At the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference, stainless steel was the order of the day for brewing tanks, bottling machines and tap systems that were on display at the trade expo. Exhibitors came from the United States, Germany, Canada, Chile, China, Italy, the Czech Republic, France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Spain. Photo by Patty Mamula
By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
If the size of and attendance at the 32nd annual Craft Brewers Conference indicate the health of the industry, it’s thriving. The largest-ever event drew more than 11,000 brewing professionals and 600 exhibitors to Beervana in April for discussion, education, off-site events and tours.
Craft brewing continues its impressive surge. Benj Steinman, president of Beer Marketer’s INSIGHTS, said that 2014 was the fifth straight year of double-digit growth.
Craft breweries opened at a rate of 1.7 per day -- 615 for the year — with 2,051 breweries in planning stages, according to Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association. He and Paul Gatza, the association’s director, presented an optimistic outlook at the opening session.
Total sales of craft beer were at 22.2 million barrels last year. Growth of 18 percent from the previous year continues to build as does pricing, which increased 3 percent. In fact, last year was the first where case sales increased by more than $1.
To further segment the market, brewpubs are leading the growth at 20 percent with incredible diversity in the brewpub model.
Steinman in his seminar “Halfway Home? Craft Continues Climbing, but Ascent Gets Complicated” said the hottest trend in craft right now is hyper local.
As examples he mentioned GoodLife Brewing Company and Worthy Brewing Company in Bend.
There are marked regional differences across the country, with Portland being the most developed (craft is nearly half of the market here), San Diego being the hottest (craft gained five shares for a total of 30 market shares) and Florida coming in as the most underdeveloped.
The consumers’ love affair with IPA continues. Half of craft growth was IPA and 20 of the top 50 brands are IPAs.
Storm clouds are brewing. Steinman noted that the first big shifts in the craft industry happened last year with several deals and acquisitions. “Growth is still turning the industry upside down. Big brewers and big money see this,” he said.
He counted 12 deals in the past 15 months with Anheuser-Busch InBev buying up Seattle-based Elysian Brewing Company, Blue Point Brewing Company out of Patchogue, N.Y. and, of course, Oregon’s own 10 Barrel Brewing. Steinman projected himself inside the mind of A-B InBev, a $47 billion dollar company, and figured their logic was pretty simple — something along the lines of, “if you can’t beat ‘em, buy them” or even more transparent, “drop the price.”
Private equity groups accounted for six of the deals over the past year with several notable breweries selling part of their company -- Founders Brewing Co., Sweetwater Brewing Company, Oskar Blues Brewery and Southern Tier Brewing Company.
“Many crafts are starting to make real money. They can project future earning streams. They might potentially even go public. Craft is cool and investors see this and the prospect of outsized returns,” he said.
“Eventually, this could change the meaning of craft,” Steinman said.
He feels big brewers and big money are a disruptive force in the craft segment and wonders if the “soul of craft” is starting to erode.
Other concerns, said Watson, are overexpansion with the consequent issue of keeping beer in stock and distribution problems with more reports of wholesale difficulties. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration created a fuss over spent grain last year that fizzled out and mostly went away, but the big issue now is menu labeling, which is required for all chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets. The concern is that small breweries will be responsible for providing the required nutritional components of their beers.
Long-term environmental conditions, like climate change and water availability, are a concern for brewers and all food producers. “The movement of hop breeding from public to private” is another red flag, said Watson.
Although Gatza said craft brewers are the “belle of the ball” with state legislators, Steinman cautioned that craft brewers still don’t rule politics, especially not the feds, and he does not think the Small BREW Act, which seeks to reduce the federal excise tax rate on the first 60,000 barrels by 50 percent, is likely to pass.
Still, craft is well on its way to putting up another year of strong double-digit growth.
Steinman proposed a couple of things to watch. First, it’s possible that those who sell a share to private equity could, because of the infusion of cash, do even better. Second, there’s also a chance the small, independent craft brewer retains an image advantage.
Watson noted some promising trends, including an overall growth of off-premise sales at places like sporting events, growing production of sessionable beers, convenience stores starting to figure out craft and a prevailing emphasis on quality.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.