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Beer nerds have long entertained the idea of a craft beer bubble, though few experts have given the theory much credit. But an annual report from trade organization Brewers Association suggests the craft brewery industry could be reaching an apex.

In 2016, the number of breweries in the United States reached an all-time high of 5,301 active businesses. According to the association, 99 percent (or 5,234 of those) are small and independent operations.

While the number of breweries increased, so too did the volume of beer they produced -- though not by much. Last year, craft brewers produced 24.6 million barrels of beer, 6 percent more than 2015, which is the smallest increase in year-over-year volume in eight years, according to the Brewers Association. Craft brewers' products now represent 12.3 percent market share, a slight uptick from 12.2 percent in 2015.

Why the slow down?

There could be a number of reasons, according to Bart Watson, the association's chief economist. For one, more craft brands have been acquired by Big Beer in recent years, which inherently reduces market share. The association had to remove 1.2 million barrels of beer from its data set to account for mergers and acquisitions in 2015, he said. 

Craft brewery closings also increased slightly to 97 closings in 2016 from 68 the year prior.

"Small and independent brewers are operating in a new brewing reality still filled with opportunity, but within a much more competitive landscape," Watson said in a statement.

That may not be a bad thing, he notes. Because "the average brewer is getting smaller and growth is more diffuse within the craft category," craft brewers have actually added more jobs to local economies, he said. Combined with already existing and established breweries and brewpubs, craft brewers provided nearly 129,000 jobs, an increase of almost 7,000 from the previous year, according to the report.

If we're talking dollars and cents, the Brewers Association estimates craft brewers raked in $23.5 billion in 2016, which is up 10 percent from the year prior.

What would facilitate more growth in the craft brewing industry?

Everything is not bigger in Texas: Small craft breweries dominate D-FW's emerging scene

According to Watson, it's unrealistic to expect double-digit growth going forward since the industry has matured and gotten larger. Some breweries will, no doubt, have to adjust how they do business to keep pace, but places such as Texas could also play an instrumental role.

The Lone Star State's market for craft beer and brewing, which was late to get a foothold, is still seeing strong growth, Watson said. As many of the states that lead in market share experience slowed growth, it will be up to emerging markets to make up the difference. And as we explored last year, there's certainly plenty of opportunity to do so here

States like Texas "can carry burden of the growth," Watson said. "As the number of small breweries increases ... we're going to see a lot diversity in growth."

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