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Beer Glut

Can Boise support its growing craft beer and microbrew market?

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It's always busy at Bittercreek Alehouse; often it's too busy for a quiet conversation. So when Boise Weekly sat down with Bittercreek Beverage Manager David Roberts to talk about the rapid proliferation of microbreweries in Boise, a move next door to Red Feather Lounge allowed for Roberts to paint a picture of Boise's growing craft beer market and what it will take for that growth to be sustainable.

"The type of brewery we're getting is small in scale, and this type of brewery is not as sustainable an operation," Roberts said. "You'll never turn enough of a profit that you can expand and grow and brew better beer. In the end, you're stuck spinning your wheels with $10 to $20 profit per keg," Roberts said, adding that there are too many breweries of that scale.

Currently, there are 43 microbreweries operating in Idaho (there are nearly 3,000 nationwide). According to Idaho Brewers United, 19 of those are in the Treasure Valley, and six more have their sights set on opening in the area in the near future. While some brewers might like to see a taphouse on every corner, others in the industry, like Roberts, say the market can be hostile, with low profit margins and fierce competition for tap handles at local bars and restaurants.

The growth in local brewing is visible at Bittercreek, which currently serves local and specialty beers from 33 taps. Roberts said there are plans to add nine more handles in the coming months. Deciding which beers earn spots on those coveted handles depends on several factors. The first, of course, is a matter of taste.

"As our market becomes more mature, one of our biggest concerns is going to be quality. People love to bag on the big houses [like Anheuser Busch], but the one thing they do do is produce beer on a huge scale all the time, totally free of classic flaws," Roberts said. "Brewers here have produced beers that have classic flaws that any brewer can identify."

In several instances, Roberts said, he has purchased a keg from a local producer only to learn that the beer inside is past its prime—this is a particular concern with India pale ales—or sipped a beer only to have the buttery taste of diacetyl, a byproduct of the brewing process, coat the inside of his mouth. He said that a poor initial experience buying beer from a local brewer strongly influences his decisions to purchase from that brewer again.

Another contributing factor to a brewery's success or failure is the business acumen of its marketing and distribution managers. Experienced sellers know when buyers like Roberts are making purchases, and the best sellers jump ahead of the pack by offering the best product in the most professional way.

Many breweries have tried to differentiate themselves by brewing exotic beers with strong or unusual flavors, but there are perils to that kind of distinction, as well: While many beer connoisseurs have shown a preferences for hoppy beers, like IPAs, and full-bodied beers, like porters, Roberts said these beers often pair poorly with food—only about 20 percent of the beers available at Bittercreek and Red Feather are extremely hoppy or sugary.

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