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Gary Fish is one of America’s most successful craft beer brewers. The twist on that achievement is that he never really set out to be one.

When Fish opened his Deschutes Brewery & Public House in 1988, he saw himself as a restaurateur. With a storefront location on Bond Street in Oregon’s old mill town of Bend, the brewpub boasted a locally sourced menu complemented with Fish’s own brand of porters and ales that he brewed in small tanks on the premises. At first, the reception for Fish’s beer was, well, kind of warm. “Bend was a blue-collar town,” he recalls. “It was very much a Bud Light kind of town.”

Gary Fish with a can of his Mirror Pond Pale Ale

Little by little, though, Fish’s brews started to catch on. A few tavern owners from Portland started pouring beer brewed at Deschutes—a name Fish took from the river that wanders through the center of town—and demand at his restaurant grew. Before long, Fish had rented a building across the street to serve as a warehouse for his beer.

“We scrounged up some used kegs and got into the manufacturing business without even knowing it,” he recalls.

Today, Deschutes beer is among the most popular craft brews in America. Fish sells his brand in 30 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces. A three-story production brewery equipped with 10 fermentation tanks custom-built in Germany now produces the 450,000+ barrels of beer that Deschutes makes yearly. Fish has opened a second brewpub in Portland, a pub at the Portland airport and—to serve fans on the East Coast—constructed an $85 million brewing facility in Roanoke, Virginia. From its handful of offerings 30 years ago, Deschutes now bottles nine year-round beers, several seasonal brews, a few draft-only varieties and six limited-edition, small-batch offerings that Deschutes calls “audacious, experimental, outrageously coddled beers.”

As American success stories go, then, Gary Fish and Deschutes are tough to top. But for Fish and independent brewers like him, the pleasant buzz of success increasingly comes with an aftertaste called stress.

Craft brews have grown so popular in America that they’re almost too popular: The 100 or so other independent breweries that existed when Deschutes started have mushroomed into 7,000, and Deschutes is, in theory, competing with all of them—for customers, for shelf space, for simple brand awareness.

There’s more. Primed to the growing popularity of craft brews among millennials and saddled with years of declining sales of their own brands, huge corporate brewers like MillerCoors and A-B InBev (“Big Beer,” to use the industry argot) began buying up independent labels a decade ago, creating a competitive dynamic that, understandably, many smaller brands consider unfair and misleading. By quietly operating small brewers, Big Beer is effectively leveraging its might to lure customers away from the actual small brewers—and many drinkers are none the wiser.

“The problem is transparency. [The mega breweries] don’t say they own these [craft] beers. What happens is beer lovers who want to spend local can’t always tell the difference.”

-Jess Baker, editor in chief of CraftBeer.com

“The problem is transparency,” notes Jess Baker, editor in chief of CraftBeer.com, an information and advocacy site run by the Brewers Association, which represents the country’s craft breweries. The mega breweries, she explains, “don’t say they own these [craft] beers. What happens is beer lovers who want to spend local can’t always tell the difference.”

Actually, transparency is just one of the problems. The saturation of the marketplace, the hidden hand of multinational brewery corporations—Fish says it’s not just the inescapable reality of brewing beer today; it’s a permanent one. “I don’t see this dynamic going away,” he says.

As a consequence, Fish has had to up his game in most every respect, both to hold onto his market share and continue to draw new customers. Deschutes’ strategy—which touches most every aspect of the business, from operations to packaging—serves as a model for how the proverbial little guy can hold his own amid growing competition. As Fish puts it, “We have got to be more diligent, and more creative.”

Small beer fights big beer

Easier said than done, of course. But Deschutes has made several key moves to retain a competitive edge, the most striking of which is its packaging.

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