You’ve probably heard about the renaissance that craft beer has been having nationally over the past decade. Perhaps you’re even part of it as a beer drinker. The Lehigh Valley has not missed out on this trend, and one might argue that it’s even excelling at it. There are now 25 craft breweries in the region, which should be up to 27 by the end of summer.

And while most people might not think of manufacturing when they think of their favorite local beer or brewery, it is indeed an important part of the region’s beverage manufacturing industry, right up there with soda or energy drinks. Two of those beverage manufacturers are located inside the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in South Allentown – The Colony Meadery and HiJinx Brewing. The center is also home to County Seat Spirits.

Last week was the seventh annual Lehigh Valley Beer Week, which featured dozens of events at local breweries and restaurants. The event, which began as a celebration of craft beer, has expanded over the years to celebrate all beer, with a highlight on the craft aspect of the industry. It has grown to 70 participating venues with events including pub takeovers, brew tours, beer tastings, beer dinners, and rare beer releases.

Getting LVBW off the ground

Beer by HiJinx Brewing

“I’ve been involved since the very first beer week,” said HiJinx Brewing Owner Curt Keck. “At that time there was just HiJinx, Weyerbacher in Easton, and Fegley’s BrewWorks in Bethlehem as craft breweries. So much has changed since then!”

He feels that promotions like LVBW help to showcase the Lehigh Valley as a beer destination. He knows that some people will travel from where they live to visit a different city or region to discover their breweries. “Annual beer weeks help to legitimize the industry wherever they are held. I think it’s important that the Lehigh Valley has one to showcase all of our beer manufacturers.”

The Colony Meadery Owner Greg Heller-LaBelle was also an early supporter of LVBW and continues to participate heavily in the event each year. “I was actually a member of the relatively small group of volunteers who put together the first few events,” he said.

Despite not making beer, he says his market for mead drinkers aligns closely with the craft beer market. “Beer drinkers aren’t one thing. As the market has changed, we’ve seen waves of people with dramatically different tastes visiting our meadery. During LVBW people are in a mood to try something new, so we tend to be a good fit. The event is a good way to introduce people to the Colony Meadery products and brand.”

 

Brewing up history and an expanding industry

The Lehigh Valley has a proud history of brewing beer and mead. It’s been well-documented that the state’s founder William Penn brewed beer. According to a 2015 article in The Morning Call on the history of local beermaking, “In this region… beer-making’s time began in the mid-1700s when the Moravians built breweries in the Bethlehem-Nazareth area. Easton saw its first breweries in the 1820s and Allentown began brewing beer in the 1840s.” In Allentown, brands like Neuweiler and Horlacher were sipped by many.

And breweries were often manufacturing innovators. According to local brewery historian Christopher Bowen, who was interviewed in The Morning Call article: “The breweries of the late 19th century Industrial Age were innovating constantly, Bowen said. Their methods — refrigeration and mass production, for example — often were imitated by other manufacturers. ‘A lot of the earliest inventions were used in the breweries,’ he said. ‘I think the beer processing line, the bottling line, existed before Henry Ford’s assembly line.’”

Pennsylvania brewery stats from The Brewers Association

According to the Brewers Association for small and independent craft brewers, in 2018 there were 354 craft breweries in the state, compared to around 100 breweries back in 2011. They have a collective economic impact of $6.3 billion, the second largest in the country, and produce more than 3.7 million barrels per year, ranking the commonwealth first in the country.

 

Adapting to a changing industry

When state laws regarding beer sales changed a few years ago and pint sales were allowed, it changed everything. More breweries began opening up and distribution to stores and bars and restaurants also shifted. Suddenly Pennsylvania wineries and distilleries could also sell beer by the pint. The number of outlets for which beer and mead could be sold increased almost overnight.

Meads made by Colony Meadery in Allentown

“I wonder sometimes if the region has reached a saturation point,” said Keck. “A concentration of breweries increases the number of beer drinkers at first, but it can become diluted since we end up sharing the same clientele. As long as they all produce good quality beer and have good customer service, it helps to raise the standard of the industry locally.”

Heller-LaBelle acknowledged the challenges that come with industry growth. “Distribution is a massive challenge for all small brands. There are lots of brands and few wholesalers. We do best at getting our product on store shelves or on the bar menu when we can ensure a good relationship and supply and retailer experience, such as here in our home market in the Lehigh Valley.”

He concurs with Keck on there being enough room in the region and in the local beverage industry for quality brewers. “As long as craft brewers open good breweries and make a quality product in a way that supports the industry, we have tons of room. Plus having more choices for consumers raises all our games.”