Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

I'll Toast to That: U.S. Brewery Count Hits All-Time Record

Got a hankering for a local beer? You're in luck: There are now more U.S. breweries than at any other point in recorded American history. According to data released today by the Brewers Association, there were 4,269 operating breweries in the country at the end of 2015, surpassing the previous record logged all the way back in 1873 when a lack of transportation and refrigeration meant breweries had to be local.

"Prior to the late 1800s, the market for breweries was essentially the distance a horse drawn cart could travel out and back in a day," Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association, said in an e-mail. As the invention of refrigerated railcars and pasteurization expanded the range beer could travel, the number of breweries fell rapidly. That is, until the craft beer movement came to life in the 1980s, a trend that has continued to grow for decades.

And what about that flat patch from 1920 to 1933? That's "that sad, sad social experiment, prohibition," said Matt Brophy, brewmaster at Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Maryland, during a recent visit to Bloomberg headquarters in New York.

Big-name beer companies may still churn out more barrels, but small and independent breweries comprise 99 percent of the total breweries in operation by count, according to the Brewers Association. At the end of 2015, there were 2,397 microbreweries, 1,650 brewpubs and 178 regional craft breweries, preliminary data from the not-for-profit trade group show.

“Small and independent brewers are a beacon for beer and our economy,” Watson said in a statement announcing the new data, noting that all U.S. breweries together provided about 122,000 jobs last year, up about 6,000 year on year. In 2014, the craft brewing industry contributed about $55.7 billion to the U.S. economy, including wholesalers and retailers, the Brewers Association said. Full 2015 data on economic impact will become available in the second quarter.

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