In North America we have gotten used to a vibrant craft beer scene. In some places it is bigger than others, but no matter where you go in the U.S. or Canada you can usually find some decent, locally brewed craft beer. Europe has done—in a way— craft beer for centuries. And in recent years, even non-traditional beer countries like Italy and France are starting to churn out interesting craft beer.
It is enough to make you complacent about where things are at. We start to expect craft beer to be available. But, as it happens, the bulk of the planet’s population has not yet been touched by the craft beer revolution. There are many parts of the globe where something more than an adjunct-laden pale lager is almost impossible to find.
But the good news, my friends, is that is starting to change—at least in some regions. South America, East Asia and Central America are some of the fastest growing craft beer regions in the world. While growth rates have slowed in North America, craft beer is exploding in these areas. China is witnessing a craft beer explosion, with breweries popping up in every city. Craft beer didn’t exist in Japan ten years ago; today there are more than 260 craft breweries in that country. In Argentina, craft beer sales are growing at the rate of 50 percent per year or more. Craft beer sales in Brazil quadrupled in the last five years.
Even smaller countries are in on the act. The number of breweries in Chile has doubled in the last four years. South Korea has tripled its craft breweries in the last two years (to a modest 52). Tiny Puerto Rico now has 13 breweries, half of whom have opened since 2015.
There is no question it is an impressive growth—a sign that craft beer is extending its reach. But it is important to not get ahead of ourselves. None of these places are Portland, not even close. In each of the countries named, craft beer still accounts for less than five percent of beer sales, in many cases closer to two percent. Plus, on the ground, the number of breweries is an imperfect measure for craft penetration.
Case in point: Costa Rica. I recently visited this idyllic Central American country, the most stable democracy in the region. On the surface, it too joins the parade of burgeoning craft beer scenes. This tiny country of four million people had one brewery before 2010, which produced basically every beer sold in the country—all a variety of pale lagers.
Today they have 45 breweries, a whopping 41 of which opened their doors in the last two years. Talk about a nascent craft beer scene.
It sounds great, but the reality on the ground is that it is really, really hard to find craft beer in stores or bars. Almost every place sells the same standard beer, supported by ubiquitous advertising.
You have to know where to look, or rely on blind luck. More likely a mix of both.
I found a great craft beer bar in the capital city, San Jose. I also found one or two stores in other parts of the country that carried some craft beer, but for the most part it was a mono-culture of pale lager.
The reality is that the new Costa Rican breweries—like their brethren in Brazil, Argentina, China, Chile or South Korea—are very small and very localized. For the most part you have to be in the neighbourhood where they reside to find them.
It is a lesson in context and patience. Yes, Central America, South America and East Asia are the fastest growing craft beer markets. But they are coming from almost zero, which means they have a long way to go before we can call them go-to places for craft beer.
That is not to denigrate the beer being brewed in these countries. While in Costa Rica I sampled beer from eight or nine breweries. The results were a bit mixed but overall there were solid brewing fundamentals there—they know how to brew good beer.
In many ways, these regions are where Canada was ten to 15 years ago. So we should be supportive and patient in making sense of what they are doing and celebrate they have gotten where they are as fast as they have. It makes me think that the craft beer curve in these countries will be faster and steeper than what we experienced.
The other thing to keep in mind is that there are still huge swaths of the planet that craft beer has not yet touched—and may never touch. The Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and Africa continue to lag. Part of that is religion. Part of it is wealth and geography. Maybe, just maybe, they represent the last frontier for craft beer.
For now I plan on celebrating what gains have been made globally.