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Minnesota's breweries really started to 'grow up' in 2016

Oh, and everyone says the bubble doesn't exist.

It's a great time to be alive if you're a craft beer drinker.

There are more than 5,000 breweries in the United States, and Minnesota has more than 100 craft breweries. Here's a look at how the state's beer scene grew in the past year.

More brewers statewide

In 2011, which is just five years ago, there were 20 breweries in Minnesota.

This year alone, the state added nearly that many licensed brewers. As of mid-December, 16 more brewers got their license in 2016, bringing the total number of licensed brewers to 107 (this doesn't include brewpubs, which run under a different liquor license).

That's about 2.7 breweries for every 100,000 Minnesotans who are of drinking age, the Brewers Association notes.

They're growing up

"We're starting to grow up a little bit," Tom Whisenand, the president of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild and the co-founder of Indeed Brewing, told GoMN, referring to the breweries that opened in the years before 2016.

They're maturing and becoming a more professional business, he explained. And you can see that in the beer itself, too. Brewers are pushing to innovate, they're brewing more creative styles, and the quality of their beers is improving.

And they're getting noticed for it. Minnesota breweries continue to take home prestigious awards from craft beer festivals, and get nods from national magazines for their great-tasting brews.

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Competition is growing

A few years ago, breweries were growing fast, sometimes at a rate of 20-50 percent. But now, many are just seeing single-digit growth or staying flat, Whisenand said.

Why? It has a lot to do with space at bars, restaurants and liquor stores. With so many beer options, it's hard for brewers to maintain a consistent presence on tap or on shelves. That's forced some breweries to grow a little slower than they may have planned.

It also can make it harder for new breweries to get started, and it's one reason why brewers have turned to the suburbs and greater Minnesota to set up shop. This happened in 2016 more than it did the year before, and Whisenand says opening a taproom where there's demand for a local brewery is a great way to get into the business.

It gives a new brewer a dedicated space to establish their beer business, without having to fight for unreliable tap space.

This competition is a good thing for the consumer, though. Breweries have to work a lot harder to grow and maintain their presence in the industry, which gives beer drinkers a lot more choices (and usually better beer).

So is there a bubble?

If you ask pretty much any craft brewer in the state, their answer will be no (I've asked a handful, and they've all given the same answer).

Whisenand compared breweries to places that sell hamburgers. Every day a new burger place opens, but no one says there are too many of them. And there never seems to be a decline in the need for a better burger.

Think of breweries the same way. Yes, breweries will close for a variety of reasons, but peoples' desire for a craft beer isn't going anywhere.

Every brewery is different and has different goals, Whisenand said. Yes, if every brewery that opens is like Surly, there would be too many, he explained, but when there's a variety of breweries opening, then there aren't too many.

And when those breweries do close, it will likely be the ones that aren't producing as high quality of beer, Ilan Klages-Mundt, the co-founder of Insight Brewing, told GoMN earlier this month. He was one of the brewers who said there isn't a bubble, but he did say there will be a point when the volume of craft beer that people drink levels off.

Currently, craft beer makes up a little over 12 percent of all beer brewed by volume, and that number is on track to surpass 20 percent by 2020, the Brewers Association says.

Klages-Mundt thinks the maturation point won't come until well after it reaches 20 percent, and Minnesota will probably lag behind the rest of the country when it happens. He noted that Minnesotans are hyper-local and progressive – and they'll continue to pay attention to the brands they buy.

Check back Sunday for our story about what 2017 will bring for craft beer.

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