Is Craft Beer Facing an Identity Crisis?
As craft beer's heavy hitters struggle, the industry continues to put more focus on its smaller breweries.
Today, the Brewers Association (BA), the craft beer trade group representing over 4,000 breweries, released its first-ever list of “Fastest Growing Craft Breweries.” This new list stands in stark contrast to the BA’s better known annual list, the Top 50 Craft Brewing Companies by sales volume. The lists contain no overlap—which is kind of the point: Teasing out the fastest growing breweries offers exposure to smaller brewers. But though the new list underscores the growth seen by these small breweries, its release speaks to a larger issue: Discussing both small craft breweries and the largest craft breweries as one entity is trickier than ever.
Importantly, the BA’s largest craft brewers are still significantly smaller than the largest non-craft breweries. Yuengling, the biggest craft producer, made somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million barrels last year. Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch InBev produced closer 100 million barrels in North America alone. However, as the number of brewers in the U.S. has continued to balloon—now well over 6,000 breweries—the difference in output between a company like Yuengling and the majority of the Brewers Association’s membership presents an even larger discrepancy. Microbreweries, which produce less than 15,000 barrels per year, account for over 3,800 of the breweries in America. Percentage-wise, the tiny amount of beer each of these little guys makes compared to someone like Yuengling is even smaller than what Yuengling makes compared to A-B InBev.
Compounding the problem is that, as the BA readily admits, the majority of growth in the craft beer sector has come from smaller breweries—at a time when overall craft beer growth has slowed, and the beer market in general has actually declined. As a result, small breweries are the brightest spot in the beer world—seeing growth while many midsized craft breweries have struggled. Still, the BA is no less beholden to the interests of its larger members that make up the 200 or so “regional craft breweries” across the country.
In some ways, the BA spent much of last year trying to unify the craft beer scene. The trade association has been pushing its “Certified Independent Craft” logo, which has seen pretty strong usage across the board, and even launched its largest ever consumer-facing advertising campaign, dubbed “Take Back Craft.” But one of craft beers’ largest narratives has always been that craft is a growing industry that’s cutting into big beer’s bottom line. With this new list, the BA is once again turning to its smallest members to make that ongoing storyline as strong as possible.
So the question begins to arise: Does talking about all craft beer under one umbrella even makes sense anymore? “The Brewers Association has long spoken about the craft brewing market in a variety of ways,” Bart Watson, the BA’s chief economist, told us via email. “This new list is an opportunity to highlight some of the diverse growth stories in the tail, which has become a more important source of craft’s growth in recent years.”
However, at the same time, the idea of craft beer was originally established as a way to pit new independent breweries against the much larger old guard. If the craft beer industry itself has to discuss its breweries in a similar way, an identity crisis could be brewing.