Despite that fact that Kona was up bigly for the year, the full CBA portfolio was down 6 percent, declining by nearly 39K bbls. The fourth quarter was particularly unkind, as the brand family was down 13 percent. That sad number occurred partly due to the fact that wholesaler inventories were built out late last year in anticipation of the Portland brewery's temporary closure. And constricted in late 2016 due to slowing craft category growth. Still. Not good.
Kona is essentially dragging the CBA forward. It gained 13 percent (up more than 45K bbls) and reached nearly 400K total bbls in 2016. Based on those numbers, Kona is a top 10 craft brewer, according to one industry publication. It is easily the CBA's largest brand family, more than double the volume of flagging Widmer.
Indeed, the rest of the CBA portfolio appears to be in free fall. Redhook tanked, declining nearly 32 percent to 127K bbls last year, Widmer shipments dropped 15.7 percent to 148K bbls. Over the course of the past two years, Widmer and Redhook have lost 136K bbls. Omission, the CBA's (throwaway) gluten-reduced brand, dropped nearly 17 percent.
Given the stifling collapse of once proud Widmer and Redhook, the CBA doesn't have a lot of options going forward. It will certainly ride Kona's momentum for as long as it can. Part of that strategy relies on its arrangement with Anheuser-Busch, whose distribution network has helped turn Kona into a national and emerging international player.
In a press release, CEO Andy Thomas acknowledged the poor 2016 performance, but emphasized the importance of the agreements with AB and the acceleration of Kona. “Looking forward, we are excited to build on the strength of Kona, which continues to distinguish itself in an increasingly competitive category,” he wrote.
The CBA may not be in as much distress as last year's numbers suggest. Even if you take away Kona, the deal with Anheuser-Busch is going to reap significant benefits on the cost and profit sides of the ledger in coming years. The partnership may actually help insulate the CBA from imminent challenges that will be faced by many if not most large craft breweries.
Nonetheless, the distressing numbers make you wonder about the road ahead. Will the CBA be absorbed by Anheuser-Busch or remain more or less independent? Last summer's agreement, which heavily favors the CBA, makes it financially advantageous for AB to pull the trigger on full purchase sooner than later. (AB currently has about a 33 percent stake in the CBA.)
When I wrote about the situation last summer, I thought a buyout was imminent. At the time, MegaBrew was still being evaluated by the Department of Justice and AB was laying somewhat low. I figured, particularly in light of the escalating costs to AB if they didn't move soon, a buyout would happen sometime in 2017. It might still happen.
I'm guessing the collapse of Redhook and Widmer isn't a huge concern for AB. Those are tired regional brands that don't have the kind of marketing traction AB wants. Kona is the darling. It suggests a lifestyle and a place consumers want to connect with. The national and international growth of the Kona family proves that.
Kona's growing popularity adds a complicated twist to the possibility of a buyout. Anheuser-Busch has little or no interest in the CBA's declining brands. It only truly wants Kona. But the CBA can't reasonably sell Kona by itself because Kona is the only growth engine it has. Without Kona, the CBA may as well not exist.
If I had a crystal ball, I'd know which way this is going to go. I don't. But it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the CBA sells Kona separately. If a sale happens, I think AB buys the CBA as a block entity, then spins off Widmer, Redhook and the other junk brands. The other possibility is there's no sale and the CBA carries on as it is, sucking up to its mentor, Anheuser-Busch.
These are uncertain, messy times in craft beer. You do what you have to.