The number of American breweries topped 5,000 for the first time last year, with craft beer makers accounting for 5,234 of 5,301 U.S. breweries, according to new figures from the Brewers Association.
Just five years ago, there were only about 2,000 U.S. craft brewers, which the Brewers Association defines as small or independent beer makers. Last year alone, more than 800 opened for business.
Compared to those increases, changes in the overall American beer market were less dramatic, the industry group says. While craft brewers managed to capture $23.5 billion of the money spent on beer last year — a 10 percent gain over 2015 — their volume share remained essentially flat, at 12.3 percent of the amount of beer sold in the U.S.
"Small and independent brewers are operating in a new brewing reality still filled with opportunity, but within a much more competitive landscape," said Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association.
In particular, Watson pointed to the acquisition of several successful craft breweries by large beer companies in recent years. When popular breweries such as Ballast Point, Elysian and Devil's Backbone are acquired by multinational corporations, their results are either removed from the craft beer ranks or prorated over the year.
With some 1.2 million barrels of production stripped from the 2016 tally, the craft beer segment still managed to post 6 percent growth in volume, Watson said.
"Small and independent brewers were able to fill in the barrels lost to acquisitions and show steady growth," he said, "but at a rate more reflective of today's industry dynamics."
Taken together, the number of U.S. breweries rose by 17 percent in 2016, with craft microbreweries leading the way with a 21 percent increase (to 3,132). The rest of the craft segment includes 1,916 craft brewpubs and 186 regional craft breweries.
Addressing the increasingly common question of another potential snag for the industry — whether the legalization of recreational marijuana might cut into the beer market — Watson told reporters in a briefing, "I haven't seen any strong evidence" that beer consumption has dropped in states that have legalized pot. He also noted that beer's popularity rose last year in Colorado, one of the first states to embrace marijuana sales.