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August 18, 2009

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Americans get taste for boutique ale

BOUTIQUE beers are the new cocktail as more money-conscious Americans choose cheaper high quality draft beers made by small local breweries over wine and spirits amid the country's recession, according to experts.

A new generation of craft brewers, defined as those who produce less than 2 million barrels a year, is attracting new drinkers who would rather pay US$6 to US$8 for premium draft than a cocktail or glass of wine costing twice as much.

"You can buy an exceptional beer for half the price of a mediocre glass of wine," said New York beer maker Kelly Taylor at a recent tasting event where he offered his Kelso beer alongside sage-flavored corn bread.

"The bite of the hops and the citrus of the Belgian yeast cuts through the sweetness of the corn bread," he told one skeptical taster.

Across the United States, craft breweries and shops specializing in fancy food and imported beers are growing, with merchants betting that tough economic times will turn Americans who once favored wine or liquor toward premium beers.

"Even in this economy, people want to treat themselves to really extraordinary things," said Justin Philips, co-owner of the Beer Table bar in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. "People are recognizing that there is a diverse world of beer. And it tends to be less expensive than other drinks."

The number of boutique breweries in the US had grown by nearly 5 percent in the past five years to 1,476, said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers' Association, a non-profit industry group based in Colorado.

Each brewery now makes an average of 5,659 barrels of beer per year, an increase of nearly 35 percent since 2004.

Catherine Saillard, owner of French bistro Ici, said private parties were increasingly requesting locally made craft beers.

A recent survey by the Gallup organization showed that the number of adult Americans drinking alcohol had remained steady at 64 percent despite the economic downturn. In July, Gallup said beer was still the No. 1 alcoholic drink in the US.

The gap narrowed in recent years, and wine edged ahead for one year in 2005, but the July poll found 42 percent of people choose beer, 31 percent wine and 23 percent liquor.

Boutique beers made US$6.3 billion in retail sales and grew 5.9 percent by volume in 2008, with regional microbreweries growing at the fastest rate, according to the Brewers' Association.

"You have really a perfect economic storm that is driving people toward this beverage," said Shane Welch, the owner of Sixpoint Craft Ales in Brooklyn. "You have this sort of do-it-yourself mentality that has been triggered by the recession."

Even home brewing, outlawed until 1978, appears to be picking up, said Benjamin Stutz, a former chef who has launched New York's only home-brew shop with his wife.


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