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December 08. 2012 8:47PM

Mike Cote's Business Editor Notebook: It's what's in the glass that counts


 

During my decade-plus stay in Colorado, I grew to love its microbrew industry and was proud that my adopted state produced more beer than anywhere in the nation, thanks to a couple of big plants operated by Coors and Anheuser-Bush and 100-plus craft brewers, including a few such as New Belgium and Oskar Blues that have gone national.

Back here in my home state, I'll have to settle for a more dubious distinction: We drink more beer than anybody else.

Granite Staters earned the crown by consuming 43 gallons per person of legal drinking age per year, compared to 28.3 gallons nationally, according to statistics recently issued by the Beer Institute, a Washington, D.C-based trade group.

Don't get too foamy over this. New Hampshire's No. 1 ranking, which we've held for a few years, comes with a disclaimer. We're overflowing in beer sales, in part because we're getting help from beer drinkers in Massachusetts and Vermont who stock up at our beverage stores to avoid beer taxes and bottle deposits.

What's more interesting is what we're drinking. The "knucklehead" brands, as New Belgium's CEO Kim Jordan likes to call them, are losing ground nationally to craft varieties like New Hampshire's Smuttynose and White Birch and tiny nanobreweries like Earth Eagle (see story at right).

Last year, the owners of Candia Road Convenience Store in Manchester decided to add a new local brand to the dozens of microbrews brands they carry - one they made themselves. At the brewing supply store they opened next door, they produce such brews as Nepenthe East Coast Ale, a 7.4-percent alcohol American pale ale.

Sales of craft brews last year grew 15 percent while overall beer sales declined 1 percent to $96 billion, according to the Brewers Association, an industry trade group best known for organizing the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

That's good news to Alex James, a Portsmouth-based sales rep for Craft Beer Guild Distributing of New Hampshire, who spends his days trying to sell bar and restaurant owners on brands more exotic and flavorful than Pabst Blue Ribbon. He represents about 25 companies, including New England regionals like Maine Brewing Co., Mayflower Brewing, McNeill's Brewing and Wachusett.

"People are loving the new brands that are coming in each and every year - actually, monthly now it seems," James said, whose typical work week includes hosting tastings as he did one recent night in Exeter to promote Lagunitas, a California brewery that has become of the nation's fastest-growing brands.

James, 25, started his career with the Craft Beer Guild as a merchandiser in Massachusetts. The company - part of L. Knife & Son, which has been in the beer distribution business since 1898 - expanded into New Hampshire a couple of years ago,

"Massachusetts is so much further ahead of New Hampshire with craft beer and microbreweries," James says. "They used to be in the same position New Hampshire is in right now about five years ago. Now more people here are interested people in it. They're willing to spend that extra buck to try something more high-end or more local, something made with a little more love."

While beer sales nationally have dropped, the percentage of those sales in restaurants grew 9 percent last year, totaling about $23.6 billion, according to the Beer Institute. Restaurants accounted for 24 percent of sales.

In a country that long has been bombarded with commercials for iconic brands that pitch light-bodied pilsners, James sometimes finds it frustrating to get restaurants to think outside the Bud by adding taps for hoppy India pale ales.

"A lot of businesses are hesitant and unwilling. But as time has gone on, it's kind of become a trend," he says. "They're more willing now to jump on board - when they see there is success to be had."

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Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or mcote@unionleader.com.



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