Decline Watch: Should we pour one out for the U.S. beer industry?

Decline Watch: Should we pour one out for the U.S. beer industry?

Opinions differ between economists, investors, and psychologists as to whether alcohol consumption is a cyclical or countercyclical good. The latest annual report from the Beverage Information Group suggests the Amerislump is taking a toll on the U.S. beer industry, but there are some interesting side effects:

The total volume of beer sold in the U.S. fell by 1.9% in 2010, according to data from the Beverage Information Group. This compares with flat sales in 2008, at the height of the recession, and a loss of 2.1% in 2009. However, unlike 2009, when overall figures were dragged down by a big hit to the imported beer category, in 2010 import sales were positive, and weaker domestic beer sales accounted for the negative total. Among the top-selling 10 domestic beers, seven brands showed losses for the year. Every category of beer lost volume, except for progressive adult beverages, craft and imports.

Domestic premium sales fell by 7.6%, better than the 9% loss of the previous year, with the country’s second best-selling brand, Budweiser, taking the biggest volume hit with a decline of 8.0%.…

Sales of sub-premium or “popular” beers fell in 2010 by 4.1%, suggesting that losses in premium beer sales are not generally being picked up by sub-premium alternatives. Major brands suffered across the board, with the exception of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which continued to ride its hipster credibility to a volume growth of 16.9%.

The imported beer category returned, barely, to positive numbers after two years of negative growth. Losses in volume sales by leaders Corona and Heineken were offset by the double-digit growth enjoyed by Modelo Especial, Dos Equis, and Stella Artois. Those three beers have little in common beyond the fact that they are brewed outside the U.S., and they cultivate different audiences.

(Three weeks into the NFL season, I must say I don’t find this all that surprising. Ads predicated on the notion that failure to drink domestic light beer may result in the loss of your “man card” do smack of desperation.)


It sounds like a classic decline story at first: big, traditional American brands floundering, imports surging. But let’s remember that A-B InBev and SABMiller — though they account for 80 percent of the U.S. beer market — are multinational corporations based in Belgium and Britain, respectively. And let’s take a look at the one part of the U.S. beer market that is doing well:

Unique among beer categories, craft beer has enjoyed positive growth every year since 2003. In 2010, the category returned to double-digit growth with a 12.6% increase (data from SymphonyIRI Group (IRI), a Chicago-based market research firm). Boston Beer’s flagship Sam Adams Boston Lager gained 7.7% to 14 million 2.25 gallon cases, according to Beverage Information Group. Other growing well-known craft brands include Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (up 9.0%) and New Belgium’s Fat Tire Amber ale (upa 15%). Indeed, 18 of the top 20 “craft families” experienced positive growth (IRI).

See Matthew Yglesias for more on the role government deregulation played in creating the craft beer market, but the innovation of small beer producers isn’t just good for the quality of American brews — it’s also spurring the big guys to make some changes as well: Blue Moon, Coors’ imitation of a Belgian-style wheat beer, is among its most successful offerings, growing at 30.4 percent. The company has created a new specialty division specifically to compete with microbrews.

So like nearly every industry, beer’s taking a hit from the recession, but it also seems like it’s become more innovative and more “American” than it was before the crash. Also, apparently sales of Four Loko are down, so that’s good news for everybody. 

Update: Apprently, Google is now getting into the beer game as well.