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Craft beer in Delaware: Too many or too few brews?

Karl Malgiero
Delaware Public Media

From the northern Delaware border to the southern beaches, the First State is increasingly steeped in businesses boasting craft beers. Numerous breweries, brewpubs and alehouses are scheduled to open this year, while more brands continue to pop up at local liquor stores and in mainstream restaurants.

Some might wonder if the small state is now too saturated in the craft beer craze. “We talk about this all the time,” said Brandon Smith, one of the owners of Dewey Beer Company, which is opening on Route 1 in Dewey Beach this spring.

No doubt, owners of Crooked Hammock Brewery, a brewpub coming to Lewes this summer, are wondering the same. “When we first started doing this, it was three years ago, when a lot less people were doing it,” said Josh Grapski president of La Vida Hospitality Company, which also owns and operates Nage.

These brewpubs will be joined by Fins Ale House’s new brewery on Route 1 and the Forgotten Mile Ale House, which the Lucey brothers of Ulysses  and Six Paupers fame are opening along the Forgotten Mile between Rehoboth and Dewey.

“From our standpoint, everyone is trying to join in,” said Michael Stiglitz, cofounder of Two Stones Pub, a beer-focused restaurant chain with three locations and a fourth in the works. Stiglitz is also an owner of 2SP, a new brewery. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”

Indeed, the answer of how much is too much depends on your perspective.

According to the Brewers Association, craft beer made up 17.2 percent of U.S. beer sales in 2013. The overall beer market topped $100 billion, while craft beer stood at $14.3 billion or 7.8 percent share of the market. That’s up from 2012, when craft beer sales had a 6.5 percent share.

There’s clearly more ground for craft beer to gain. The growth “shows no sign of slowing down,” said Ed Mulvihill, whose family has owned Peco’s Liquor Store in Bellefonte for four generations. Ten of the 20 cooler sections at Peco’s are devoted to craft beer, and the shop was the first in Delaware to offer a growler bar.

The trend was partly born out of the overall dining movement to embrace local goods. “Customers walk in wearing T-shirts that say ‘Drink local beer,’” he said. What’s more, this is a young industry, and many brewers were exposed at an early age to the first wave of craft beer businesses in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Like wineries, breweries are good for the tourism business, especially in resort areas that draw visitors who want to sample local flavor. The beach area is home to Dogfish Head in Milton, now the patriarch of the local scene, 16 Mile Brewery in Georgetown and Mispillion River Brewing Company in Milford. For pilgrims following a “trail,” there’s 3rd Wave Brewing Company in Delmar. The brewery is in space once owned by Evolution Craft Brewing Company, which moved to larger digs in nearby Salisbury, Maryland.

“Offering local beers enhances the reputation of the beach as the ‘Culinary Coast,’” said Scott Kammerer, president and CEO of SoDel Concepts, which owns eight coastal Delaware restaurants. “I’ve seen people come down from the Northeast to tour breweries in Southern Delaware.”

Kent County has Fordham and Dominion Brewery Company and the new Blue Earl Brewing Company in Smyrna.

New Castle County is behind the pint glass. It’s best known for Twin Lakes Brewery. But it benefits from being near Pennsylvania’s thriving scene. In May, 2SP will open in Aston, Pennsylvania, Downingtown. Pennsylvania-based Victory Brewing Company plans to open a restaurant in 2015 in Kennett Square.

But this trend is not just about local craft beer. Again, it’s much like wine: aficionados want to try different products from different regions. “Everyday, I get requests for beers that we can’t get in Delaware,” Mulvihill said.

Tom Carver, a craft beer enthusiast, might be one of them. He said Delaware is far from saturated with craft beers. “Delaware doesn't get a lot of the great beers available in Pennsylvania and elsewhere,” he said. “For instance, Two Stones Pub in Kennett Square gets some fantastic brews, which aren't available at Two Stones [in Wilmington.]”

DuClaw Brewing Company in Bel Air, Maryland, made a big splash when it came to the state last year. New Belgium in Colorado also got an enthusiastic reception in 2013.

When these beers hit the area marketplace, they give local breweries some competition at the tap. If SoDel Concept restaurants can’t give a local brewer space on a regular basis, they often feature them in special beer dinners in the off-season, Kammerer said.

Clearly, a brewpub doesn’t have that problem. It’s only offering its own beers. However, the pressure is on to make the food and beer first rate. Otherwise they may go the way of the brewpubs that went flat during the craft beer craze in the 1990s. That risk is partly the reason why ale houses that offer a variety of craft beer – think The Pickled Pig in Rehoboth and Ulysses in North Wilmington – became more popular. Stiglitz plans to offer 2SP at Two Stones, but only at four to six taps.

Upstate, Sussex County brewers can face a name recognition issue at the tap, said Chuck Lewis, manager of Buckley’s Tavern in Centreville, which has 24 taps for draft beer. Mispillion River Brewing Company in Milford, which opened in 2013 and now offers certain products in cans, doesn’t always ring a bell in Centreville.

Plus, small batch brewers’ beers are often more pricy. They often come in smaller kegs, which don’t offer the restaurant as much beer for the buck. “We support local beers if the customers is willing to pay for it,” Lewis said.

On the liquor store level, customers are indeed willing to pay. “People recognize quality, and they’re willing to pay for a more complex taste,” said Mulllvihill, who said he has a good profit margin on bottled and canned products.

Carver, for one, will pony up. As long as Annheuser-Busch InBev, which makes Budweiser, Coors and other popular brands, still controls the majority of the market, there’ll be room for brewers who provide a quality, tasty alternative, he said.

It appears that like espresso coffee drinks and signature cocktails, craft brews will have staying power.

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