11 Craft Beer Companies That Went From Little To Big Time

harpoon beer

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Since the 1990s, the craft brewing movement has been slowly taking over the beer-making industry.Yes, big beer makers are still king, and control more than 93 per cent of overall beer sales in the country. But of the 1,600 breweries in the United States today, 90 per cent of them are craft brewers.

Craft brewers are, by definition, small, independent and traditional. Their commitment to innovation and community seems to resonate with beer drinkers across the country, who are increasingly flocking to craft beers and even the breweries themselves.

But craft beer is still a billion dollar industry. The Brewers’ Association has a list of the Top 50 Craft Breweries in the country in 2010, based on beer sales volume.

How did they do it? We’ve detailed the best of the best for you.

11. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery - Milton, DE

This company began as the smallest commercial brewery in America, looking to bring original beer and food to the resort community of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in June of 1995. The brewpub quickly became popular for its quirky flavours and wood-burning grill. A 30-fold expansion of Dogfish Head was needed within a year.

By 1997, the brewery had separated from the restaurant to focus on brewing beer, and in 1999 the company was producing five year--round bottled brands in about a dozen states. Today, they operate out of a 100,000 square foot factory in Milton, producing beer -- and even spirits -- for 25 states.

10. Boulevard Brewing Company - Kansas City, MO

Back in 1988, founder John McDonald installed a vintage Bavarian brewhouse in an old brick building in Kansas City. Production of Boulevard's beer began the next year, and John delivered his product to nearby restaurants out of the back of his pick-up truck. The original business plan called for just 6,000 barrels of beer per year to be produced, but demand would lead to the construction of a 600,000 barrel brewery.

Boulevard is now the largest specialty brewer in the Midwest, and their Unfiltered Wheat is the best-selling beer in the region. Their beer, as well as their brewery, which is open to tours and has huge hospitality rooms for parties, is what makes them so popular.

9. Harpoon Brewery - Boston, MA

Harpoon started back in 1986 after the founders toured Europe and brought back a dream: delicious beer and a brewery that positively impacts the community. After writing up a business plan at Harvard Business School, Rich Doyle decided that the European variety of beers were lacking in America, and that this would have to be the focus of their company.

Harpoon received Massachusetts' first permit to brew and package beer in 25 years (at that point) and have been at that same Boston location ever since (though they've since expanded to Vermont as well).

Harpoon rode the craft beer wave revolution of the early 1990s to great success in New England and the greater Northeast.

8. Bell's Brewery, Inc. - Galesburg, MI

Bell's Brewery began as a home-brewing supply shop in 1983, but in 1985 a switch was made to selling its own beer, brewed out of a 15 gallon soup kettle. The first four years saw hand-brewing and delivery by Larry Bell and his nine employees before the craft brew craze caught on in the early '90s.

35,000 barrels of beer were brewed by the company until its move to Comstock in 2003. By comparison, the new facility can make up to 170,000 barrels of beer per year.

Bell's capitalised on its success by opening the Eccentric Cafe, making it the first Michigan brewery to serve beer by the glass.

7. Matt Brewing Company - Utica, NY

Matt Brewing is the oldest brewery on this list: the man known as F.X. Matt opened his shop in 1888. F.X. had left the German brewing industry to make his own name in America. He ended up reorganising a failed attempt by others and opening his own West End Brewery. The brewery even survived Prohibition and was soon joined by the sons of F.X.

Now Nick Matt (son of Walter, son of F.X.) continues the tradition of Saranac beers, which are brewed the same way that they were back in 1888.

6. Independent Brewers United (IBU)* - Burlington, VT

IBU is one of the largest craft brewers in the country, thanks to its production, marketing and selling of popular beers like Magic Hat, Pyramid, and MacTarnahan brand. It has three breweries and six retail shops across the U.S.

This year, IBU was purchased by North American Breweries, which already owns Genessee Brewery and Labatt brand beer.

*NAB includes IBU August-December, and IBU is January-August only (sale to NAB)

5. Deschutes Brewery - Bend, OR

From the beginning -- which for Deschutes Brewery was 1988 -- founder Gary Fish wanted a community approach to making beer. Said Fish of the company: 'We want people to feel like this is, in a lot of ways, theirs.'

The community responded, buying up beer by the barrel. Deschutes sold 310 barrels in its first year, and 3,954 barrels in 1992. Deschutes also began hosting an annual golf and food event to benefit local charities.

Nowadays Deschutes has two brewhouses, with plans for their facility to be able to make 105,000 barrels a year. In typical community-oriented fashion, the facility will have a water reuse system in order to save the city thousands of gallons of water.

4. Spoetzl Brewery* - Shiner, TX

Founded in 1909, Spoetzl lays claim to being the oldest independent brewery in the state of Texas. But it wasn't until 1914 -- when the German brewer Kosmas (or Kosmos) Spoetzl joined the brewery -- that the Bavarian tradition Shiner is known for today would take off.

During and after Prohibition, Spoetzel kept things small and simple, selling locally. But the brewery was acquired by Carlos Alvarez, who tripled production from 1994 to 2004. Shiner beer went from 1 per cent of the Texas beer market to the 10th largest overall brewery in the U.S.

*Spoetzl is part of Gambrinus Company

3. New Belgium Brewing Company - Fort Collins, CO

Homebrewer Jeff Lebesch visited Belgium in 1989 and was inspired by the local ingredients and recipes. Upon returning to Fort Collins, Jeff and his wife (and future CEO) Kim Jordan worked on brewing, bottling and distributing their Belgian-esque product.

The beer, which included an amber named 'Fat Tire,' was brewed in a reworked set of old dairy equipment. It was popular enough that New Belgium went commercial in 1991, becoming the first Belgian-style beer to be sold commercially in the U.S.

Today, the company uses wind power and practices fiscal transparency, looking to encourage 'a community of trust and mutual responsibility.'

2. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company - Chico, CA

After studying chemistry and physics, Ken Grossman opened his own store, The Home Brew Shop, which would eventually grow into a small brewery. Grossman and co-founder Paul Camusi reused old equipment from defunct breweries and created their first batch of beer in November of 1980.

The Sierra Nevada Pale Ale became popular enough that the brewery was moved to a new site in 1989, which eventually housed a German 100-barrel copper brew house. Even when the brew house was replaced -- a restaurant and entertainment room were added and Sierra Nevada became the brewery it is today -- the company stayed true to its roots. Ken is still as involved in the process as ever.

1. The Boston Beer Company - Boston, MA

This brewery got its start when Jim Koch brewed a batch of Samuel Adams Boston Lager beer in his kitchen, using a recipe from his great-great-grandfather. Koch started by bringing his beer in bottles door-to-door, but the quality of his brew could not be denied.

Just one year later, in 1985, Sam Adams was selected as 'The Best Beer in America' in The Great American Beer Festival's Consumer Preference Poll.

Koch went on to open breweries in Pennsylvania and Cincinnati, which helped make Samuel Adams the largest craft brewer in the country, brewing almost two million barrels of Sam Adams beer.

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