SUNRIVER — The brewery that takes its name from this vacation-centric community is anything but laid back.
Sunriver Brewing Co. is growing. It joins the list of Central Oregon breweries that have recently added brewing capacity, opened a new pub, expanded their distribution or all three. Each follows a slightly different track, and so it is with Sunriver Brewing. While other brewers seek new territory as far away as Vermont and North Carolina, Sunriver, which employs 125 people at the brewery and its two brewpubs, is focused on its own neighborhood.
“We are a Northwest brewery,” Head Brewer Brett Thomas said Tuesday during a brewery tour. “We like to look at our distribution as a six-hour base as far as being able to service our distributors, service our end-users and keep up on beer quality. There’s certainly some appealing notions about California, but I really think we have all the business we need in the Pacific Northwest.”
Sunriver on Tuesday took delivery of four new brewing vessels, part of a new, 15-barrel brewing system and other improvements that will more than double the 3-year-old brewery’s capacity to 13,000 barrels annually. In 2016, Sunriver sold 4,709 taxable barrels of beer in Oregon, No. 28 of 241 breweries in the state, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Earlier this month, Sunriver took four medals — two gold and two bronze — at the North American Beer Awards in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Along with increased brewing capacity, Sunriver announced plans to increase its presence in Idaho through a partnership with CSB Beverages. Sunriver products are distributed primarily in Oregon and in Vancouver, Washington, said Chief Operating Officer Karin Devencenzi.
“We’d like 70 percent to 80 percent of our production to be concentrated in Oregon, and then the remainder to be split between Washington and Idaho,” she said. “Our primary focus is to take care of Oregon.”
Relatively small, independent breweries such as Sunriver Brewing and others in Central Oregon are driving growth in the craft brewing sector, according to the Brewers Association, a trade organization for craft brewing. Large, multinational brewing corporations such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, to compensate for declining market-share, continued in 2016 to acquire a number of smaller, craft-brewing competitors. While acquired breweries such as 10 Barrel, for example, continue to expand, the Brewers Association no longer considers them craft breweries.
Smaller breweries are moving into that space and driving growth for that segment, said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association.
“Growth is increasingly shifting to the tail,” he said Friday.
That trend continued this year in Central Oregon. From the smallest to the largest, local brewers have undergone varying degrees of expansion, and not just in their product lines.
Bend-based Kobold Brewing LLC owner Steve Anderson in January announced plans to turn a one-story building on SW Sixth Street in Redmond into a taphouse. Renovations are underway. In March, Silver Moon Brewing announced limited distribution in California, a marketing push in Washington and a doubling of production to 30,000 barrels annually. The company also closed its NW Greenwood Avenue brewpub for a makeover. Bridge 99 Brewery owner Trever Hawman in April said he’s replacing his 2-barrel starter brewing system with a 15-barrel system and expanding the brewery taproom on Layton Avenue in Bend.
The list goes on. Crux Fermentation Project partnered with distributors to send its beer to Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maine, New York, Vermont and western provinces of Canada. Boneyard Beer started renovating a former restaurant on NW Division Street into a pub.
Worthy Brewing and Bend Brewing Co. also expanded their brewing capacities and added onto their brewpubs in Bend.
Larger breweries continued ongoing expansion projects. Deschutes Brewery, which installed new equipment, including a canning line and six fermentation vessels at its production brewery in Bend, also built a new warehouse and signed distribution agreements this year in North Carolina. Bend’s own 10 Barrel, acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2014, doubled its NE 18th Street footprint and brewing capacity and opened two brewpubs outside of Oregon.
Optimism among brewers belies a slowdown in the growth of craft beer altogether. Craft brewers accounted for about 22 percent of the $107.6 billion retail dollars spent on beer in the United States in 2016, an increase of 10 percent over 2015, according to the Brewers Association.
But while they claimed more market share in an otherwise static beer market, the rate of craft beer production slowed between 2015 and 2016. Small, independent brewers produced nearly 10 percent more beer in 2015 than 2014, but only 1.2 percent more in 2016 than in 2015, measured in the number of barrels of beer produced. Craft brewers produced 22.1 million barrels in 2014, 24.3 million in 2015 and 24.6 million in 2016, according to the Brewers Association.
Market saturation may be some way off, but the rate at which breweries acquire more market share is slowing, Watson said. Central Oregon brewers are looking over the horizon as grocery store shelves become crowded and competition for tap handles ramps up.
“The sales of Oregon beer in Oregon aren’t growing at the rate they were in the past,” Watson said.
“They’re growing, but they’re not exploding.”
Sunriver Brewing fits neatly the model of a small, independent brewery setting the pace for expansion. Its two pubs — one in Sunriver and another in Bend that’s been operating a little more than a year — may be joined next year by a third at a location somewhere in Oregon, Devencenzi said.
Production lags behind demand for the brewery’s products, which range from IPAs to Mexican lager to a chocolate stout. If Sunriver doesn’t meet that demand, someone else will, Thomas said. A sales representative has been “seeding” the Boise market, introducing the brand “with the intent of building a buzz about our arrival,” he said.
“It’s a full-time job for several people within Sunriver Brewing Co., dealing with a couple of different entities,” Thomas said. “There’s definitely a lot of work required to get into a grocery store. Chasing down tap handles is just as tough.”
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