When Neil Gurnsey grabs a drink at his favorite bar, he's delighted when nobody knows his name.
Gurnsey loves to see his new watering hole, the taproom at Hand of Fate Brewing, packed with people from outside Petersburg, Illinois, a small bedroom community of roughly 2,200 near the capital, Springfield. Started last May by Mike Allison, a former funeral director who turned his homebrewing hobby into a thriving small business in his hometown, Hand of Fate took its name from the town's origin story (during a card game between two early settlers, Peter Lukins and George Warburton, Warburton drew the losing hand).
After just a year, the small brewery has brought good fortune to the town. After taking over an old Dollar General discount store in the sparsely occupied town square, the brewery-and-taproom has become a community hub and a catalyst keeping businesses open later. It's encouraged others—including two new boutiques—to open shop, and drawn visitors from across the region. This year's "Drinkin' with Lincoln" street festival was a big hit.
"Once Mike got the brewery going," says Gurnsey, an assistant vice president at the National Bank of Petersburg, "life was just injected into the square. If I go inside the bar and see that I know just 10 people out of 100, that's great."
Breweries, taprooms, and bars have always been about more than beer, serving as community hubs, gathering places, and sources of local identity and pride. But as Hand of Fate shows, they're also increasingly serving as engines of economic development and catalysts for cities and towns, especially in rural areas.
Allison's business—which churns out a variety of IPAs, cream ales, and saisons—may directly employ 10 people, but the ancillary benefits of the brewery and taproom, like others in the country, radiate into the community in different ways.
As the booming craft-beer industry, which contributed $55.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2014, continues to expand, more and more municipalities and states have tried to turn this industry into a means to spur growth. According to Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association, about 80 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery.
Small towns and abandoned industrial areas are prime candidates for regeneration-by-brewery. Portland-based beer writer Jeff Alworth has seen the industry revive towns across Oregon and the U.S. Amid talk of hops and flavor profiles, drinkers sometimes forget the impressive industrial scale of brewing operations—and the jobs it can provide. A typical taproom makes 300-gallon batches multiple times a day, employing men and women to haul fully loaded, 165-pound kegs across a factory floor, and retrofitting spaces and installing brewery equipment requires skilled craftsmen and laborers.
That requires lots of space, says Watson, which is why brewing, a capital-intensive industry, is perfect for depressed areas with lots of excess and abandoned industrial real estate. That large footprint, however, is part of the reason for an oversize community impact; taprooms and bars are magnets that draw people in, and with traditional bars and VFW halls (Veterans of Foreign Wars) closing, these new spaces become community hubs and event spaces, not just another place to grab a drink. And, according to research by Julie Wartell, a lecturer at University of California at San Diego, bars attached to breweries result in much less crime than regular bars.
Margo Metzger, director of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, has seen craft brewing explode in her state, generating $2.4 billion and 10,000 jobs in 2014. At that time, North Carolina had a little over 100 breweries; a few years later, after big names such as Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and Oskar Blues all opened facilities near Asheville, the state boasts 215 breweries.