The Craft Beer Big 12

I know, this graphic sucks.

With the Big 12 tournament starting in Kansas City today, everyone in town is full of rabble rabble about basketball and the guaranteed drunken mess that downtown will be as the week goes on. I decided to take the concept of the Big 12 and put a craft beer spin on it, so I scrounged up some data on the top 12 craft beer companies of 2011 in terms of production. Check them out below, from smallest to largest:

12 - Boulevard Brewing Company (157,000 barrels)

A bit of hometown pride certainly swells up when seeing Boulevard on the Craft Beer Big 12 list. Boulevard had actually been in the #10 spot for 2010 production, but big jumps from Lagunitas (see #11) and acquisitions by brewery collectives pushed them down to the #12 spot for 2011 production. There's not much to say about Boulevard that hasn't already been said, and it's silly for me to sing the praises of this brewery to the home crowd, so I'll just say this: really looking forward to Rye-on-Rye, you guys!

11 - Lagunitas Brewing Company (165,000 barrels)

With a 55.7% increase, Lagunitas saw the highest percentage boost in production of the Big 12. Strangely enough, Lagunitas is probably one of the more commonly debated breweries around here (does "All of their beers taste the same!" sound familiar?). Regardless of our differences in opinion on Lagunitas, there's one thing we all know: while they may be #11 in production, they will always be #1 in Bull E. Vard's heart.

10 - Harpoon Brewery (173,000 barrels)

The only craft beer company on this list that is not distributed in the Kansas City area, it's hard to comment because I have not had the pleasure of trying any of their products. They do have some interesting looking limited releases (a maple wheat this month and a ginger wheat in May, to name a couple) that I'd be curious to try, so maybe they will make their way into our market someday. Has anyone had any Harpoon beers? What did you think?

9 - Bell's Brewery (180,000 barrels)

Brewers of the almighty Hopslam, you might be surprised that Bell's has such high production since most of our attention is typically focused on their brand that sells out in a matter of minutes when it arrives in Kansas City. However, they offer a solid year-round lineup (Two Hearted Ale may be one of the best IPA's out there that you aren't paying enough attention to) and excellent seasonals that always seem to stay on shelves for a while. Keep an eye on Flying Saucer, because they tweeted recently that they have a keg of Black Note that they are saving for Stout Week.

8 - Matt Brewing Company (Saranac) (196,000 barrels)

I was surprised to see the brewery that produces Saranac beers so high on the production list because, quite frankly, I generally kind of forget about Saranac. I've had a number of them in the past, most in mix-a-six packs when I first started exploring craft beer, but nothing ever really stuck with me since then.

7 - Deschutes Brewery (223,000 barrels)

Quickly becoming one of my favorite breweries, Deschutes was highly anticipated in Kansas City after a delayed release into our market, but have been met with an equal amount of fanfare since getting here. Last I heard, they anticipate being on the Kansas side sometime this month (pending any setbacks) as well, so soon both sides of the state line will have the pleasure of enjoying a Black Butte Porter, Inversion IPA or The Stoic (which is my personal favorite and still on a lot of shelves, go get one!).

6 - Magic Hat Brewing Company (336,000 barrels)

It might be more appropriate to list this as North American Breweries, Inc., who produces, markets and sells both Magic Hat and Pyramid beers. I believe they do business as Magic Hat Brewing Company, however, so as far as I know, the barrel number above represents both breweries' production numbers. I've never had a Magic Hat or Pyramid beer that I particularly enjoyed, though, so in this case I can say that quantity and quality definitely don't go hand in hand.

5 - Spoetzl Brewery (Shiner) (487,000 barrels)

Another 'Mix-A-Six Section' staple, the Shiner lineup of beers may not be anything special to the seasoned craft beer drinker with an experienced palate, but they can serve as a gateway beer for someone who is used to nothing but macro beers. I certainly threw a few Shiners in with my Saranacs back in the day, and at the very least, it opened my eyes to the fact that there are beers out there that don't have 'Light' or 'Lite' tacked on to the name.

4 - Craft Brew Alliance (Redhook, Kona, Widmer) (635,000 barrels)

This one surprised me. Again, a collective that owns a couple breweries, but I had no idea that their production was this high. Strangely, Redhook Longhammer IPA taps do seem to pop up EVERYWHERE. I've even seen one in a Southwest terminal at the Kansas City airport, being sold right next to cans of Tallgrass Buffalo Sweat. Either there are a lot more people drinking Redhook than I thought, or they just have some very aggressive sales reps that have scored accounts all over the place.

Edit: I was alerted to the fact that Widmer is the third brand in the Craft Brew Alliance. 

3 - New Belgium Brewing (713,000 barrels)

Not shockingly, New Belgium Brewing leads us into the top 3 craft beer producers in 2011. Whether or not you like their year-round offerings, you have to admit that New Belgium has an impressive lineup of sours, and their Lips of Faith series is constantly experimenting and pushing new things onto the market. While not all of them are necessarily successful, some are excellent beers. I'll drink Cocoa Mole like there's no tomorrow. And of course, we have to give them props locally for hooking up with Chef Tio at Julian to blend an exclusive sour beer.

2 - Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (858,000 barrels)

2011 was a big year for Sierra Nevada. Their Ovila series of beers debuted, which was a collaboration with the monks at the Abbey of New Clairvaux. They built a canning line, which is now in production (and coincidentally, cans of Torpedo and Pale Ale are starting to pop up, so keep your eyes peeled). And with a brewery expansion beginning in Asheville, North Carolina, 2012 looks like it will be just as significant of a year. Hell, they released Ruthless Rye, which as far as I'm concerned, is easily their new best seasonal and trumps some of their year-round offerings as well. Sierra Nevada, though large, continues to stay impressive with their offerings. And, they were just here visiting with Boulevard, so who knows, maybe a collaboration is in the works*?

1 - Boston Beer Company (2,440,000 barrels)

Sometimes it's hard to remember that Boston Beer Company/Samuel Adams is still a craft beer company because their reach in the market is so widespread. But at 2.4 million barrels in 2011, they are certainly well under the 6 million barrel production limit that defines a craft brewery. Much like New Belgium and Sierra Nevada, it's great to see Samuel Adams, a well-established craft beer brewer, still trying new things. With their new bomber series, BBC is experimenting with new styles like barleywine, rauchbier and chili bock. And while they might not be for everyone, we should appreciate the fact they are staying progressive in a time when consumers are craving variety and innovation in craft beer styles.

What do you think? Any surprises in the Big 12 of Craft Beer? Any that you expect to appear or drop off next year?

*While they did visit, this rumor is completely unfounded. Sorry Danner, I had to.

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