I'll drink to that: Microbrewery boom creating jobs, boosting economy

SEATTLE - Since opening Reuben's Brews in Ballard last year, Adam Robbings has seen the number of microbreweries within a stone's throw of his tasting room nearly double. And if you ask him why, the reason is simple - beer brings people together.

"People drink and chat and they drink and chat in their neighborhoods," Robbings says. "So, if they can go out in a space where what they're consuming is actually made, it adds a nice dimension to the community."

But, there is more to the local craft scene than just good beer and building community. According to the Brewers Association, a national organization which promotes small and independent brewers, the industry as a whole is helping create good paying jobs and revenue for local economies, particularly right there in Washington.

"People would be amazed at how important this industry is," says Bart Watson, staff economist of the Brewers Association.

The Washington Beer Commission says currently there are 65 microbreweries in the Seattle area alone and another 15 are expected to start serving soon. But, Eric Radovich, executive director for the commission, says this isn't an isolated phenomenon.

"We are also seeing growth in Bellingham, Spokane, Bremerton," Radovich says. "The Olympic Peninsula now has eight to nine breweries."

With 158 micro-breweries located across the state, Washington ranks second in the country, trailing only California, for number of craft breweries.

Recently, the Brewers Association has been tracking the growth of the craft beer business across the country, looking at production, volume, sales and employment. Watson says in 2011, Washington produced more than 235,500 barrels of beer. Last year, that number jumped nearly 24 percent, to 291,100 barrels.

"This industry has grown so much that it does have a big quantifying impact on state economies," Watson says.

The association estimates the industry as a whole provides more than 108,400 jobs in the United States. Watson says that number includes not only service staff in brewpubs but also a number of high-value, higher wage manufacturing jobs.

In just the first six months of this year, the association cites a 15-percent increase in craft beer sales and a 13-percent jump in volume across the country. But, it's not just the micro-brewing industry that's staying busy.

A recent Gallup poll showed drinking habits, specifically among 30 to 49 years old, has started to shift towards liquor, and the spirits industry is taking note.

"There is this excitement around the idea of local," says Garrett Kephart, founder of Seattle Spirits Society, LLC. "We primarily taste spirits that are small batch and are locally made."

Kephart and several of his friends launched the Seattle Spirits Society last year. The member-based business holds small monthly tastings of various spirits, and he says they've seen an increasing interest to taste and appreciate the smaller batch, locally crafted distilling process.

"Our primary purpose is to create a forum to better understand a variety of distilled spirits in a responsible manner," he says.

Despite the Gallup poll findings, the local micro-brewery industry doesn't seem worried.

Radovich says when he started as executive director for the Washington Beer Commission in 2009 he thought his job would be to help micro-breweries sell their beer, but he has quickly learned they don't need that kind of help.

"To date I am having hard time finding anyone who isn't already selling all the beer they make," Radovich says. "Our brewers make great beer. There isn't anyone out there making skunk beer, and I think there has been a real desire for it."

Exactly how much money the craft beer business brings to this state is still being evaluated by the Brewers Association. It plans to release the results of its economic impact study in September. Watson says he believes with the volume and numbers of small craft breweries located here, Washington should rank fairly high in the report.