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The craft brewing and beverage sector in Sonoma County contributed an estimated $123 million to the local economy in 2012 while directly supporting 500 jobs, according to the first-ever study of the industry by the county Economic Development Board.

The study highlights a growing niche forming for a wide swath of businesses, particularly the tourism sector, as demand for artisan beer, ciders and liquors increases across both the country and the North Bay.

Sales of Sonoma County craft beer are growing by a rate of more than double the national average — craft beer sales by volume increased 15 percent nationwide in 2012, while in Sonoma County, sales by volume rose 41 percent, according to the study. The research is part of a broader effort by the EDB to gain economic insight and identify opportunities for growth in the craft beer, cider and spirit industries.

As of February, there were 18 craft breweries in Sonoma County, eight of which opened in the last two years, according to the study.

The county's beer, spirits and cider makers are poised to capitalize significantly on the growing national demand for small, local and artisanal goods, according to the study, which says the region's agricultural history has created a well-established appreciation of local goods.

"Consumers are recognizing the value of quality ingredients and care in the product," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County EDB. "That is what Sonoma County is about, the artisanal culture, and it is no surprise that craft beverages are a growing part of our economy."

The county's biggest brewer, Petaluma-based Lagunitas Brewing Company, has helped lead the charge of local breweries gaining national recognition. Already the sixth largest craft brewer in the country, Lagunitas saw year-over-year sales grow by 40 percent in 2012, reaching $60 million.

The brewery, which is expanding rapidly to meet demand, produces 73 percent of all craft beer in Sonoma County and has grown its local workforce from 100 employees to 350 over a 12-month period.

Another key piece of the local brewery scene is Santa Rosa's Russian River Brewing Company, who's famed Pliny the Younger, a triple IPA released only once a year, has a cumulative economic impact on Sonoma County tourism to the tune of $2.35 million, according to the study.

For instance, in 2013, the release of Pliny the Younger drew 12,500 attendees over a two-week period. Of that total, 8,140 attendees, or 65 percent, were tourists from outside Sonoma County who traveled specifically to sample the IPA, which drew international interest in 2009 when it was rated "best beer in the world" by the popular website BeerAdvocate.com.

Direct spending related to Pliny the Younger totaled approximately $1.4 million, while indirect and induced impacts are estimated at $421,000 and $495,000, respectively, the study said.

Visitors came from at least 26 different states and five foreign countries for Pliny the Younger, according to the study. The top five states represented were California, Nevada, Illinois, Washington and Texas. The top five foreign countries were Japan, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands.

Survey results from the EDB indicated that Pliny the Younger tourists spent a large portion of money at restaurants, other breweries and bars, over an average stay of 1.6 days, with 44 percent saying in local lodging and hotels.

The report also found that Sonoma County's craft brewery industry directly supports 500 jobs and indirectly supports another 180 jobs.

But it's not just beer, as distilleries and cider makers similarly see an increase in demand. California Cider Company, which makes the popular Ace Cider, was founded in 1994 in Sebastopol. In the last two decades, it has grown to become the largest family owned cider in the United States, with sales increasing by 52 percent from the previous year, according to the study.

Nationwide, ciders makers have seen sales increase by 70 percent in 2012, after a 31 percent increase 2012. Part of the recent success is attributed to the fact that 80 percent of the beer market is male, enabling producers to market the cider as a "gender-neutral" drink," according to the study.

While the growth of craft beverages has accelerated, the industry is faced with several unique challenges, the study found, with 72 percent of all respondents indicating that permitting and varying county and state regulations top all other concerns.

Distilleries, for example, face an especially daunting challenge with Prohibition-era rules limiting growth. State law prohibits distilleries from engaging tourists through tours and tastings, meaning fewer direct sales, the study says. It also points to Washington, which eased its regulations on tastings in 2008, prompting an explosion of distilleries that opened, going from zero before 2008 to 40 today. There are three such distilleries that have opened in Sonoma County this year.

The growth of Sonoma County's craft beverage industry will be the focus of a first-ever industry conference to be held in the fall of 2013. Tentatively titled &‘The Liquid Assets Conference,' the event will address opportunities for growth and key industry concerns.

"It comes down to entrepreneurism. These businesses have identified their own niche in the market. Combine that with passion, and you have a recipe for job creation," Mr. Stone said. "It's the EDB's goal with this study to identify impediments to growth and promote a healthy business environment."

The EDB said it is working closely with Sonoma County Tourism to promote Sonoma County as a craft beverage destination.

By the numbers

Craft beer

15 percent national increase in 2012 craft beer sales by volume

41 percent Sonoma County increase in 2012 craft beer sales by volume

0.9 percent nationwide increase in 2012 overall beer sales by volume

Sonoma County had 18 craft breweries in 2013.

Eight Sonoma County craft breweries were founded since 2011.

Craft distilleries

Five-fold growth of U.S. craft distilleries in the last five years.

Sonoma County had three craft distilleries in 2013.

Washington state had no craft distilleries before legalization of tastings and in-store sales in 2008 and had 40 as of last year.

Hard cider

31 percent national increase in cider sales in 2011

70 percent increase in U.S. cider sales in 2012

Four cideries were in Sonoma County in 2013.

Two local cideries opened in the last three years.

80 percent of beer buyers are male, suggesting gender-neutral marketing of cider.

Source: Sonoma County Economic Development Board