Matt Driscoll

Is Tacoma’s beer market oversaturated? The Hub’s closing ‘won’t be the last’ one brewer says

The Hub Tacoma and Tap Room in the Stadium District are closing

The Hub Tacoma and Tap Room in the Stadium District are closing Saturday.
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The Hub Tacoma and Tap Room in the Stadium District are closing Saturday.

Oversaturated.

When discussing the state of brewpubs, breweries and taprooms in Tacoma, it’s a word that keeps coming up lately.

And, no, not merely in relation to the state you might sometimes find yourself in after visiting them.

Based on my rough, unofficial tally, approximately 4,700 breweries and brewpubs have opened in Tacoma over the last several years. Today, it means there’s a freshly brewed hazy IPA or newfangled sour beer within walking distance of every man, woman and child in Tacoma.

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. But not by much. The real number might be closer to 3,700.

Or, rather, 3,699 — because this week we lost a well-known one.

As The News Tribune’s Alexis Krell reported, The Hub Tacoma and Tap Room will close for good Saturday, citing declining revenue, ending the Hub’s decade-long run in Tacoma’s Stadium District. Harmon Brewing’s other restaurants will stay open, according to Kristyn Gronka, the company’s head of human resources. Once a back stock of kegs is emptied, Gronka added, brewing of the company’s beer — at least for the time being — will be outsourced.

With news of the Hub Tacoma and Tap Room’s imminent closure comes the obvious question:

Does Tacoma — a city once celebrated on T-shirts as a place “185,000 alcoholics can’t be wrong” about — have too many breweries, taprooms and brewpubs to support?

Are we oversaturated, in other words, and does the closure of the Hub represent a thinning of the herd, with more closures likely to come?

Ask Sal Leone, president and CEO of Fish Brewing, and he doesn’t pull his punches.

The closure will not be the last, he says with the certainty of a man who’s been there.

“I expect more,” Leone said of the Hub’s closure, not long removed from his own short-lived attempt to bring Fish Brewing to Point Ruston.

That endeavor lasted all of 14 months, ending earlier this year when the pub and eatery shuttered after failing to turn a profit.

It’s not the only financial trouble Leone has experienced recently. Unable to pay its debts, the Olympia-based business entered receivership in May, and as of July was up for sale.

In Tacoma (and throughout the state), it can be rough out there, Leone says, in part because of the “sheer number” of options for beer drinkers and also because smaller operations have more flexibility to experiment, providing consumers with the “different things” many people are clamoring for these days.

“Obviously, we failed with our brew pub at Point Ruston. We had to shut it down. So, yeah, it’s a very difficult environment, with a lot of competition, not only for brewpubs but just for breweries in general,” Leone says.

“Brewpubs are popping up all over the place, and it’s very simple for someone to get a license and open a taproom and make a little bit of beer. … The competition is very large, and it all adds up,” he says. “(The Hub’s closure) doesn’t surprise me, and I expect there will be more closures with breweries and brew pubs.”

John Xitco, the co-owner of X Group Restaurants — which among other endeavors operates Engine House No. 9 — offered a less pessimistic take. Earlier this year, E9 expanded its brewing operation and moved it downtown, including opening a taproom.

Most of all, Xitco says, he was sad to see news of the Hub’s pending closure, calling it “unfortunate.” He added that he takes a “more the merrier” approach to business.

“I’m of the opinion that a healthy landscape in any business is having more of the same businesses out there doing business together, and having friendly competition with one another, and always pushing each other to do better and come up with new things to serve their customers,” Xitco says.

“Seeing others not do well and go out of business is something we don’t like,” he adds. “I think it hurts the industry as a whole.”

Asked about the difficult landscape for breweries and brewpubs, Xitco cites factors beyond a glut of options — like rising costs and the fact that many people get into the business pursuing a passion, and the day-to-day realities of making it work can be more challenging than expected.

“It has a certain romantic sense to it. A lot of people don’t realize how truly difficult it is until you actually get going,” Xitco says of the business. “That’s something I think a lot of people don’t understand.”

In Proctor, Ron Swarner, a co-owner of Peaks and Pints, a craft beer bottle shop, taproom and eatery, has watched Tacoma’s beer landscape evolve dramatically over the last three years since opening for business.

A lifelong Tacoman, Swarner says the Hub Tacoma’s closure “didn’t surprise” him, though he quickly added that it “hurt my heart very much, because I grew up with that brewery.”

Swarner says it’s not just physical taprooms affected by the increasing number of options for beer drinkers. It can also be a struggle for local beer makers just trying to get their product in front of consumers at the store. The competition is increasingly fierce, Swarner says — he sees it in the “dogfight” breweries engage in just to get their beers on his shelves — and that with more than 6,000 craft breweries in the United States, it’s hard to carve a niche, even locally.

Swarner also says consumers desire for “the latest and greatest” beer only increases the pressure. At Peaks and Pints, Swarner says, he’s taken to personally driving to places like Portland to buy the new beers people want so he can stock them.

“Flagships are no longer what people reach for. They’re sitting there waiting for Facebook to tell them the new beer that’s on the shelf,” Swarner says. “Unless the local landscape is cranking out new beers every week, it’s going to be tough for them. … Gas stations and taxidermists now have beer on their shelves.”

While Swarner says business at Peaks and Pints has been solid, he does worry about what the future holds for the ever-growing list of breweries and taprooms that now call Tacoma home — old and new.

“It is very difficult,” Swarner says. “It’s oversaturation.”

There’s that word again.

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