The State of the Union of Beer

I often get press releases and announcements sent my way from marketers, various organizations, and even occassionally brewers. Sometimes I feel I’m remiss in not turning these back around for the readers of this site – but in this case, I wanted to speak up and get this one out to you all.

I’m a huge fan of the Brewers Association – Charlie Papazian’s non-profit trade org – and they recently posted the Top 50 Breweries of 2011. The list is based on sales volume from small and craft US breweries. An interesting note from the read:

In the last 15 years, craft brewing has gone from one percent of the overall beer market to almost six percent in 2011,” said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. “We attribute a large part of that growth to the many talented brewers who are providing beer lovers with more beer style and flavor choices than ever before.

It’s interesting to look at this and see that Boston Beer Co (Sam Adams) makes the top of the list, as well as top five for overall breweries. Other beer afficianados may snub their nose at Sam Adams, but I try not to forget that Boston Beer Co more or less sparked the US craft beer revolution. I often consider Sam Adams a gateway beer to the craft beer world – it is safe, approachable, but often more flavorful and different than the 3 or 4 fizzy yellow products on tap; and of course they were one of the first in the early 80′s to stray from the light lager trends. Plus, Sam Adams has their periodic special releases that are often quite good. So I raise a glass to Boston Beer Company and take this moment to recognize their well-earned spot as the #1 American craft brewery.

Only in the past few years has the US surpassed the number of active breweries in the country since the prohibition dropoff, but we have a long way to go to hit our pre-Civil War brewery numbers! Check out this history of the US brewering industry that shows there were as many as 3,286 breweries active in the United States in 1870 — that’s a strong showing compared to our 2011 numbers, totaling 1,989 (infographic alert!), but the trends are upward and the craft beer startups are increasing. Boston Beer Co and others to thank, the US is surely a booming contender, if not front-runner, in the craft beer market.

Remember, even though we find our US taps littered with Bud, Miller, and Coors – none of these are American companies, at least not anymore. Anheuser was taken over by Belgian conglomerate InBev to form AB InBev. Miller is owned by SAB Miller (Originally South African Breweries, now headquartered in London), and Coors is owned by Molson – our friends to the North. While I pass no judgement on to those who prefer these products, I often make an effort (though try not to limit myself) to support smaller or domestic breweries.

Now, 6% of the market may not sound like a lot – but let’s consider that in 2011 the overall beer market was down more than 1%. The LA Times pointed out that beer sales were at their lowest level since 2003 mostly due to lower sales from the larger breweries. However, American craft beer exports increased 86% in 2011 over the previous year, and volume of craft beer sales was up 13% (11.5 million barrels versus 10.1 million in 2010). The upshot? People may be buying less beer, but they are buying more craft beer! That’s great news for good beer lovers, and even better news for craft breweries. And guess what? The big boys are taking notice.

I am continually surprised when I look at the growing list of brands under the AB InBev name. This includes such beers as Leffe, Hoegaarden, Spaten, Rolling Rock, Bass, Shock Top, and even Goose Island. Michelob (also AB InBev) periodically releases holiday “sampler pack” beers that include their “craft emulations”. Blue Moon is owned by a subsidiary of a Miller and Coors JV (aptly named MillerCoors), and I can’t help but think the reason why these folks are finally moving toward more interesting products is because of the growing interest in flavorful beer.

So as not to obscure the numbers, and accurately track the sales dollars/volume of craft breweries, the Brewers Assocation defines craft brewers as “small, independent and traditional”.

Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purposes of this definition.

Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.

Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

Also of note, the Brewers Association operates – a great resource for the industry and the beer-loving public. I thank BA for all their relentless number-crunching that helped me put this article together, and I implore you to check out the Top 50 Breweries list, and then stck around and sniff out their other publishings.

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