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opinion | Mike Ross

Boston the epicenter of craft beer?

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What makes a 26-year-old mother of two pile her entire family into a car and drive for hours from Connecticut to Greensboro Bend, Vt.?

Beer, of course. The Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro Bend is said to brew the best beer in America. One recent weekend, I met a young woman from Stonington, Conn., who drove clear across New England to sample delicious craft beer there. Sadly, she sat defeated at the Hyde Away Tavern in nearby Waitsfield, having missed the brewery’s open hours by minutes. Not all was lost: Sitting at the bar, nursing a can of Heady Topper ale, she was busy making plans to visit a restaurant down the road that pours Hill Farmstead on tap.

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If you haven’t noticed, craft beer is on fire.

Small, independent batch brewing has taken off, while big-label beers, like Budweiser, are slumping. What used to be a hobby that started in basements now accounts for over $10 billion in annual sales — that’s over 10 percent of beer dollars spent in America. More to the point, with over 2,600 craft breweries nationwide, cities have discovered their power to activate development, create jobs, and attract tourists.

Boston knows a thing or two about beer, beginning with our country’s most famous early home brewer, founding father Samuel Adams. In the late 19th century, Boston was home to 24 breweries. In 1984 the Boston Beer Company launched; the maker of Sam Adams beer revived the former Haffenreffer brewery in Jamaica Plain. In 1986, a second brewery, Harpoon, opened on the far end of the South Boston Waterfront.

These were the pioneers of the American brew business — the Digital Equipments and Data Generals of craft beer. We started this industry. We owned this industry. And now, as with the technology industry before it, we are fighting to keep it.

Any conventioneer can visit one of our city’s many corporate restaurants and drink draft beer found virtually anywhere. But great cities also have places worth finding. Craft brewers understand the importance of creative place-making. These are artisans, willing to work long hours to excel at something much more than a job.

When J.C. Tetreault decided to open Trillium Brewing in early 2011, his Fort Point Channel neighbors couldn’t wait to bring home fresh growlers of beer. It turns out they would wait two whole years until it would open.

Antiquated zoning rules make opening a brewery harder than it should be. Even though Trillium’s location on Congress Street is zoned for light industrial uses, breweries still require zoning relief, which is costly and time consuming. Trillium is not alone. Two new craft distilleries (spirits, not beer) recently opened in Boston — Bully Boy in Newmarket and GrandTen on Dorchester Avenue. Both, despite being sited in industrial settings, waited for months to obtain the permits they needed to open.

And these are the lucky few. Two brewers, Pretty Things and the Somerville Brewing Company (a.k.a. Slumbrew), don’t even have their own space. Given the enormous expense of opening, permitting, and starting a brewery, they’re “contract brewing” — using someone else’s brewery to brew their beer.

Many of these brewers have young families, and they’re building their businesses while holding down other jobs. Trillium’s owner works for a small medical device company in Lexington. The owners of Slumbrew still run a marketing and design firm out of their home. These entrepreneurs are achieving amazing results, earning national reputations in their own right.

So why are we making this so hard?

Local government needs to want this just as much as the public does. It should start by reforming its zoning laws and permitting rules to make opening breweries easier. But it also needs to think of breweries in a different way — not as a nuisance to be tolerated but as an industry to be cultivated.

Here in Boston lots of attention is paid to high tech, as it should. But cities should recognize that it’s healthy to have a diverse set of industries, including light industrial businesses such as breweries. The beer industry helps create both knowledge jobs — concocting a recipe for a top-selling brew takes expertise — and blue collar jobs as well. It also drives retail dollars and builds a positive brand that attracts visitors from near and far. Just ask that mother from Connecticut.

Our local brewers are working hard to support our region, and the rest of us should as well. Like everything else, we can’t afford to rest on our laurels — or even our hops.

Mike Ross is a Boston city councilor.
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