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Exploring the Top 50 Breweries

Is the business of craft brewing now more of an established industry than a movement? For the last two decades, flavorful beer purveyed by relatively small brewers has changed the social landscape and no end to growth appeared in sight. But the production of beer by the Top 50 craft brewers, as designated by the Brewers Association, declined in 2018.

Here’s a good example of the maturing of the BA’s craft beer segment. Ninkasi Brewing produced about 1,000 fewer barrels last year than in 2017 – and it jumped up three positions in the Top 50 rankings. Wachusett Brewing grew by a modest 5,000 barrels and jumped up six positions. According to the BA, the category of those brewing more than 60,000 barrels of beer – which encompasses the Top 50 – saw overall production drop by 1.8 percent in 2018.

This year’s numbers represent the “new normal” according to BA officers, who are always trying to manage expectations about key statistics for their membership. But is this really something else – a big, flashing WARNING SIGN replete with sirens? Is craft brewing now settling into an industry that manages its relatively small annual growth or decline in an established footprint – much like the macro brewers do in a much bigger footprint?

It goes deeper than just the big boys and girls of craft brewing. According to the BA, ninety percent of brewers finished 2018 within 1,000 barrels of production compared to 2017 – a telling statistic of a maturing industry. The May issue of the BA’s in-house publication New Brewer will document actual barrelage, as usual, but the analysis of the organization’s Top 50 list, released in March, confirms a static pattern.

Of the Top 50 brewers in 2018, only two companies in the Top 25 moved up or down by more than one position. Those companies were Artisanal Brewing Ventures, which gained three positions to move up to the 11th largest brewer on the BA’s list, and Minhas Craft Brewing, which dropped two positions.

To take another view, the Brewers Institute, the older, more established organization that represents all brewers, reported an overall decline in craft beer sales versus the four percent overall growth cited by the BA for its members. By contrast to the BA, the Institute tracks all brewers it considers craft, which includes those breweries now owned by the traditional macro breweries or the macros’ craft brands developed in-house, such as Coors-owned Blue Moon. (Only one BA-defined craft brewer, Avery Brewing, moved to the BI’s list in 2018 due to ownership of more than 25 percent by a macro brewer; Avery was ranked 50th by the BA in 2017.)

Other signs of craft brewing no longer being a movement include the demise of print publications on the subject of beer and the static nature of beer festivals, which increasingly are confined to the long-established and familiar gatherings.

On the other hand, there is a lot of dramatic growth going on “below the line.” For the sake of this discussion, that line is established by the number 50 brewery on the BA list, which in 2018 was a surprising entry given its previous success – Left Hand Brewing. According to the BA, most all of its overall growth of a relatively small four percent came from breweries with less than 15,000 barrels of annual capacity and resulted from the increase in sales of beers across the counter in tasting rooms.

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