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Last year saw another significant drop in outgoing barrels.

Mike Pomranz
January 28, 2019

Not that you’d recognize it in your everyday life, but the beer industry as a whole is struggling. As you venture about town, you’re more likely than ever to see a brewery: In 2018, the U.S. saw its number of breweries increase for the 13th straight year to a new record of over 7,000. As a result, the Brewers Association proclaimed that 85 percent of drinking-age Americans now lives within 10 miles of a brewery. And yet, beer shipments last year were once again down significantly, a drop almost as bad as 2017, which was the worst year in over six decades.

According to data released last week by the Beer Institute, an industrywide trade group, U.S. brewers shipped nearly 3.6 million fewer barrels of beer in 2018 than the year before based on unofficial estimates of domestic tax paid. That represents a 2.1 percent drop from 2017, a year where shipments dropped 2.2 percent. In 2017, Beer Institute Chief Economist Michael Uhrich said that year was “the largest percentage decrease in annual domestic beer shipment volume since 1954,” according to Brewbound. Needless to say, 2018 wasn’t the turnaround the industry was looking for.

These declines in beer sales have led to an uptick in a number of other products as breweries look for income elsewhere. Larger breweries especially have been seeking to appeal to the non-drinking crowd by boosting their non-alcoholic beer offerings. Meanwhile, for drinkers who simply want a beer alternative, releases of non-traditional products like hard seltzer have seen a spike, and in fact, the Brewers Association, which represents smaller and independent craft breweries, even changed its rules to make it easier for its members to make these products without losing their “craft” cred.

And yet, speaking of craft cred, as the growth in the number of breweries attests to, smaller breweries — many with more of a local focus — are less likely to be affected by these larger market forces. Many breweries are moving more product right out of their own taprooms and looking to serve mainly that local crowd. It’s the national and regional breweries who tend to be having a harder time. In the end, it’s a bit of an oxymoron: Beer as an industry is definitely having its struggles, but beer as a product you love to drink, not so much.

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