2016: A Battleground Year For Craft Brew
2016 is almost certainly going to be a very interesting year for craft beer fans, although whether or not it's a good kind of "interesting" has yet to be seen.
As of the end of last year, there were officially more breweries in America than ever before in history. According to the Brewer's Association, a total of 4,144 breweries were registered. That's absolutely astounding considering that there were only 284 breweries a quarter-century ago. There's no doubt that "brew culture" has gone mainstream.
But is that sudsy bubble going to pop?
It's a tricky problem, because of course, the beer market doesn't exist in a vacuum. Beer is only one beverage among many in the market, and there's a real risk that if the craft brew scene becomes too crowded - or the competition too intense - they could simply drive drinkers towards alternatives.
So today, we just wanted to look at the craft beer situation and how it may change in the months ahead.
Begun The Brew Wars Have
It's no secret that the macro-breweries have been threatened by the rise of micro-brews, and are taking steps to fight back. The still-impending UberBeer merger between InBev and SABMiller looks likely, and will give them control over an astounding 1/3 of the entire world's beer market.
And they've been trying to ramp up their "cool factor" with a variety of outreach strategies, like their recent Super Bowl 50 commercial spots. These aren't just positioning statements, they're a direct attempt by the macrobrews to blur the line between themselves and legitimately independent brewers.
This trend is now almost certain to continue, because InBev recently announced plans to create faux-indie brewpubs in San Diego, one of the hotspots of microbrewing. If these plans are successful -which also seems likely- it's going to create real pressure on the actual small brewers who would likely be unable to compete in terms of volume or advertising.
In short, InBev wants the indie brew market for itself.
If You Can't Beat 'Em... Copy 'Em?
In response, some microbrews are attempting to go macro, which seems like a very risky strategy in a number of ways. Several of the larger indie breweries are looking to franchise themselves, setting up themed brewpubs of their own. These would, at least currently, be largely independent of each other and feature their own selections of beer.
But is this really a good idea? After all, where exactly is the line between microbrew and macrobrew even drawn? A cynically-minded person (not that there's any of those sorts around here...) might even suggest that this is more of a cash-grab, and attempt by the larger indies to move into the big leagues, even at the expense of actual craft brewing.
Other areas are now launching "buy local beer" campaigns, but those feel like a reactionary rearguard action. Like 80s "Buy American" campaigns, they wouldn't exist without significant existing pressures.
It Could Drive A Person To Hard Drink...
And in the meantime, distilled spirit and cocktail sales are on the rise. Even with so many new breweries, beer sales have actually down somewhat over the last few years. If this trend continues, it could turn the craft brew revolution into just one more consumer fad, and ruin the fortunes of numerous breweries.
A heated war between micro- and macro-brews could easily make this situation worse by driving customers away.
So, we're not sure what's going to happen to indie breweries this year, but it does look to be pivotal. And if you care about craft brews, this is definitely a year to make your preferences known!