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The Next Big Thing In Beer Is Being A Small Taproom

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Medusa Brewing Company co-founder Keith Sullivan checks on the beer in the brewing area. "There are very few big breweries that have this family, community, connected feel. That's what we're selling," he says.

I have a problem.

I know I won't get any sympathy, but still.

On any given night, I can walk out my front door and within a half hour be at one of seven different taprooms serving up amazing fresh beer, brewed on the spot. Do you get what I'm going through? How could anyone possibly choose?

Here in the leafy western suburbs of Boston, there's Start Line in Hopkinton; CraftRoots in Milford; 7th Wave in Medfield; Medusa in Hudson; and Jack's Abbey, Springdale and Exhibit 'A' in Framingham.

These taprooms are part of the latest trend in craft beer in America.

"We're seeing local breweries open anywhere there's a density of population, and that's true in basically every state in the country now," says Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association, the Boulder-based trade group for small and independent craft brewers across the nation.

"There are 5,600 craft brewers in the U.S.," Watson says, "and two more open up every day. The vast majority of them are very, very small. Seventy-five percent of the breweries in the country collectively make less than 1 percent of the beer."

The explosion of taprooms has happened as states relax laws to allow brewers direct-to-consumer retail rights. In the past, a brewer couldn't sell directly to the public without being a "bonafide eating place." Most state laws required that the majority of revenue comes from food.

Beer lovers and beer makers alike clearly welcome the change.

"You don't have to hire a chef, don't have to build a kitchen and you don't have to know anything about the restaurant business," Watson says.

If you do your homework and pick the right location, some local brewers say you almost can't go wrong.

Start Line Brewing Company is tiny. Its cozy taproom is about the size of my combined kitchen and dining room. It's attached to a high-end, hydroponic farm stand that sells its own organic veggies, locally made vinegars and free-range meats. It's located in Hopkinton, Mass., near the starting line for the Boston Marathon, which takes place every April.

Ted Twinney, Start Line co-founder, explains his economics: "When we sell beer here at our taproom, we enjoy the margins of retailers, and that's what's fueling the taproom growth. We manufacture, wholesale and retail the beer in the same space."

Brewers pouring, selling cans or filling growlers at their own taprooms make 40 to 50 percent more than they would if they sold their beer wholesale to a distributor. They've cut out the middleman.

Start Line mostly sells beer in cans and 64-ounce growlers to brewery customers. But Twinney says he and his staff also drive kegs and cases of beer to about 35 bars and 12 liquor stores, and they try to add a couple of new ones each week.

Twinney, who did pretty well working for Big Pharma, says he could keep going like this until retirement, but he has plans to expand.

Another place clearly on its way up is Medusa Brewing Company. The brewery and taproom in Hudson, Mass. — the farthest away from my front door — sells a hundred percent more beer than it did when it opened just over two years ago.

"What we're standing in now is not designed to feed beer to people towns and towns and towns over," says Medusa co-founder Keith Sullivan, extending an arm to take in the taproom. "You have to come to us. And that's how things used to be. Breweries catered to the towns in which they were established."

Medusa's taproom is warm and inviting, all dark wood and gleaming brass. Sullivan and his co-founders built the 50-foot bar themselves out of salvaged steel and white oak.

Like Start Line, Medusa doesn't serve food — but you can bring it in. Sullivan says lots of people show up with pizza and take-out Chinese from nearby restaurants.

"We do have ambitious plans to grow, to can and distribute around Massachusetts and maybe in the region," Sullivan says. "We have a lot of friends who we've watched grow. If we do build something that would allow for distribution, that would be cool. But there are very few big breweries that have this family, community, connected feel. That's what we're selling."

In addition to lots of live music and the obligatory food trucks, breweries are also coming up with other ways of drawing a crowd. Exhibit 'A' Brewing Company often has yoga classes on the weekends. Other places offer gourmet dinners, complete with beer pairings for each course. And these taprooms are fast becoming destinations for business meetings, parties and hop-soaked weddings.

And for us beer dorks, there's the continuous thrill of trying something new, maybe something no one has ever tried before, like the peanut butter beer at Jack's Abby.

Watson, the beer economist, believes this is the way it's going to be for a while.

"Most new brewers are fairly content being in a locally-distributed network. The era of moving up to a Boston Beer Company [maker of Sam Adams] is over," he says. "Beer lovers are much more likely to buy beer if they can visit taprooms."

Can I get an "amen"?

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