Shining like precious ingots pulled from the mine, Sockeye Galena Gold cans cruised down the canning line at the Sockeye Brewing brewhouse at a brisk 77 cans per minute. Cam Watling, head of packaging and stocking, fiddled with settings as his team worked the line, ensuring the cans would be filled and sealed with a metronome’s precision.
Towers of cans waited nearby on palettes to be loaded onto trucks. From there, they would be distributed throughout Idaho, Utah and eastern Oregon. Sockeye plans expansions in Wyoming and Montana soon.
When a group of partners founded Sockeye two decades ago, the brewery produced only enough to keep taps flowing at the original Sockeye Grill and Brewery on Cole Road near West Fairview Avenue. They hadn’t dreamed of topping 30,000 barrels, which Marketing Director Mark Breske said is in Sockeye’s short-term future. Nor did they suspect that the number of microbreweries in the Treasure Valley would grow to 19 today.
“Twenty years ago, nobody had any idea brewing would be as big as it is,” Breske said.
The number of brewpubs, microbreweries and regional craft breweries across the nation has nearly tripled to 4,269 since Sockeye’s founding in 1996, according to the Brewers Association, a craft-brewers trade group.
Two more breweries, Mad Swede Brewing and Lost Grove Brewing, plan to open in Boise this summer. Vista, Calif.-based Mother Earth Brewing Co. plans to open a 40,000-square-foot brew house in Nampa. With a potential capacity of 100,000 barrels per year, Mother Earth will rival Payette Brewing in Garden City, Idaho’s largest producer.
Payette is preparing to open a second tasting room and brewhouse Downtown that will at least double 2015 production to 20,000 barrels this year. Both Mother Earth and Payette plan to push production toward the 100,000-barrel mark.
Collin Rudeen, founder of Boise Brewing at 521 W. Broad St., said he does not expect the stream of new breweries to dry up anytime soon.
“There’s lots of competition hot on our heels,” Rudeen said. “If we don’t make really good beer, we know somebody will take our tap handle who makes a better beer.”
Friends of Jerry Larson, who brewed his first batch of beer at home in 1979, call Larson “The Mad Swede” for his mad-scientist approach to his craft. Larson won several local home-brewing contests, including one in 2013 held by Boise brewing supply store Brewer’s Haven. That earned him the opportunity to produce his winning imperial India Pale Ale at 10 Barrel Brewing on the corner of 9th and Bannock streets, where it sold under the name Ruffneck Peak Double IPA, in spring 2014.
The success swayed Larson and his wife, Susie, to open Mad Swede. The taproom at 2772 S. Cole Road is expected to open in August or September.
Larson said the Treasure Valley has five breweries per 100,000 residents of legal drinking age, compared with seven or more in the microbrew hotbeds Portland and Bend in Oregon. The Treasure Valley could support Oregon’s numbers, Larson said.
“I don’t see why not,” he said. “People asked that question two years ago, and here we are.”
Yet some Valley breweries are struggling. Kilted Dragon Brewing in Garden City and TableRock BrewPub and Grill Downtown both closed in 2014. Another Garden City brewery, Haff Brewing, was sold in December and converted into Bella Brewing.
Rudeen said he expects more breweries to fail.
“We’re seeing some get breweries get squeezed out already,” he said. “I think we’ll continue to see either breweries get squeezed out of Boise or not have as great of sales as they used to.”
Despite its growing thirst, Breske said the Boise area is not near ready to support as many breweries as Bend and Portland do, especially if new breweries hope to compete in the regional-distributor space Mother Earth will soon crowd.
“In Idaho, we’re still small enough that we can’t support five or six Sockeyes or Payettes,” he said.
TOUGHER TO BREAK IN
The increased competition means drinkers no longer support a new beer just because it is made locally, Breske said.
“It used to be that restaurants and bars were putting beers on tap just because they were local,” Breske said. “But now, with the influx of breweries, the emphasis is on having a quality product.”
That means new breweries must match good beer with smart business decisions, including securing strong financial backing and investing in expensive bottling or canning equipment only when they are ready for the increased capacity.
“They have to have their ducks in a row a little more,” Breske said.
Larson said Mad Swede will focus on quality and its small tasting room before making any jumps in production or spending heavily on equipment.
“It will be interesting to watch Sockeye and Payette in terms of getting big,” Larson said. “I’m rather narrowly focused on the short-term, trying to get my production and quality where I want it to be before I try to get out there.”
The three owners agreed the growing number of breweries in the Valley isn’t all bad. Increased competition should encourage brewers to go a little crazy, brewing less traditional styles, such as sours, or providing new flavors to traditional brews in efforts to carve out niches.
“There’s a rising tide thing,” Larson said. “As there are more breweries, there’s more awareness about beer. That tends to enhance the experience for all brewers as [beer drinkers] try out breweries, to see what’s new.”
How thirsty is Idaho?
Breweries per 100,000 (21+)
Craft beer production rank
Source: Brewers Association