MORIARTY, New Mexico (Reuters Life!) - Fancy a drop of alien brew? Or a beer made to a recipe from Benedictine monks? Enter Rich Weber, one of a growing number of brewers in the United States moving beyond traditional U.S. beers.
Weber said his quest to brew a better beer began when he moved to New Mexico in the mid-1990s and opened the Sierra Blanca Brewing Company.
"I grew up on the east coast and was used to a broad selection of beers, especially after spending some time in England where I learned to love real ale," he said on a tour of his brewery in the town of Moriarty, home to 2,000 people.
"When I got here all I could find was the beers produced by the major U.S. breweries, so I decided to make my own."
He now brews a range of beers including the top-selling Roswell Amber Alien Ale, created in 1997 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the purported UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico, which has an impish looking green alien on the label.
Weber also brews beers under contract, including Monk's Ale, a hoppy Belgian-style ale made to a recipe owned by Benedictine monks in Pecos, New Mexico, who sell the beer.
Sierra Blanca, which Weber opened in 1996, is just one of a large number of small breweries dotted across the United States that did not exist a few decades ago.
"The brewing industry in this country has undergone something of a revolution," said Paul Gatza, director of the U.S. Brewers Association. "What we're seeing a is a mass movement toward more flavorful beer."
Gatza said the number of breweries in the United States has surged to around 1,400 from about 42 in the 1970s.
MOVE TO PREMIUM BEERS
These brewers use traditional ingredients such as barley, malt and wheat, unlike the corn and rice often used by the major breweries to produce beer.
Around half of the newer breweries are medium-sized or smaller operators like Sierra Blanca.
The other half are brewery pubs or restaurants like the Bricktown Brewery Restaurant in downtown Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, which brew beers just to serve their customers. Bricktown's selection includes the eclectically named but flavorful Bison American Wheat Ale and Red Brick Ale.
The market is still dominated by just a few giants as it has been for many years - Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., SABMiller Plc and Molson Coors Brewing Co..
But Gary Hemphill, managing director of beverage consulting firm Beverage Marketing Corp. said the U.S. beer market has seen a gradual shift toward light (lower alcohol, lower calorie) beer, imported beer, or the beers produced by small breweries like Sierra Blanca although these are more pricey.
"More people now want to buy a higher quality, premium beer and are willing to pay more for it," said Hemphill.
Production by craft brewers has grown to 6.65 million barrels in 2006 from 5.55 million barrels in 2004 -- but this is dwarfed by the major breweries who produced 169.1 million barrels in 2006.
Although many small breweries have done well, like Sierra Blanca they are far from major U.S. population centers which they need to court if they want to keep growing.
"Our beer is more expensive to make because we don't mass produce it," said Weber. "There is only so much expensive beer we can sell here, so we're looking to expand to the East Coast."