The craft brew boom of the 2010s gave beer drinkers more choices than ever to quench their thirst.

Thousands of new breweries popped up across the U.S. during the decade, carving out a substantial market share against mass produced competitors. The industry's staggering rise has leveled off a bit in recent years, fueling speculation the market is approaching a saturation point.

While that might be the case in some markets, brewers and drinkers at Saturday's Mankato Craft Beer Expo expressed confidence there remains room for even more inventive breweries to emerge.

"There's always new ingredients and different hop varieties are always coming around," said Nick Strenke, lead brewer at Rochester's Thesis Beer Project. "I think it's just ever changing and there's never going to be a slow to it."

Thesis Beer Project became Rochester's fifth brewery when it opened in 2019, Strenke said. Its brewers worked at other breweries in the city before opening their own.

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Strenke said variety and creativity will be what keeps the industry going.

"There's no rules to brewing beer," he said. "When someone finds a new niche they dive into it and see what happens."

The expo, organized by Chop Liver Craft Beer Festivals, introduces patrons to new beers at both established and new breweries. Saturday's event was expected to draw about 1,600 people.

Mark Opdahl, Chop Liver's co-founder, said craft beer is like any other industry. Not everyone is going to succeed. It all depends on the product they put out.

"As long as breweries make good beer consistently, then they'll be able to survive," he said.

The Brewers Association, a trade group counting more than 5,400 U.S. breweries among its members, estimated 4% growth in production from 2018 to 2019. It's far from the booming 13% to 18% growth measured between 2013 and 2015, but it's held fairly steady since then.

The number of craft breweries rose from 6,490 to 7,346 from 2017 to 2018, according to the association. Area breweries including LocAle and Sleepy Eye Brewing were among the newcomers in recent year, joining established ones like Mankato Brewery and Schell's.

If market saturation happens, said Erin Hutton of New Prague's Giesenbrau Bier, it'll largely impact bigger markets.

"Bigger markets like Denver, maybe northeast Minneapolis, Portland, there might come a time when those guys are going to be saturated," he said. "But little towns like New Prague or even Mankato, there's still room for microbreweries."

Hutton previously lived in Denver, where he saw the craft beer market grow extremely competitive. He said opening a brewery in New Prague -- the first since Prohibition -- gave people an alternative to dive bars.

"I was actually surprised New Prague didn't have one," he said.

Jeff Fette and Cody Carlson, neighbors from Rapidan, agreed saturation could impact the craft brewery scenes in larger cities.

"It's like every home brewer with money opens a brewery up there," Fette said.

The two are part of a brew club with about 12 members from the Rapidan and Mankato area. They look for new beers at the liquor store, keep each other in the loop about any new ones they try at bars through the Untappd app, and take day trips to check out several breweries at a time -- with a responsible driver transporting them.

For them and many other consumers, craft beer is very much still in its golden age. Yet Fette, wearing a shirt from Lost Sanity Brewing in Madelia, sees even more room for growth.

The Rapidan area doesn't have a brewery, he said, but could sure use one.

Follow Brian Arola

@BrianArola.

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