fb-pixel Skip to main content
BOTTLES

Has craft beer recovered since the start of the pandemic? Here’s what the numbers say.

A worker walks past storage tanks holding beer inside Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers in Framingham on June 30, 2021.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

It was mostly good news for craft brewers in 2021, according to data released last week by the Brewers Association.

Craft beer sales grew 8 percent last year, recovering nearly fully after the industry came to a standstill and struggled to bounce back during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“It was slightly stronger growth than I’d been predicting,” says Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association, which is a trade group that works on behalf of the nation’s craft brewing industry.

The news is not all positive, though. Craft sales were slightly weaker in 2020 than initially thought, down 10 percent from 2019. Last year’s growth, while encouraging, results in overall sales lagging behind pre-pandemic numbers. And so far in 2022, brewery closings are ticking up, while package sales aren’t meeting expectations.

Advertisement



“Even with the bounce-back year, we’re still seeing the effects of the pandemic,” says Watson. “And so 2022′s going to be a make or break year for many breweries.”

Here’s what else we learned from the Brewers Association’s report, as well as Watson’s recent press conference.

New breweries aren’t opening at as rapid a clip, but that may not be a bad thing.

There were 646 new brewery openings in 2021 and 178 closings, bringing the total number of breweries in the United States up to 9,247. While that relatively low closing number is encouraging, Watson doesn’t see the slower growth in openings as a bad sign, either.

“It’s continuing a maturation trend that we saw even before COVID,” says Watson, referring to existing breweries putting down roots and expanding, rather than new breweries continuing to proliferate. ”COVID probably didn’t help, but it doesn’t appear that it shifted that overall trend very much.

“And it’s great to see even in a challenging year that we still saw growth.”

Advertisement



Massachusetts breweries like Trillium, Night Shift, and Jack’s Abby are at or near a decade in. Here’s what they’ll face.

“It’s about staying relevant as more brands come into the marketplace,” says Watson. “With taprooms and brewpubs that also means rethinking the models. You often hear the maxim in the restaurant industry that you have to rethink your concepts every seven years.

“The number of taprooms or brewpubs we have coming up on [a decade] or past that is pretty high. Craft brewers like any industry are gonna have to think about their place as consumer trends evolve. Craft isn’t the new, cool kid on the block anymore and we’ll have to really think about what the value proposition is.”

Eight New England breweries made the top 50 in the country in total production.

They are: Boston Beer (No. 2, Mass.), Harpoon (No. 21, Mass.), Allagash (No. 24, Maine), Athletic (No. 27, Conn.), Narragansett (No. 32, R.I.), Long Trail (No. 36, Vt.), Shipyard (No. 46, Maine), and Fiddlehead (No. 49, Vt.).

Supply chain bottlenecks are still an issue.

“Almost everything used in the brewhouse is going up in price and getting harder to get,” says Watson. “Packaging is one of the biggest challenges, particularly aluminum packaging.

“One where we’re starting to hear more from brewers on price challenges is malt. We had a very challenging barley crop in the US and Canada last year. Russia produces one-fifth of the world’s barley. The US is buying very little of that, but the countries that are buying that are going to need to buy from somewhere.”

Advertisement




Gary Dzen can be reached at gary.dzen@globe.com.Follow him on Twitter @garydzen.