After starting the year with its slowest growth in over a decade, craft beer isn’t seeing a huge second half uptick.
When the craft beer trade group the Brewers Association released its mid-year numbers in August, the results were met with a bit of disappointment. “Craft beer growth slowest since 2004” was our headline at the time. On the positive side, the craft beer sector was still growing: a 5 percent increase in production volume for the first half of 2017. Still, it was a slow starting pace for an industry that had seen double-digit growth for over a decade up until last year when production growth slowed down to six percent. A new report suggests that once the second half numbers are added in, six percent may be the best case scenario for 2017’s growth as well.
As the year creeps towards its end, CNBC decided to check in to see how craft beer has been trending since that mid-year announcement. According to a new report from Susquehanna analyst Pablo Zuanic and talks with the Brewer Association’s chief economist Bart Watson, though production volume for 2017 could inch up to six percent, potentially matching 2016’s number, in general, the pace for craft beer has remained the same. “There's some signs that the second half of the year has been a little bit better than last year,” Watson told CNBC. “The first quarter was clearly worse than the second quarter.”
The bright side from Zuanic’s analysis is that though craft beer growth is somewhat stalling out, the little guys are still doing much better than the big guys: The overall beer market will likely end the year with a volume decline of between 1 to 1.5 percent. But along those same lines, it’s actually the bigger names within the craft beer sector that are keeping crafts numbers in check. As Zuniac wrote in his report, the growth in the craft sector is “concentrated mainly among the local and regional players” as opposed to the biggest companies like Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada, America’s second and third largest craft breweries respectively, and the country’s sixth and seventh largest breweries overall.
That trend represents what could truly continue to be a “growing” issue (pun intended) for craft beer moving forward: Craft brewers have always positioned themselves as the little guys against the big guys. As the “biggest little guys” continue to get bigger, both in the sense of public perception and market saturation, finding ways to continue to grow can become trickier. But interestingly, the littlest of the little guys are still doing well. If craft beer drinkers happen to be choosing smaller craft breweries over larger craft brewers – a real possibility – increasing overall craft beer volume becomes that much more complex.