years, what inspires Weyerbacher to continue to push the envelope with new beers?
I think everybody is experimenting all the time and putting out new stuff. Within our brewery, we have our major brewing system, but we have a pilot system also that produces a new three-barrel batch a week of something to test at the taproom. Those things turn into new products that we bring to market.
There is a lot of different flavors that we’re experimenting with all the time and (we’re) looking for what the consumer is going to want.
You have a new beer called Dallas Sucks. Is that just sold in Pa. during football season or does it get into other markets like Texas?
We actually distribute to Texas and have a request for it there. Apparently there are a lot of cities that don’t care for Dallas, at least the football team.
But we have allocated a certain amount of (Dallas Sucks) profits that go to flood relief in Houston.
Do you have a favorite Weyerbacher beer? How about non-Weyerbacher?
My go-to beer is still is our Line Street Pilsner. I always, and not because I’m president of the BOP, have some Yuengling Lager in my fridge. And I almost always have some Straub in my fridge. Both of them have a place in my heart from college. They make very fine beers and they are good to have around.