Even though overall beer sales are down in the U.S., Americans are opening breweries at a faster rate than at any time since the day Prohibition ended, a new industry report shows.  The brewery explosion — and increase of 350 since last summer — is not swelling the roster of the megabrewers that dominate supermarket coolers. The wildfire growth is taking place in the long tail of the brewing industry — craft brewers.

The U.S. now has 2,126 breweries and a new brewery is opening nearly every day, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group representing the majority of U.S. companies. Boding well for continued robustness in the craft brewery segment, there are 1,252 new breweries in the planning stage compared to 725 a year ago, the group said.

Craft beer sales were up 14 percent in the first half of 2012, a flat period for beer sales overall, while the volume of beer sold jumped 12 percent. [One of America's Fastest-Growing Industries? Hot Sauce]

The vast majority (97 percent) of American breweries are craft breweries. The industry currently provides an estimated 104,000 full-time and part-time jobs, the Brewers Association said. Craft breweries have an annual production rate of less than 6 million barrels.

To put that into context, Anheuser-Busch InBev — which owns Budweiser, Michelob, Beck's and other brands — shipped 98.8 million barrels last year, the first time the company has shipped less than 100 million annual barrels in a decade.

"Generally, most craft brewers are continuing to see strong growth in production, sales, brewing capacity and employment, which is to be celebrated during challenged times for many of today’s small businesses," said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. "Plus it’s a fact that beer drinkers are responding to the quality and diversity created by small American brewing companies. India pale ales, seasonal beers, Belgian-inspired ales and a range of specialty beers are just a few of the beer styles that are growing rapidly."

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.We're also on Facebook & Google+.

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