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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Big and Old Craft Brewers Grapple With Sour Times

You've heard the bad news. Craft growth is slowing. Heads are spinning trying to figure out how to jumpstart an apparently sagging industry. Places are closing their doors or begging to be graciously bought out by big beer. Gloom and doom.

Except maybe things aren't quite what we've been led to think they are. It's true that overall craft growth is slowing, down to something like 5.5 percent year to date. Also more failures. What many don't realize is that big craft dragging the rest of the industry down. Yup.

If you exclude the imploding sales of brands like Blue Moon, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada from the picture, you discover craft dollar sales are up more than 11 percent on the year. Including those players puts growth at just over 5 percent.

Those are national numbers, but the picture in Oregon isn't much different. Deschutes, our top brewery by volume, experienced an 18 percent decline in sales June 2016 to June 2017. Full Sail, Rogue, Portland Brewing and Bridgeport are all down. Widmer, if it's production showed up in OLCC stats, would certainly show the same trajectory.

In actual fact, the trend goes beyond a turn away from big craft. We see it in industry stats due to its impact on big craft, but it is affecting established craft breweries widely. Once respected local brands are seeing declining numbers as consumer tastes shift to what's new and shiny.

That's not something you can verify with national stats. But there's plenty of evidence in Oregon stats. For the same June to June period mentioned above, a number of older local breweries, including Lompoc (-12 percent) Laurelwood (-15 percent), Double Mountain (-8 percent) and Alameda (-20 percent), are losing ground.

Over that same period, you see significant growth for relative newbies Pfriem (+55 percent), Crux (+127 percent), Ecliptic (+81 percent), Block 15 (+63 percent), Sunriver (+54 percent), Buoy (+38 percent) and Breakside ((+22 percent). Several established breweries, including Pelican and Silver Moon, show solid growth, clearly outliers among the older set.

"Younger drinkers increasingly view legacy brands as stodgy or uncool," says Andy Crouch in this month's BeerAdvocate magazine. "A new disruptive wave of young brewers, keen on brewing to their own tune, entered the marketplace with little care or respect or concern for their elders."

The result is that older craft brands large and small are being displaced. Craft beer has become a part of pop culture among the younger generation, which views established brands like Deschutes, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Sam Adams as ancient and irrelevant. It's similar to disrespecting the music of a prior generation because it's old. You know the drill.

One could easily argue that small, local brands have more flexibility in addressing the current trend than big craft. After all, it's easier to alter the course of a small boat than that of an ocean liner. In beer terms, changing course means embracing trendy styles like hazy IPA and refreshing a antiquated brand identity with local consumers. It's not easy, but not impossible.

Big craft is in a more awkward position. We're talking in about beer portfolios that are well-known across countless markets and in many cases hopelessly outdated. It's not that easy to erase embedded brand identities and rebuild cool with the young audience that's driving craft beer's growth.

There's desperation out there, as outlined in Crouch's column. New Belgium released a disastrous line of fruit flavored IPAs and plans to extend the Fat Tire line with a Belgian-style white ale. Yummy. Sam Adams is hawking a line of alcoholic seltzers. Embarrassing.

Price is one area where big craft might attack. They're big enough that they could reduce retail prices in an effort to win back business. But reducing prices is more likely to further damage already imploding brands. And you aren't going to win over millennials who regard you as out of touch with discounting. Is there a Plan B?

For a while I've wondered if big craft will follow the example of big beer and start buying up smaller breweries. There's been some of that already. Green Flash bought Alpine a while back. New Belgium recently bought San Francisco's Magnolia Brewing. Should we expect to see more deals like that down the road? I haven't a clue.

The only thing I do know is these are tough times to be a legacy craft brewer.



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