DOVER — By all accounts, the craft brewery industry in Delaware continues to surge after two decades of sustained growth. The number of breweries in the state — around 25 — has been on a steady upward trajectory since 2000 with more opening their doors every few months. Also, expansion announcements among existing craft brewers are a dime a dozen.
Iron Hill Brewery opened its doors in Rehoboth Beach Memorial Day weekend, marking the company’s 14th location. Brick Works Brewing & Eats in Smyrna plans to open a second location in Long Neck this fall, according to management. The Lewes-based Crooked Hammock Brewery recently announced plans to open a new brewpub in Middletown by spring 2019. And, over a dozen breweries are announcing new beers, canning operations or additions to their production and tasting facilities.
On the whole, the state’s brewing activities constitute a quickly growing portion of gross domestic product (GDP). According to the Brewers Association, a national trade association, the craft brewery industry has a $318 million annual impact on Delaware’s economy. Despite being a small state, Delaware has a disproportionately large production at close to 300,000 barrels of craft beer per year, according to association data. This number makes it second only to Vermont in number of gallons produced per person ages 21 and older.
The state’s Director of Tourism Elizabeth Keller said the explosion in craft breweries is adding layers to the state’s tourism offerings and giving a boost to associated businesses.
“In general, tourism contributes $3.3 billion to the state’s GDP,” she said. “We welcome nine million visitors per year and tourism is the fourth largest private employment sector. What’s really unique about the craft beverage industry is that these are small business entrepreneurs with amazing creative spirit that not only grow their industry, but grown related businesses like transportation and increase demand for the local agricultural products they consume.”
In an attempt to capitalize on the state of bloom the entire craft beverage industry in the state is experiencing, the tourism office has been adding to its Delaware Beer, Wine & Spirits Trail started back in 2010. The trail acts as a free trip planner for visitors and offers useful information on various destinations.
The trail initially included only breweries and wineries but has since expanded to include cideries, distilleries and meaderies as the craft beverage business continues to grow. Starting with only 12 sites originally, Ms. Keller says the trail now includes 33 sites from Delmar north to Yorklyn.
“The industry is constantly growing and we’re adding new locations almost every month,” she said. “The businesses are growing and the number of events is increasing. It’s an exciting time right now for the industry.”
Last October, the tourism office unveiled Delaware on Tap, a smartphone application version of the Beer, Wine and Spirits Trail.
Delaware on Tap guides visitors and residents through completing the trail and after users create an account, it uses geo-location to allow them to “check in” at a site.
The app provides travelers with the opportunity to find what’s nearby, upcoming events, suggestions for places to dine or stay, deals and transportation offerings, including tours and Uber. An in-app photo booth lets users put frames and filters on photos they take along the trail and then helps them post the shots on social media using the hashtag #DEonTap.
Ms. Keller said the app has helped extend the awareness of the trail.
“We’ve had around 7,000 downloads of the passport for the trail, but since the mobile application came out there has been 2,000 more downloads — the interesting thing is that people are downloading it four times faster than they did the original paper passport version,” she said. “We’re getting great feedback from the sites, too, noting that they see people all the time ‘checking in’ from their location. We’re starting to pull data from the app as well like how long it’s taking to get from location to location and what times of season the trail is the most popular. We’ll be continuing to watch those things over the next year.”
Although the flurry of activity in the small, local craft brewery industry may feel recent, according to Delaware beer historian John Medkeff Jr., it represents a return to the state’s roots. Mr. Medkeff, responsible for the pictorial history book “Brewing in Delaware,” noted Delaware has a long and storied past with the brewing industry.
“It goes all the way back to the Swedes and the first European settlers that landed here,” he said. “They were brewing as soon as they landed and it carries through to the Dutch and the English when they arrived. At the turn of the 19th century, it became one of the biggest industries in the state and was very important to our economic and cultural development. Our history might not have the breadth of the larger states, but it most certainly has the depth. Any state would have a hard time challenging Delaware in terms of its brewing history. ”
At the time, a large patchwork of small and mid-sized brewers had the local beer market cornered. Drinking the beers produced by the Diamond State Brewery, Hartmann & Fehrenbach Brewing Co. and the Bavarian Brewery — the state’s three biggest brewers in the early 1900s — was even a point of Delawarean pride, noted Mr. Medkeff.
“Residents of the era would speak of the local product in glowing terms in newspaper articles and advertising by brewers from outside the region were scant to nonexistent at the time,” he said. “Rival brewers were making inroads here and there, but it was difficult because residents were loyal to local breweries.”
However, as it did in much of the country, the government institution of prohibition in 1920 devastated the growing industry. The law immediately put the majority of the smaller producers out of business and irrevocably weakened the bigger institutions. Even when prohibition was lifted in 1933, the damage was done and the industry failed to recover, said Mr. Medkeff. In the shadow of better-funded regional and national competitors, Delaware’s brewing tradition fell into the dark ages.
“Brewing was dead in the state for the better part of four decades after that,” said Mr. Medkeff. “After prohibition was lifted, some breweries tried to start back up and had a short run from 1933 until 1954, when the last brewery officially went out of business. Essentially the state didn’t produce any beer after that until 1995, when new breweries started opening again.”
Mirroring a national trend, dawn started to break on Delaware’s brewing dark ages in the early 2000s.
“Legislation was passed in ’94 to allow breweries to open brew pubs and commercial production facilities,” said Mr. Medkeff. “We saw a real return in the 2000s, when some of the breweries that started up in the ’90s started gaining strength. Now, we’re up to somewhere around 25 breweries and there are more coming every month. I don’t think it’s a fad either. This is something that will continue to evolve and it’s here to stay.”
Guessing at the future, Mr. Medkeff is confident that a shift away from large international beer brands toward small local breweries will continue to permeate throughout the state as it has throughout the country. He says there is lots of opportunity for small breweries intent on “serving at a community level, a doing it well.”
“We’re not at a saturation point yet, there’s still plenty of room for growth,” said Mr. Medkeff. “I believe that the market for beer will become even more local. That’s all part of consumer education and understanding that the brewers are employers and they’re part of the community, producing local products for the people. It’s happening at a grassroots level. There’s a growing awareness and pride again about what’s brewed here.”
Packaging the brewing industry resurgence in metaphor, Mr. Medkeff’s project to refurbish a King Gambrinus statue — that once sat atop the Diamond State Brewery in Wilmington — seeks to put the state’s brewing roots back in the public eye.
The 11-foot, 1-ton zinc statue was long an icon of brewing in the state until the ’60s when it was removed and the old Diamond State Brewery demolished.
It then started a haphazard journey from owner to owner until it was accidentally dropped during shipping in the late ’70s — breaking into more than 60 pieces. Luckily, these remains were bequeathed to Mr. Medkeff by a collectors estate and he plans to restore the statue and display it in the Delaware History Museum.
“It’s the perfect symbol for the rebirth of brewing in Delaware,” he said. “It was something thought to be long lost.”
The statue is one of five King Gambrinus statues known to exist that were cast from the same mold. The other four statues are currently on display in Baltimore, Breinigsville, Penn., Syracuse and Toluca, Mexico. Mr. Medkeff, who’s started fundraising for the project, said the restoration will be a costly and laborious one to do correctly. Preliminary estimates put the cost at around $100,000.
“We’ll take a laser scan of an existing statue so the missing zinc parts from ours can be refabricated,” said Mr. Medkeff. “Then it’ll need to be completely repaired and reconstructed. After that we’ll repaint it as it was originally. We’re also hoping to raise a little extra so it can be granted to the Delaware Historical Society as a perpetual fund to preserve the statue long term. So far, we’re about 10 percent there.”
To learn more about the project or to donate, visit restoretheking.com.