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The BA’s Top 50 List Is a Portrait of Craft Brewing’s Identity Crisis

TikTok has Facebook terrified. Google is poisoning its own search results. Former longshot anti-woke Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy just bought a stake in BuzzFeed. If you needed more evidence that Web 2.0’s dominant format for organizing information — the list — was past its prime, it’s really started to stack up lately.

Still, there’s one list that will forever remain relevant to our purpose here at Hop Take, reader: the Brewers Association’s annual top-50 ranking of craft breweries in the United States by volume. The latest edition of this list dropped in April 2024, but it wasn’t until last week, when the May/June installment of the org’s New Brewer magazine was published, that brewery-by-brewery barrelage became available to the trade press. Those data, combined with the list itself and cross-referenced with broader drinking trends both within the beer category and beyond it, give us a pretty good, albeit incomplete, picture of what’s going on at the upper end of the American craft brewing business these days.

In the not-so-grand tradition of last decade’s digital discourse, I now present you with a list of my top five takeaways from this year’s top-50 breweries list. In order of rising significance…

5. The “could be worse” era was very literal last year.

Last month at the BA’s 2024 Craft Brewers Conference, I reported on what I called craft brewing’s “could be worse” era, a nod to a similarly titled slide presented at the event by BA chief economist Bart Watson. The premise is self-explanatory, and it’s borne out in the barrelage tables from 2023, which had 26 breweries in the BA-defined top-50 post volume declines, compared to 29 in 2022. (Seventeen of those declines were single-digit percentages between 1 and 8 percent, as Brewbound’s Zoe Licata pointed out.) The segment was up 1 percent in aggregate year-over-year volume in 2022; despite draft declines, more off-premise competition, and shifting drinker preferences, it was down 1 percent in 2023. Could be worse, man.

4. The segment is still top-heavy as hell, but there’s a slo-mo shakeup underway.

The majority of the country’s ~10,000 breweries make less than 1,000 barrels annually, while the top 10 producers put out an average of 816,761 barrels, and a median of 472,513 barrels. It’s a good reminder that craft brewing is anything but a monolith; the perspectives of its volume-pushing elder statesmen (e.g. the always-quotable Jim Koch of No. 2 Boston Beer Co.) must always be understood in that context. Nos. 1–5 remained unchanged last year, but there was some reshuffling in the bottom half of the BA-defined top 10, and it’s revealing. Athletic Brewing Co. elbowed its way into the No. 10 slot with a colossal 51 percent volume gain over 2022, to 258,445 barrels, showcasing the power of that firm’s value proposition, if not necessarily the viability of standalone NA-specific beer brands more broadly (it’s the only one out of this year’s 50.) Brooklyn Brewery climbed to No. 8 with a 20 percent gain to 331,645 barrels last year, with most if not all of that new volume reportedly coming from exports, underscoring the potential power of foreign markets to offset domestic doldrums. Tilray Brands (No. 6) moved up three spots, with 461,097 barrels last year, but a lot of that volume was addition-by-acquisition; the year-over-year comparison in 2024 is where rubber meets road. Rubber has met road for Monster Beverage Co. — née CANarchy Craft Brewery Collective — which slid a spot to No. 9 with around 325,000 barrels. (As a flavored malt beverage, the Beast Unleashed’s strong sophomore year isn’t reflected in this total.)

3. It’s “fall behind, get left behind” for 30-something breweries in the top 50…

I get no thrill out of reporting that 2023’s five biggest volume losers are all venerable first- and early second-generation craft breweries that seem to have lost a step or several lately. Minhas Brewing Co., was the outlier here in more ways than one: It was founded in 1845, and took the biggest hit, sinking to No. 29 with around 90,000 barrels (-44 percent.) Summit Brewery, founded 1986, was down 32 percent in 2023 (No. 37, 70,502 barrels); Drake’s Brewing Co., founded 1989, down 22 percent (No. 49, 47,975 barrels); Rogue Ales & Spirits, 1988, -17 percent (No. 44, 55,881 barrels); Lost Coast, 1990, -14 percent (No. 42, 58,350 barrels.) And so on. The median age of this cohort is 36 years old. It’s tough out there for breweries of a certain age — but if last year is any indication, that age is a lot younger than I’ve previously argued. Speaking of which…

2. But some of the oldest dogs in the segment are still learning new tricks.

I’m thinking specifically about BA-defined segment leader Yuengling, which tore up 2023 with 2,790,000 barrels. The country’s oldest still-operating brewery (founded 1845) notched 17 percent growth last year, which also saw it expand further west, adding Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma to an existing 23-state footprint that has included Texas, the country’s biggest beer market, as of 2021. Not to be shown up, August Schell Brewing Co. posted a 13 percent increase, bringing it to No. 24 with 107,100 barrels some 163 years after its 1860 founding. Then there’s 1890 baby Narragansett Brewing Co. at No. 23 — back from the jaws (ahem) of irrelevance circa Y2K, rolling out smart collaborations, packages, and extensions, and growing 10 percent to 109,635 barrels. Heritage brands hanging on thriving, we love to see it folks.

1. Macrobrewer-owned brands are mostly middling — but occasionally exceptional.

Some of the brands excluded from the BA’s list are making major, segment-advancing moves on serious denominators. New Belgium Brewing, which exited the org after completing its 2019 sale to the Kirin subsidiary Lion Little World Beverages, recently surpassed Molson Coors (which owns Blue Moon and a handful of other breweries) in NielsenIQ-tracked craft retail scans analyzed by Bump Williams Consulting to become the beyond-BA off-premise leader. You may not consider Voodoo Ranger to be a craft beer, what with its cloying fruit flavors and c-store ubiquity, but it’s a standard-bearer for the segment with a vital demographic, and it helped grow NBB’s volume 12 percent last year, to 1,383,000 barrels. Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Kona brand was up more than 12 percent in dollars year-to-date through April 2024, demonstrating the enduring power of compelling lifestyle branding — and, let’s be real, ABI’s wholesaler network. (Kona is part of the Craft Brewers Alliance, which also includes Cisco Brewing, so it’s hard to say how much volume it gained on its own.) It’s a mixed bag for other acquired craft brands, though. The remainder of ABI’s craft portfolio is struggling. Once-proud Lagunitas is languishing under Heineken’s heavy corporate hand and calling it quits on Chicago, and with the exception of Bell’s Brewery (bought by Lion Little World in 2021 and up 5 percent volume on the year), all the other macro-acquired craft brewers were down.

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

Almost since drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy hit the mainstream in 2023, public-health officials and trade types alike have pondered the long-term effects they might have on drinking habits, given users’ reports of decreased craving for alcohol while on the medicine. Earlier this month, pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk announced plans to study that very side effect of its name-brand drugs — but with a focus on liver health (which is a lucrative medical application) rather than addiction (which may or may not be.) Alcohol-abuse specialists are excited anyway, because the field is perennially underfunded, and novel treatments are in desperate demand. Better to have Big Pharma’s indirect attention than none at all, in other words. What a system we’ve got, eh?

📈 Ups…

The National Beer Wholesalers Association indexed another month of growth in May, suggesting a strong summer sales season to come… The American Cider Association’s pommelier certification program has officially expanded to EuropeMolson Coors’ marketing team just won an Effie Award, and with bullseyes like the Big Green Kegg, how could it not?… An administrative judge rejected the Kroger/Albertsons bid to withhold execs’ texts…

📉 …and downs

Molson Coors is “pulling a Stella Artois” with Peroni, moving the Italian import’s production to the U.S. for stateside sales… After just two years, California hard-kombucha maker JuneShine has closed its Brooklynbooch outpostAnheuser-Busch InBev’s spirits-based Bud Light Seltzer replacement, NÜTRL, issued toxic tumblers that have poisoned 43 people in Canada, oof… The House of Representatives approved a Farm Bill draft that would kibosh delta-8 THC seltzers… The Drug Enforcement Administration’s latest guidance throws delta-9 THC products’ future into more jeopardy, too…

The article The BA’s Top 50 List Is a Portrait of Craft Brewing’s Identity Crisis appeared first on VinePair.

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