Credit: 2011 Staci Kennelly-Flickr-Getty Images  Caption: Pint of beer on bar
The next time someone hassles you for cracking open a beer on a weekday before 5 p.m. or when their child is in the pub trying to enjoy a good round of ketchupy french-fry flinging, tell them you're not just drinking a beer: You're supporting a $250 billion American industry.

The folks at beer industry lobbying group The Beer Institute and the the beer distribution group National Beer Wholesalers Association released their bi-annual economic impact study on Thursday and discovered that America's total beer industry produced $246.6 billion in economic activity last year. That's more than 2,800 breweries, 3,700 distributors and 576,000 bars and stores dumping $49.1 billion in tax dollars into the nation's coffers.

That's also 1.1 million jobs paying out $31.8 billion in wages and benefits each year, though that generously lumps in convenience store, restaurant and stadium workers with brewery and distributor employees. That said, there's no questioning the growth of an industry where breweries numbered fewer than 500 as recently as 1993.

So who gets credit for the growth? Small regional and craft brewers insist they do, as craft beer industry group The Brewers Association recently released figures indicating that craft beer sales rose 15% by volume and 17% in dollars during 2012 and now constitute 6.5% of the beer market's volume and 10.2% of its sales.

Impressive, but not even close to the whole story. Not included in the Brewers Association's numbers are large brewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) and MolsonCoors (TAP), regional brewers like D.G. Yuengling and imports like Heineken USA and Corona importer Crown. That's a shame, since A-B shipments were up 0.6% in 2012, Yuengling's production jumped 10.6% and Crown and Heineken put out 3.5% and 5% more beer, respectively, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.

Together, all U.S. breweries employ nearly 44,000 workers, pay out $3.9 billion in wages and benefits a year and buy $850 million in hops, barley and yeast from American producers. U.S. and import brewers both fuel nearly 130,000 jobs in distribution and drive the system that gets your beer from the brewery to the racks.

Is it perfect? No. The small brewers hate the three-tier system that keeps them from self-distributing in many states and the big brewers don't understand why the Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and AC Golden Winterfest isn't "craft." But it's all part of an industry that's as big a part of the American economy as livestock, business travel and health and wellness products. While brewers will likely keep squabbling over who's a soulless monopoly and who's an effete, aloof member of the hop-heavy cool kids' club, maybe this one bit of good news can get everyone to the same table together to toast a job well done.

More on moneyNOW