Two years ago almost to the day, I published a big report here at VinePair on the sobering state of the American craft brewing industry, which was then grappling with pandemic-tangled supply chains, confronted by a surging spirits sector, and still reeling from the fallout of Brienne Allan’s airing of grievances of workplace harassment (and worse) on behalf of the industry’s marginalized workers. I proclaimed 2021 to be “craft beer’s no good, very bad year,” and expressed some tentative hope that there might be brighter days ahead for the industry.
Spoiler alert: There weren’t! Very few that materialized in the intervening 24 months, at least. Things have only gotten gnarlier since I filed that piece — and not just for the United States’ struggling craft brewing industry, either. With few exceptions, 2023 was a no good, very bad year for the entire American beer business writ large. Draft beer and sustainability were out, iterative juice bombs and portfolio firesales were in. Sales slid and tax-paid receipts followed, spirits’ share-stealing strategies got more sophisticated, and stupidity reigned in the boardrooms of some of the largest brewing companies in the Western world. They even canceled Christmas, for chrissakes!
In an effort to exorcize the demons of another tumultuous trip around the sun for the American beer business, I’m dedicating our final Hop Take of 2023 to a purge of the most egregious goofs, gaffes, and garbagio I covered in this pages over the past 12 months. Fire up the sage and fire off a prayer to Spuds MacKenzie, reader, because we’ve got some spiritual pasteurization to do.
In reverse order from mediocre to flat-out terrible, here are the eight worst stories from another bummer year for American beer.
Molson Coors’ corny “kiss-your-sister” return to the Super Bowl.
“As refreshing as it is to see a Clydesdale-free company move in on Super Bowl’s most rarified air, Molson Coors is joining ABI on its formerly exclusive field in a decidedly awkward fashion,” I wrote this past January. The company’s first national in-game spot in three decades featured not one but three of its beer brands (Miller Lite, Coors Light, and Blue Moon), and it came out cluttered, chaotic, and corny. It was also done in partnership with the gambling platform DraftKings, which David Courtwright, author of “The Age of Addiction,” told me exemplified a troubling “cultivation of heavy users” across vice industries. Can’t wait to see what Molson Coors has on tap for Super Bowl 2024!
Fireball’s malternative ascendance to the upper echelons of beer sales.
We talked a lot about blurring lines and inter-category squabbling this year. For my money, there’s no better embodiment of the various Ls the beer industry is currently taking in the market than Fireball Cinnamon, a 16.5-percent ABV malt-based riff on the same-named whiskey-flavored liqueur that quietly became one of the best-selling “beer” brands in the country, one gas-station counter-top display at a time. “If you [meaning Fireball maker Sazerac Company] can keep some of those occasions under your umbrella, then that just means that you’re winning and someone else is losing,” Dave Williams, vice president of analytics and insights at Bump Williams Consulting, told Hop Take at the top of 2023. Oof. But hey… at least brewers are getting more serious about the c-store lately? Right?
The ominous, growing glut of brewery equipment.
They say “When there’s a gold rush, sell shovels,” but they never mention what the hell happens to all those shovels after the rush is over. Buddy, the American craft brewing industry found out in real time this past year. More than 385 breweries closed in 2023 (compared to around 420 opening, the closest-ever gap between those two figures), flooding the equipment resale market with fermenters, canning lines, mash tuns… you name it. Not only does the uptick in stainless steel for sale emphasize how tough the sledding was for the struggling segment in 2023, it also means brewery owners considering closure can’t count on recouping cash from machinery they’d previously paid a pretty penny for. Some equipment was fetching just a dime on the dollar in June, when Kate Bernot at Good Beer Hunting spoke with Casey Hughes of GTH Consulting. “The bigger-size stuff usually doesn’t get bought,” he said. “No one is doing bigger expansions.”
Draft beer’s waning appeal with the American drinking public.
“Draft beer never really came back from the pandemic,” Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson said at his mid-year check-in back in August. Some 2 million barrels were “missing” from the charts midway through 2023, meaning more kegged beer was missing from more cold boxes than even previous downward trendlines would’ve suggested. Draft only represents about 10 percent of the overall beer sold in these United States, so the channel’s worse-than-it-should-be slide since 2019 isn’t existential for the category writ large. But since time immemorial — or at least Prohibition’s repeal — brewers have built brands in the on-premise, using the promise of fresh-from-the-tap beer to curry interest and create loyalty with prospective customers. (Just ask former Heineken importer Philip Van Munching!) Draft beer is one of the category’s biggest consumer-facing differentiators from wine or spirits, and its stumbles this year portend nothing swell for the category over the next few.
Big Beer’s flat-footed offensive against Big Liquor.
Speaking of blurring lines and newly latitudinous liquor firms, February 2023 saw spirits overtake beer in U.S. market share by dollars (a monumental milestone even though volume, the more revealing metric, remains brewers’ sole purview.) A few months later, the Beer Institute ramped up its rhetoric opposing perceived legislative and regulatory encroachments by its full-proof foes at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), and it… kinda fumbled the ball? Just hours after the beer industry’s biggest trade group published an advocacy site, StandWithBeer.org, DISCUS fired back with its own website, and a statement lamenting that “big beer companies would stoop to the level of using misleading information to attack the spirits sector and its consumers, rather than investing in beer products that consumers actually want to buy.” Which, like… can’t argue with them there!
Constellation Brands’ ass-covering scramble out of the craft brewing segment.
The company that dropped a cool billion dollars on Ballast Point back in 2015 only to dump it for chump change four years later was never destined to be fondly remembered for its exploits in craft brewing. But Constellation somehow managed to stumble out of the sector with that same corporate ham-fistedness this past year. In March, it sold the Virginia brewery built to handle all the Sculpin volume that never materialized; in a Friday-before-Memorial Day news dump, it announced the end of its erstwhile craft division, turning over the keys to Funky Buddha and Four Corners to those breweries’ respective owners (who’d sold the firms to Constellation last decade only to watch the macrobrewer run them into irrelevance.) As I wrote in early June, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because… ah, it’s over.”
Sapporo USA’s unceremonious closure of Anchor Brewing Co.
I spent much of the summer breaking stories about a shitshow brewing inside San Francisco’s — nay, the country’s — most important midsize brewery. In mid-June, Anchor’s corporate overlords at Sapporo USA (SUSA) pulled the brand back from national distribution, and canceled its famous, beloved Christmas seasonal, which had been in annual production since 1975. A month later, the Japanese parent company’s U.S. subsidiary decided to pull the plug entirely, shutting down the iconic Potrero Hill plant and authoring a humiliating final chapter in Anchor’s centuries-long history. Hard to imagine a more poignant parable of corporate bloodlessness and community loss coming out of the American beer business any time soon. Fritz Maytag’s brewery, and its millions of fans around the world, deserved better, man. Long live Anchor Steam.
Anheuser-Busch InBev’s disastrous mismanagement of the transphobic Bud Light backlash.
I first clocked conservative operatives trying to foment reactionary outrage against Anheuser-Busch InBev over the first weekend of April 2023, and frankly, I didn’t expect it to go anywhere, because consumer boycotts are notoriously hard to pull off. But good lord, did the world’s biggest beer company make it easy for its bad-faith antagonists. After letting transphobes and their fellow travelers control the narrative around Bud Light’s marketing relationship with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney for two achingly long weeks, ABI’s North American chief executive Brendan Whitworth put out a cowardly, mealy-mouthed statement that only inflamed the situation further. It was off to the circus from there. I’ve probably written 20,000 words on the Bud Light beat over the past nine months, covering the shitshow from every angle: distributorship layoffs, gun-shy marketing moves, Modelo’s ascent… you name it. I’m tired of it! As much as I criticize the company, the reality is that ABI sets the tone and narrative frame on the American beer business by virtue of its size and stature. Everything that went wrong for beer this year wasn’t the company’s fault, but its relentless rake-steppery vis-a-vis Bud Light sure didn’t win the category any plaudits with the American drinking public.
🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now
We say all the time around here that the bigger they are, the harder they’ll tea, and when it comes to BA-defined craft breweries, there ain’t nobody bigger than Boston Beer Company. The firm’s juggernaut Twisted Tea has been on a heater for the past couple years in the off-premise, but now it’s seeing serious action bar-side, too. In a late December email, BBC, citing Nielsen’s CGA platform, proclaimed the Twea brand family to be the No. 1 volume grower in the on-premise through the first half of 2023. According to Beer Business Daily, the hard tea leader will soon be available on “all Amtrak trains covering the Northeast/Atlantic region,” too, which frankly is the last thing this country’s buckling infrastructure needs.
Schilling Ciders is riding ~25 percent volume growth year-over-year on the strength of its imperial-strength Excelsior label… Molson Coors stands to scoop up ABI’s lost c-store space in 2024, per Goldman Sachs…
📉 …and downs
FTC and Total Wine have indeed finalized a settlement on the scope of the authority’s Southern Glazer’s probe, so there goes our shot at discovery… Craft beer’s “perfect storm” continues apace… Is beer even recession-proof anymore?…