Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Craft Beer Industry Keeps on A-Growin'

I could write a lengthy piece on the latest Brewers Association report, but I am on spring break with the kids soaking in the sun in ... Seattle (sigh), so I am just going to resort to their info-graphic!

There, any questions?  I am asked often what I think about this growth (13% in volume and 15% in sales in the last year) and where it is all heading and I generally have three main themes I sound in response.

One: beer in America is changing rapidly as are customers.  Light beer for example is loosing market share and more and more supermarket shelf space is going to craft beer.  I think that this trend is going to continue for a long time - I think the heyday of the light macro lager is over.  It'll still sell a ton, but what beer is and means to American consumers is changing both very quickly and permanently.  So, overall I think the craft part of the industry is going to keep growing. People want to experience flavor, character and subtlety in their beer now and no longer think of it as simply an alcohol delivery vehicle. So I think the sky is the limit for the industry overall.

Two: beer is, however, an industry with very considerable economies of scale so while the volumes will continue to grow and the sales will continue to grow and the shelf space will continue to grow, the number of breweries will not grow at the same pace.  I think the next phase will be the maturation of the better craft breweries into major regional breweries ala Sierra Nevada, Deschutes, CBA, etc.  There will be blood in other words as a bunch of small, interesting but fledgeling breweries shut their doors. I don't see this as a bad thing overall, mind.  This is the natural process of creative destruction that typifies a mature and vibrant industry.

Three: there are two basic business models in craft beer that I think are successful.  The packaging brewery with a clear path to expansion and the brewpub.  The small independent packaging brewery is where the bloodletting will be most severe. Economies of scale will cause enormous price pressures for a small brewery to compete on price with the big guys.  I mean, face it, Sierra Nevada, Deschutes, Widmer and Ninkasi make great beer, but do it at a scale that gives them a tremendous cost advantage.  The brewpub is the model I think that works best for the homebrewer-gone-pro.  For someone who wants a small brewery, with lots of variety and experimentation in the beer, you gotta have the food.  The food will provide the stable revenue while the beer will keep the punters coming back.

So there you have it.


Jack R. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff Alworth said...

I agree with this, too. I would add that for the small-scale brewer who wants to enter the market, the other hopeful message is quality. It seems clear that working from a small scale, you will find ample customers to support your business if you make great beer. At least in Oregon. My sense is that it's going to be much worse for those who make poor beer.

The Oriole Way said...

I don't think Patrick's view of the industry is really so different than either of the two comments. There are likely to be a few national players (Sierra, Oscar Blues, New Belgium, Full Sail etc), and then regional brands (Harpoon, Dogfish Head, Flying Dog, Ninkasi, etc). And then the rest of them will have to be pretty local. The marketplace just can't support so many brands; I already spend way too much time at the bottle shop! The local breweries can certainly do distribution other than brew pub because there is unquestionably a market now for local, craft made food products (not just beer), even if these products cost more. I don't know how many of these breweries will be able to consider multi-state distribution, however.