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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Craft Beer's Big Squeeze

You look out on the craft beer landscape and you wonder where it's headed. The number of new breweries continues to rise, apparently unabated. We see big beer in the form of Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and others buying up or investing in craft breweries. What's the prognosis?

Seeing through the fog is be a tough assignment. To a great extent, the exorbitant amount of money flowing into the industry has helped create an aura of invincibility, the idea that the high growth of recent years is sustainable into the foreseeable future.

In actual fact, beer sales in the United States have been declining for years. Even as the population has grown, beer has lost ground. Overall beer sales dipped again last year, says the Brewers Association, even as craft brewers recorded double-digit gains.

Positive craft beer vibes have made it relatively easy to open new breweries. Unlike the old days, when breweries were seen as high risk investments, cash is plentiful today. In an industry where the average brewer often makes a skimpy living, opening your own brewery is an attractive and viable option. That's why we have more than 4,600 breweries, with another 2,200 planned.

Largely as a result of the escalating brewery count, more and more Americans have been exposed to good local beers. And enough folks like that beer that they've moved away from macro lagers, which aren't local and aren't very good if you want something with flavor and character.

Big beer watched this situation develop with a scowl. With macro sales in free fall and craft numbers exploding, they eventually shifted their focus to acquiring craft breweries. They might have chosen to make better beer, but that was outside their wheelhouse. Acquisitions are more their style.

Today, we are confronted by a situation in which established craft breweries are being squeezed from above and below. Smaller breweries are converting beer fans to local product, stealing share from big beer and from large craft breweries. Big beer is fighting back by buying craft breweries and using advantages in distribution and efficiency to take share mostly from large craft breweries.

We're seeing evidence of this in IRI reports showing significant share losses for established breweries, including Sierra Nevada and others. Then there was the announcement that Stone Brewing, one of craft's best-known brands, is laying off 5% of its employees. Even the layoffs at the CBA's Woodinville facility are related to pressures in the market.

There are those who think we've reached overcapacity...too many breweries producing too much beer for a shrinking market. There's probably some truth to that nationally, where giant craft breweries and those acquired by big beer are producing a glut of beer.

But overcapacity isn't much of an issue for small brewers in underserved areas, and there are still plenty of places like that. That's why new breweries continue to open and why more are planned, though maybe it's not such a good idea to open in saturated markets like Portland.

The pressure on established brewers is going to increase. Many who once bought Sierra Nevada, Deschutes and others are being converted to local brands. At the other end of the spectrum, big beer is implementing strategies designed to leach share from established, independent brands.

Where this leads, we don't quite know. But craft beer's big squeeze is on.

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