Growth, competition, and challenges: the state of craft beer today
Every two months, the Brewers Association, an organization promoting independent makers of craft beer, releases a trade magazine called “The New Brewer.”
The magazine is geared toward people who brew industrially or want to — the May/June issue is 292 pages, and it’s full of ads for filtration systems and canning lines. But new this issue and relevant to the average beer drinker are final industry statistics from 2016 — growth, declines, barrels brewed — offering a quantitative snapshot of the health of the sector as a whole.
Craft beer sales now account for $23.5 billion of the $107.6 billion US beer market and growing, though not as quickly as in recent years. In 2014, craft beer grew at a rate of 18 percent. This past year that rate was 6 percent. The association cites increased competition due to the sheer number of breweries, as well as acquisitions like Anheuser-Busch’s recent purchase of Wicked Weed, as reasons the landscape is getting more challenging.
“Brewing great beer is no longer enough,” Brewers Association staffers Paul Gatza and Bart Watson write in an article titled “Craft’s New Reality.” “It’s going to be very hard to compete in the current marketplace.”
Regional brewers are feeling especially pinched, and 15 of the 25 largest ones, including Boston Beer Co. and Sierra Nevada, saw production declines in 2015. Boston Beer’s sales dropped 8 percent year over year, while sales of Harpoon, the nation’s 18th-largest craft brewery, fell 3 percent.
But the state is also home to success stories, albeit on a smaller scale. Woburn’s Lord Hobo Brewing Co. was the fastest-growing regional brewery in the nation, increasing production 413 percent from 3,000 to 15,400 barrels. (For perspective, Boston Beer sold 2.3 million barrels in 2015.)
“We have the advantage of youth, and timing,” says Lord Hobo CEO Daniel Lanigan. “Growth from year one to year two is generally a lot easier than it is from, say, year five to year six.”
Lanigan says Lord Hobo is on pace to double production again this year — and has a goal of someday topping 100,000 barrels — but he acknowledges the road will be “more difficult” than it would have been a few years ago.
Massachusetts was home to 110 craft breweries at the end of 2016, which ranks 17th nationally. That’s up from 45 breweries at the start of 2011. 2016 saw the opening of 26 Massachusetts breweries, including Stone Cow Brewery in Barre and Bentley Brewing in Southbridge.
“The trend now is toward hyperlocal,” says Lanigan. “I’m not sure if we will ever see another independent national craft brewery.”