The competition is starting to catch up to Jim Koch.
For years, Koch preached the craft beer gospel: The more brewers, the merrier. Exposing consumers to a widening array of choices would broaden the market, rather than hurt his company, the Boston Beer Co. chairman said. And that theory seemed to play out, as sales of Samuel Adams beers climbed and the company remained a titan among craft brewers.
That line of thinking may now be changing over at Boston Beer’s headquarters on the South Boston waterfront after Thursday’s relatively sober earnings report. Net revenue fell by 1 percent, to $215 million, in the final quarter of 2015 from a year ago, a modest decline but an unusual one.
It would have been worse, without price increases: The volume of beverages shipped fell 3 percent to 958,000 barrels.
Revenue was still up 6 percent for the full year. But the question for investors is whether a worrisome trend for Boston Beer is emerging, particularly as company executives say they are seeing similar modest volume declines in the first few weeks of the new year.
In contrast, total craft beer volume in the United States increased by more than 13 percent last year, according to trade publication Beer Marketer’s Insights, and new breweries opened at a pace of roughly two a day.
“We believe that we’ve lost share, as new craft brewers enter the market and more existing craft brewers are expanding their regional distribution,” Koch told analysts in a conference call Thursday.
Investors have apparently braced for this shift already. Boston Beer’s stock fell nearly 2 percent Friday to $181 a share, but the company’s shares are down more than 40 percent from a year ago. That compares with a nearly 10 percent decline during the past year in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index.
Most of Boston Beer’s growth over the years has come from in-house innovation, and not through acquisition. One key example is Angry Orchard: The brand had been Boston Beer’s golden child, essentially creating a new market for hard cider overnight. But now the interest in cider is slowing, so Koch and chief executive Martin Roper can’t easily rely on Angry Orchard for growth.
Koch pointed to other recent launches that should help Boston Beer get back on that upward path — the Sam Adams Nitro Project beers and the Rebel Grapefruit IPA. The team is also hopeful about the still relatively new Coney Island hard root beer brand, introduced last July under Boston Beer’s Alchemy & Science flag.
And Roper tried to reassure analysts call that the company will figure out how better to cater to Sam’s customers. “Our efforts remain unabated to understand the drinker, causes for our brand’s strength or weakness, and to develop programs ... to make sure that we are fairly competing.”
Boston Beer is by no means alone. Eric Shepard, executive editor at Beer Marketer’s Insights, says three of the top five craft brewers in the nation saw declines in beer shipments last year. (The other two are New Belgium Brewing and Craft Brew Alliance.)
“The competition is tightening up,” Shepard says. “It particularly took a toll on some of the larger players last year but also some of the regional players as well. ... Larger players are going to be more vulnerable, and brewers that have been around longer are going to be more vulnerable.”
Shepard says Boston Beer has weathered slowdowns before. But there’s a difference this time: the consumer is more fickle, the competitors more numerous.
Koch always had a sense this day might come.
It’s one reason he recruited Magic Hat cofounder Alan Newman in 2011 to launch Alchemy & Science, a division devoted to experimentation, either through acquiring small beer businesses or concocting new brands such as the Traveler shandies.
Analysts raised some questions at the time. But with the pressure on to develop new ideas that will captivate consumers’ interest, the investor community doesn’t seem worried about Alchemy & Science now.