America's Biggest Beer Company Is Beating Craft Brewers at Their Own Game
One of the most contentious issues in craft beer today is “selling out.” Whenever a formerly independent craft brand takes an investment from a “big beer” company—London’s Beavertown selling a stake to Heineken is the most recent example that comes to mind—the debate rages once again: Does selling out really hurt independent breweries or is it just capitalism in action? Well, those who argue that buyouts are bad for true craft brands have a new piece of evidence to support their argument: The largest seller of packaged craft-style beer at retailers in America is now… Anheuser-Busch.
Since 2011, starting with Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch has been buying up independent breweries to add to its collection of The High End brands. The beer giant now has ten such former “craft” brewers under its control (also including 10 Barrel, Blue Point, Breckenridge, Devils Backbone, Elysian, Four Peaks, Golden Road, Karbach, and Wicked Weed). According to the Chicago Tribune, as of this year, when looking at dollar sales at select retail outlets (including grocery and convenience stores), those breweries combined now sell more beer than the two largest craft brewers, Boston Beer (makers of Sam Adams) and Sierra Nevada.
According to the report, looking at year-to-date sales through June 3 at these retail outlets, Anheuser-Busch’s ten acquired craft brands saw 20 percent sales increases to $107.3 million and Sierra Nevada grew 2 percent to $100.7 million, while Boston Beer saw sales slip 6.5 percent to $94.4 million. “It is a bit of a moment that this is the year it’s happening,” said David Steinman, senior editor of Beer Marketer's Insights' Craft Brew News, which crunched the numbers. “It seems like they’re positioned to hold this spot for the foreseeable future.”
For the time being, Boston Beer still holds the lead if you add in draft sales and liquor stores, but Steinman says it seems inevitable that A-B will soon lead that category too. “It’s still a little bit of shock to the system for most craft brewers—everyone’s getting used to it,” Steinman added.
For anyone still wondering why they should care, these new numbers present two major takeaways. First, from a broad perspective, craft beer began in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a direct reaction to a consolidated beer scene that had left no room for innovation. Though today’s 6,000-plus brewers mean it’s unlikely we’ll see a similar consolidation down to just dozens of breweries anytime in the near future, the road to consolidation has to start somewhere.
But second, these numbers also demonstrate that Anheuser-Busch’s strategy is working—their craft-style brands are growing while a company like Boston Beer is not. Granted, you can make the argument that ten small brands have more room for growth than one large brand, but that was exactly A-B’s plan: Pick multiple beer companies and grow them under one umbrella. As Scott Metzger of Freetail Brewing in San Antonio told the Tribune: “If they’re gaining, then somebody’s got to be losing.”
Whether you care about sell outs or not though, the largest moral is that “craft” beer has changed. The lines have blurred in a way that they didn’t even a decade ago. In some ways, oddly enough, it actually speaks to the success that craft beer has had.