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Monday, February 16, 2015

Good and Sketchy Times at the Craft Brew Alliance

The Craft Brew Alliance, represented by the Widmer, Kona, Redhook and Omission brands, released its preliminary financial results for 2014 last week. If you keep your gaze fixated on that report, the news is all good. You have to look a bit deeper to see potential problems.

Some Highlights
  • Net sales increased 12 percent over 2013, topping the $200 million milestone.
  • Shipments grew 10 percent, compared to 4 percent in 2013.
  • Contract brewing and related sales increased 33 percent.
  • Diluted earnings per share reached 16 cents, compared to 10 cents in 2013.
  • Gross margin expanded to 29.4 percent, compared to 28.1 percent in 2013.
The report paints a picture of a company that is doing quite well. The CBA is based in Portland and has strong roots in the Northwest, but its brands are making a strong statement in markets throughout the country. The first full quarter of brewing in Memphis helped contribute to what was, in fact, a record year for the company.

The Sketchy
If it's true that every grey cloud has a silver lining, then the reverse must also be true. In the case of the CBA's 2014 results, there are some issues. For example, growth slowed to 7 percent in the fourth quarter, when sales to retailers were up just 2 percent. The report says that "primarily reflects the SKU rationalization of seasonals across the portfolio." Fine.

By far the most significant factoid on the grey side of the ledger is the fact that CBA volume was down 5 percent in Portland, Seattle and Bay Area grocery stores, according to IRI (Information Resources, Inc.) data. These are the top craft markets in the country and the CBA is traditionally a big player in each (#1 in Portland and Seattle; #3 in Bay Area).

The CBA report doesn't mention or attempt to explain...no reason to in a stellar year. But volume losses in traditional core markets in a record year mean the company did extremely well somewhere else. Info in the report and IRI data suggests the CBA's most robust 2014 growth occurred in underdeveloped craft markets in the East.

That makes perfect sense if you think about it. Mainstream CBA beers are in a tight spot in mature craft markets like Portland, particularly in grocery stores, where competition for shelf space is brutal. The place where their beers shine is markets that have recently jumped on the craft bandwagon. There isn't much competition in these "soft" markets and the CBA is tapping them with gusto.

None of this means the CBA makes crappy beer. Far from it. I'm not a big fan of the standards, but I've enjoyed some fantastic specialty beers on recent trips to Widmer's Gasthaus pub. They always seem to have seasonals and specialty beers on the board. CBA beers may not have a strong presence in the area's elite taprooms and beer bars, but they are brewing some great beer.

Future Angst
OLCC stats for 2014 (through November at this point) put the CBA at the top of the heap for barrels sold in Oregon. Of course, they are selling far more beer outside the state and Northwest. A big reason for that is the arrangement they have with Anheuser-Busch, which owns roughly 30 percent of the company and has an extensive, nationwide distribution network.

Some wonder where CBA products fit into AB's strategy going forward. With the acquisitions of Goose Island, 10 Barrel and Elysian, and their efforts to acquire and operate branch distributors wherever the law allows it, will AB shift its focus to fully-owned brands at the expense of partly-owned CBA brands? Inquiring minds wonder how that will play out.

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