I mean no disrespect to the high foreheads at the Wall Street Journal, who are today announcing that doom and gloom has settled en masse over the beer biz, with the highest U.S. volume sales decline seen since the 1950’s, but while they are right from one perspective, they are sorely wrong from another. The big brewers are down, no doubt, as the chart below plainly shows, but that’s only a part of the story.
To see what I mean, cast your eye on the aforementioned chart, below. (Illustration blatantly stolen without compensation from the WSJ story. Follow the link for better resolution.)
See, A-B Inbev may be well down, as are MillerCoors, Crown (mostly Corona), Heineken and others, but Boston Beer and Yeungling are…up.
The BBC and Yeungling numbers are important because they represent what I believe is really going on, which is not so much a literal “worsening” of demand, but rather a shift in demand, coupled with a growing endorsement of the old French axiom boire moins, boire mieux, or “drink less, drink better.” Simply, the battle is between style and substance, and right now, substance appears to be winning!
It’s a difficult case to prove because the Brewers Association has not yet compiled craft beer sales numbers for 2009, but nearly every craft brewer I speak with is sounding quite happy with their sales figures from the preceding year and optimistic about 2010. This is because large swaths of consumers are now deciding that one Arrogant Bastard or Prima Pils is easily worth two or even three Bud Lights or MGDs.
This is equally true, I believe, when speaking of what I have started to call imported craft beers, they being everything from Duvel and Schneider Weisse to Burton Bridge Old Expensive and Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast. Overall imports are definitely down, but demand for small scale specialty brands remains high. Again, boire moins, boire mieux.
The WSJ doesn’t see this because they’re used to looking only at the large, public corporation side of things, rather than the successful entrepreneur side. Then again, weren’t they the ones who years ago predicted that the craft beer craze was finished?