By Chuck Slothower
Four Corners Business Journal
DURANGO Ska Brewing Co., the largest of Durango's growing roster of craft breweries, reported 21 percent growth in beer production last year and a 20 percent increase in sales.
Ska is part of a boom in craft breweries, which increasingly are taking market share from the large corporations that make American classics such as Budweiser and Coors.
Craft brewers reached 6.5 percent of the total U.S. beer market by volume, up from 5.7 percent the previous year, according to the Brewers Association, an industry group based in Boulder, Colo. Dollar share of the total U.S. beer market reached 10.2 percent in 2012.
"We continue to kind of push the envelope with our styles, and people are finding it unique and exciting and are coming along the adventure with us," said Dave Thibodeau, Ska's president and co-founder.
After a period of geographic expansion in recent years, Ska didn't push into new markets last year. Growth came in its existing markets, including Colorado. Thibodeau said there's more room to grow for the craft beer industry.
"There's so many beer drinkers who have never even tasted craft beer before, or have never gotten into it," he said.
The definition of what constitutes a "craft" brewer has blurred as microbreweries like New Belgium Brewing Co. and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. have grown to new heights, and large breweries like Molson Coors have released craft-like beers such as Blue Moon.
The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as one who produces less than 6 million barrels of beer annually, among other criteria.
Craft brewers nationwide saw a 15 percent rise in production volume and a 17 percent increase in revenue in last year, according to the Brewers Association.
With rampant growth in the industry, there is some talk that the craft beer bubble may burst. Small brewers have popped up in neighborhoods in bigcities such as Denver, and many small towns have breweries of their own.
Tiny mountain towns in southwest Colorado like Silverton, Ridgway and Dolores all have breweries. Ouray, with a population of 1,000, has two.
Durango recently added a sixth brewery when longtime Carver Brewing Co. brewer Erik Maxson opened his own business, BREW Pub & Kitchen, at 117 W. College Dr. downtown.
"I said, why not?" Maxson said in a January interview. "I didn't see why it couldn't be done."
Durango is also home to Steamworks Brewing Co., Durango Brewing Co. and another relative newcomer, Mountain Madness Brewing Co.
Ska Brewing plans to install two new 240-barrel tanks in June to increase capacity during the busy summer months.
"We get a lot of capacity pains, and that'll alleviate a lot of it," Thibodeau said.
Ska also has focused on two fast-growing segments on craft-beer shelves: canned beers and seasonal releases. Ska was the second craft brewery in Colorado to distribute its beer in cans rather than glass bottles. While bottle sales continue to grow, can sales are growing even faster.
Another key area for growth is seasonal beers. Ska has expanded its volume and variety of seasonal beers. Mexican Logger and Euphoria Pale Ale, formerly locals' favorites in the summer and winter, now enjoy wider distribution. The brewery is also making four rotating seasonal stouts. The latest, Vernal Minthe Stout, was released March 20.
Thibodeau, who founded Ska with two partners in 1995, said breweries that are more focused on their bottom line than their beer may face trouble in the years ahead.
"I really think we're going to see somewhat of a shakeout in the next five years," he said.
Craft beer drinkers value authenticity, said Thibodeau.
"If you're not making great beer, your time in the industry is limited," he said.
Thibodeau said he isn't worried about the large, international brewers getting in on more flavorful beers.
"It doesn't work with our core demographic," he said. "They're trying to get a piece of it, but they're only fooling people who don't get it yet. You can't really fake authenticity."