Our friends at the North Bay Business Journal (owned by the same people, located across the hall from the PD) have an interesting list this week: the region’s breweries ranked by size.

They list the 14 craft breweries they could identify and get information out of and the results give a wonderful snapshot of the huge span of the craft beer industry in America today.

At the top, of course, is the Big Man on Campus in Sonoma County, Lagunitas, which reported 265,420 barrels, just north of 8.2 million gallons, in 2012. They’re on track to do more like 400,000 this year, owner Tony Magee says.

Next up is Bear Republic, also a brewery with a national profile, but which produced only about 67,651 barrels, or slightly more than 2 million gallons.

Things drop off pretty fast after that: North Coast at 52,000 barrels, Anderson Valley at 40,000, and then Russian River at just 14,145. That’s just the spread in the top 5 regional breweries.

At the low end, Ukiah Brewing puts out about 600 barrels, or 18,600 gallons, Calistoga Inn produces 400 barrels, and Healdsburg Beer Co. makes just 35 barrels, or about 1,085 gallons,  the smallest operation listed in the survey.

Just to put into perspective just how big Lagunitas is relative to everyone else, if you add together numbers 2 through 14 on the 14-brewery list, they produce 187,219 barrels, just 70 percent of what Lagunitas brewed all by itself.

And that’s in 2012 numbers, which are already outdated by the dizzying growth of Lagunitas. Between the Petaluma facility and a new Chicago brewery opening later this year, Lagunitas will eventually have the capacity to brew something like 1.5 million barrels per year, though it will take a couple of years to ramp up to that point.

Of course, as huge as that sounds, it is still far short of the Boston Beer Company, known as Sam Adams, which makes more than 2 million barrels per year. And Anheuser-Busch counts its production by the hundreds of millions. The AB plant in Fairfield alone produces about 4.4 million barrels, or more than 136 million gallons, per year. And that’s just one of dozens of production facilities AB owns or contracts with worldwide.

There was a time when the equation was very easy: craft beer=small and big=bad beer. In fact, those of you old enough to remember the first craft beer boom, in the 1990s, will recall that it was even called “micro-brew” in those days. You don’t hear so much of that anymore.

For the most part, craft brewers remain pretty small: a few hundred or a few thousand barrels per year max. But an increasing number of craft brewers are reaching for the stars. The dominant craft players – Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada – are already well past the million barrel threshold, but right behind are a class of ambitious brewers, including Lagunitas, Bell’s Brewing, New Belgium, and Oskar Blues.

Even some of the little guys are starting to think big. The brand new Carneros Brewing only opened last Saturday, using a tiny little  7-barrel brewing setup, but even before the doors opened, brewmaster Jesus Ceja told me he is already planning for a new 100-barrel system, which would put him in a position to compete almost on Lagunitas’ territory (Magee’s Petaluma brewery has a 250-barrel brewing system).

The emergence of the mega-craft brewers has caused a lot of discussion and soul searching in the Beer Tribe, with people worrying that as the companies grow, they may come to resemble more and more the mass market brewers that create the soulless pale fizzy stuff in a can. The question is this: is small always beautiful?

The always quotable Tony Magee doesn’t buy it. In his amusing 2012 book about the improbable rise of Lagunitas, he reflects on the insane growth that his brewery has experienced:

“The thing about the idea that ‘big’ and ‘cool’ are mutually exclusive beingnesses is rooted in the reality that most things that are ‘big’ are actually not ‘cool,'” he writes. “The flaw isn’t in  the ‘big-ness’ of a thing, but instead in the ‘un-cool-ness’ of the ‘big’ themselves.”

So far, it seems, Lagunitas has managed to survive the transition to Big without losing its Cool. The real test for the industry will be over the next decade or two, as the eccentrics, gurus, and visionaries who founded these growing breweries – such as Magee, Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, and Jim Koch of Sam Adams – retire or sell and pass the businesses to a new generation.

Will Big become permanently Cool? That chapter of the book isn’t written yet.

– Sean Scully