Easter sierra getting on the “beer geek” map.
Sean Turner, co-owner of the Mammoth Brewing Company, purchased the brewery from Sam Walker in 2007 after seeing its potential. He has been in the craft beer business now for a total of 20 years, owning a beer distribution company, as well as breweries, during that time. He cut his teeth in a major metropolitan area of California, but always wanted to live in a ski town and own or run a brewery. When a friend introduced him to Walker, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
Turner saw the rise and wane of microbreweries during the nineties, but it only foreshadowed what was to come. “The craft beer segment of the beer industry has exploded in last 5-7 years,” Sean said. “Craft beer is one of those luxuries that all economic classes are willing to spend money on.”
And spend, they do. According to the Brewers’ Association, craft beer sales grew at a rate of 18% in 2014. Overall beer sales grew at a meager rate of 0.5% in comparison. There are now 3,418 craft breweries throughout the nation and business is booming.
In 2014, 615 new breweries opened their doors, on top of nearly 1,000 over the previous two years. Only 46 of those breweries failed in 2014. Craft beer sales claimed a total of 11% of beer market share in 2014.
A craft brewery is defined by its output. Commonly called microbreweries, they are classified by the Brewers Association as producing less than six million barrels of beer annually and make beer with traditional ingredients like malted barley, but also have the freedom to innovate with non-traditional ingredients.
Brewers Association stats rank California #1 for economic impact of its craft breweries – $4.7 billion worth for 2014.
California breweries’ positive track record is several years running. “Providing a product as diverse as the state itself,” stated a 2012 economic impact study from the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, “the California craft brewing industry is an integral part of the state’s economy. Producing approximately 2.2 million barrels in 2011 – equating to one in five craft beers brewed in the United States. In 2011, the 243 breweries considered in this study generated approximately $3 billion in total economic impact in California contributing significantly to the state’s total economy.”
Mammoth Brewing Company was the first brewery to open in Inyo or Mono Counties, but two new breweries are now part of the action.
Justin and Sarah Walsh moved to June Lake about 5 years ago and knew that if they were going to stay in the area, they needed to start some type of business to make it work. Justin, who holds a Masters in Business Administration, with a focus in Entrepreneurship, has worked in a number of industries prior to getting into hte brewing industry. He said, “My wife and I home brewed for many years. A brewery seemed to be something missing from June Lake that could provide additional public good, a sense of community and could highlight things going on in the Sierra.”
When the couple decided to open June Lake Brewing, with Sarah as CEO and Justin as the Maker of Beer and Doer of Things, they went to Mammoth Brewing Company for guidance and found support. “I’ve never experienced an industry that is so familial,” said Justin. “We’re all separate business entities, but we help each other out.” Sean Turner agrees. “The reason we’re so cooperative is that we’re not stealing market share from each other, we’re stealing it from the big companies,” he said. “We consider these other local breweries friends, as well as colleagues.”
The third, and newest, brewery in the Eastern Sierra is the Mountain Rambler brew pub in Bishop. Joe Lane, co-owner of the Mountain Rambler Brewery, is excited about the three breweries working together to foster beer tourism in the area. “The Eastern Sierra is getting on the ‘beer geek’ map,” he said.
“We’ve had visitors come specifically to see us, Mammoth, and June Lake Brewing!” Justin Walsh sees the three breweries as “a loose coalition who sees our focus as increasing beer tourism and highlighting the Sierra. Beer tourism is a big thing right now,” he said.
Beer tourism is real. The UC Berkeley study states that “The wine industry has put a number of communities in the state on the map as tourist destinations. California craft beer tourism is following this trend with an expanding industry that provides both a premier and affordable product.”
“At the Mammoth Brewing Company,” said Sean Turner, “We get locals of all ages, but we also get so many tourists and economically, they are all over the spectrum.”
June Lake Brewing is focused on a micro regional premium distribution strategy. The company distributes their own product and uses a strict criteria to choose which outlets can carry their craft beer. The Black Sheep Coffee Roasters in Bishop is the only seller outside of Mono County and the Walshes plan to keep it that way. “We’re interested in bringing people here, not sending them elsewhere,” said Justin.
Sarah Walsh encourages more companies to join the wave. “Having more breweries is better, because it will just bring more beer enthusiasts to our region to spend money in our hotels, restaurants and stores,” she said.
Local beer tourism has the potential to develop into a major asset for Inyo and Mono Counties. “California’s craft breweries work as economic engines supporting local economies, creating good jobs and attracting tourism,” stated the UC Berkeley study. “The revenue earned by each craft brewery finds its way back into the local and state economies in the form of wages, capital expenditures, community in-kind contributions and taxes. As a small manufacturing industry focused on the quality of its product not on quantity, the craft brewing industry is inherently labor intensive.”
“The industry is exploding based on the quality of the craft beer out there,” said Justin Walsh. “The trend in the 90’s was to focus on money, but quality is the focus now.”
That focus on quality, according to the Berkeley study, directly translates to the creation of jobs. “As a labor-intensive industry made of up of small manufacturers focused on quality and innovation, California craft brewers are a substantial source of employment in the state. In 2011, California’s craft brewers created 22,000 jobs in a state facing double-digit unemployment.”
The Brewers’ Association asserts that craft breweries accounted for 115,469 jobs in 2014 and more than half of those were full time. June Lake Brewery, alone, employs 5 beer tenders with 1 in training to be a brewer; all of them full-time June Lake residents. The Rambler which offers food to complement the craft brew selection, already has about 15 employees.
“While the jobs created and supported by the craft brewing industry are located throughout the state,” states the UC Berkeley study, the most significant impact can be been seen in more rural communities that suffer from high unemployment.”
Another area of economic impact from craft brewers is seen in the high level of taxation imposed upon the beer industry. “As small businesses, craft brewers face a large tax burden along with the state’s stringent business regulations. In 2011, craft breweries in California paid more than $400 million in total local, state and federal taxes.”
Breweries also tend to be active donors. “In 2011, the California craft brewing industry gave approximately $16 million by dollar value of in-kind contributions ranging from products to employee time.”
“Since day one,” says Turner, “we’ve been donating to non-profits. We bonus employees for participating in local races. In March, we sponsored a fundraiser for the Round Fire Victims.” The Mountain Rambler frequently offers the use of its venue for local non-profits to hold events ranging from Playhouse 395 fundraisers to Inyo Associates meetings. June Lake Brewing supports its local community through prize donations and beer for fundraising events.
“It’s about quality ingredients and keeping it local” says Turner. “We’re changing the face of beer in America.”
Joe Lane agrees. He is particularly focused on purchasing American-made equipment as locally as possible. “Ninety percent of our brewing equipment is U.S. made. Our tanks even come from Carson City, NV.,” he said. “Whenever you go to a small brewery in any town and try their beers, you’re experiencing American manufacturing at its finest.”
By contrast, Budweiser, Miller and Coors are all now owned by foreign parent companies.
The local breweries are attracting customers to sample their offering of American manufacturing through strong social media presences and via the ever-popular beer festival. “Beer festivals, like Bluesapalooza, are important because so many people come out of their way to visit them,” said Turner. Bluesapalooza, the Mammoth Festival of Beers, takes place in Mammoth Lakes from July 30 through August 2 and features craft beers from more than 70 different breweries in the Grand Tasting on August 1. “All east side breweries are automatically in, even as far as Reno and Ridgecrest,” Turner explains. A lottery system is used to determine the remaining participants.
The 3rd Annual June Lake Autumn Beer Festival is held by June Lake Brewing on October 10th at Gull Lake Park. They too, are including the other two local breweries.
For now, the craft beer segment of the beer industry is steadily growing and Eastern Sierra towns are poised to reap the benefits.
Sean Turner put it plainly: “God bless the beer geek.”