Author of PILSNER: How the Beer of Kings Changed the World


Craft beer is booming. Is that bad news for the U.S. economy?

One big past beer boom came just before a recession.

Beer: the cause of, and solution to, all of the economy’s problems? (Dixie D. Vereen for The Washington Post)

Not too long ago, craft brewers and their fans were worried about larger competitors putting them out of business.

The likes of Anheuser-Busch InBev were snapping up craft breweries at a brisk clip in the middle of the decade, changing little but the back-office management and creating a stable of what many derisively dubbed phantom crafts: They tasted and looked the same, but they weren’t legit.

Just last year, Jim Koch, co-founder and chairman of Boston Beer, the maker of Samuel Adams, warned in the New York Times of a “last call for craft beer”: “Drinkers buying cute-sounding brands like Goose Island or Terrapin or Ten Barrel are often unaware that these brands, some of them once independent, are now just subsidiaries of AB InBev or Molson Coors, which are not transparent about disclosing their true ownership anywhere on the bottle.”

The thing is, though, that while AB InBev and its peers have continued to gobble this or that craft competitor, the pace of such acquisitions has slowed — there was one AB InBev acquisition in 2017, for instance, vs. four in 2015.

And the number of new craft breweries and brewpubs has continued to rise — to 995 in 2017, from 990 the year before and 877 in 2015, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group for smaller producers. There are well over 6,500 craft breweries in the United States as of mid-2018, more than triple the number at the start of the decade.

And that, not multinational corporations buying up independent brands, is the real problem for craft brewers — and maybe for the U.S. economy. The existential threat doesn’t come from AB InBev but from the small operation down the street coming out with its own IPA or Belgian sour.

Take the case of Smuttynose. A New Hampshire mainstay with national reach since the late 1990s, the brewery was sold at foreclosure auction in March. One of its founders, a former Brooklyn schoolteacher, said competition from newer breweries drove the distressed sale. Boston Beer, the second-largest U.S. craft brewery behind Yuengling, has itself endured drops in sales since Jim Koch’s Times op-ed. Why? Competition from other craft breweries.

It’s more than just that consumers want to gulp flavors and styles beyond Samuel Adams Boston Lager. There is that. The more alarming issue is that older and more recent craft brewers alike have all ridden a wave of investment, financing and consumer spending since the financial crisis in 2008, but that wave can’t take them that much higher. And we all know what happens when a wave crests.

A lot of the financing is in the form of loans that take advantage of historically low interest rates (here’s to you, Fed!) A sizable chunk, too, comes from angel investors and from private-equity firms flush with post-crisis investments themselves. Private-equity firms have invested heavily in well-known breweries such as Dogfish Head, Cigar City, Oskar Blues and Stone — which in June became the first independent U.S. craft brewery to open a taproom in China.

Then there’s consumer spending. Americans have money to drop, and they’re dropping it. Most of it is going toward services, but vices such as alcohol are benefiting. In 2017, Americans spent $241.8 billion on alcohol, up 2.7 percent from the year before; in general, Americans tend to spend more on alcohol in flusher economic times than in choppier ones.

Finally, a sharp per-barrel excise tax cut for beer included in the Republican tax legislation at the end of 2017 is rippling through the industry in forms of lower operating costs and greater output. The tax cut — the most significant since a mid-1970s slice that helped spark the modern craft beer revolution — applied almost entirely to smaller breweries.

Cheap financing. Consumer spending. Tax cuts. All sound familiar? The latest GDP figures, the same ones that showed 4.1 percent quarterly growth in that benchmark, showed consumer spending driving most of the economy — and nonmortgage debt (including credit cards and personal loans) and the effects of the tax cuts are driving much of that spending.

But how long can it last? Inflation is starting to drive up prices of goods. And we haven’t even discussed the tariffs proposed or executed by President Trump. One on imported aluminum, in particular, could end up walloping the bottom lines of craft brewers, who will probably pass along any extra costs to consumers.

For now, though, things look sunny — for the overall U.S. economy. For craft beer, it’s another story, and a possibly predictive one at that.

In the 1990s, what turned out to be another decade-long economic expansion lifted craft beer to dizzying new heights. It entered the 1990s as a passing fad, but the larger wave of investment and spending helped it expand right along with the economy. Toward the end of the decade, there were more than 1,500 craft breweries and brewpubs, an improbable milestone.

Then the keg went dry. Loans on new breweries and brewery expansions came due. Breweries looked around and didn’t find as many customers as a few years before. Banks stopped lending. The economy overall started to wobble. Hundreds of breweries closed or reduced their footprints between 1999 and 2001.

The craft beer bust preceded the turn-of-the-century recession by about a year. It’s impossible, of course, to say whether history will repeat itself. But the times do taste familiar, and the good times in craft beer have turned out not to be so good. Will the good times in the economy end up the same?

This op-ed originally appeared in The Washington Post.


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