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And wine sales are catching up!

Mike Pomranz
July 03, 2018

In one sense, the beer market can’t grow forever: At some point, everyone in America would be too tipsy to get anything done. But all joking aside, for much of the past decade, regardless of the ebbs and flows of the beer market as a whole, craft beer had carved out an aggressively growing niche, encouraging beer lovers to trade in their standard suds for something more upmarket. But recently, even that growth has slowed – a potentially troubling sign for the beer biz across the board – and midway through 2018, this year isn’t looking any better.

For the first half of 2018, the sales volume of craft beer at large-scale retail stores is up just 1.7 percent according to data from market research firm IRI Worldwide. Yes, that represents growth, but it points towards what could be some of the craft beer industry’s slowest growth in a long time. By comparison, when the Brewers Association released its midyear growth numbers for 2017 last August, production volume was up 5 percent – which was still the lowest midyear growth since 2004. Obviously, retail sales volume and overall production are different metrics, but those numbers usually mirror each other pretty closely. And IRI Worldwide’s news gets even worse: For the most recent four-week period, craft beer sales volume was up just 0.2 percent from the year before.

To summarize it simply: Anyone who was hoping 2018 would be a turnaround year for the craft beer market is going to be extremely disappointed. Things appear to be getting worse before they get any better.

And yet, unlike large beer conglomerates where just a few major companies compete against each other — such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors — craft beer is a mosaic of thousands of different independent companies, with each one telling a different story. For instance, as Brewbound points out, some major brands like New Belgium and Deschutes have seen serious declines so far this year – with both breweries seeing their sales volume drop 10.4 percent. But other big names are doing extremely well: Stone’s sales are up 10 percent; Dogfish Head’s are up 13.6 percent.

And speaking of the biggest brewers like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, they’re suffering far more than the craft sector, with sales volumes down 2.1 and 2.16 percent respectively so far this year. Overall, beer shipments from US breweries are down 3.5 percent according to The Beer Institute.

Still, the fact that beer is flat-lining in general is something that can affect breweries of all sizes. According to CNN, beer's struggles come from an overall shift in the alcohol market. In 2002, beer made up 54 percent of alcohol sales and wine made up 30 percent. Last year, those percentages had shifted to 46 percent and 37 percent respectively. (Spirits held relatively steady.) America isn’t going to give up on beer entirely, but thanks to years of aggressive growth, America now has a record 6,300-plus breweries across the country: For all those small business owners, the stakes are higher than ever before.