The fact that the sun is finally shining again is a reason to celebrate for the craft beer industry, even if a few clouds are still in sight. That is the feeling one gets when looking over the recently released data from the Brewers Association, the industry’s primary trade association, highlighting the sector’s robust rebound from losses it suffered during the pandemic. There might still be some dark days ahead, but at least the storm has passed, hopefully for good.
After posting its first-ever decline in volume, down -9% in 2020, when the mass closings of bars, tasting rooms, and seemingly any gathering spot inflicted a deep wound in an industry built upon human interactions, 2021 delivered good news. Volume growth was up 7.9%, with almost 24.5 million barrels produced, though that was below the 2019 number of 26.3 million barrels. Craft beer’s growth numbers outpaced the entire American beer market’s growth of 1.0%.
This is a welcome sign for an industry that saw thirty-six of its top fifty brewers record losses in 2019. Even before the pandemic, it saw a slowing of its extraordinary run of continual growth over the last decade. During that time, craft beer was finally able to integrate itself into all facets of the American beer scene. In 2010 there were 1813 breweries in operation; by 2021, that number had hit 9247.
Most of those new breweries were smaller ones that focused on their immediate communities instead of larger regional ones whose products often crossed state lines. While they may not be household names like many of craft beer’s more prominent names, Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, and Yuengling, they still accounted for a large part of craft beer sales. In 2021 the top 50 craft breweries accounted for 50.3% of all craft beer produced in America. But those behemoths lost 2.57% of their share to the other players in the market.
According to the Brewers Association’s data, the top ten brewers lost share in 2021, something that was to be expected since they were better able to get their products onto grocery shelves during the early phases of the pandemic. Established packing lines and their long-term relationships with the country’s large grocery chains insulated most of the country’s larger breweries from the hardships that hit the industry as a whole. Plus, many large brewers were able to diversify their portfolios and dive into the emerging Beyond Beer category with their hard seltzers and other beverages.
But while the overall growth numbers may point to better times, there are still many challenges facing craft beer. Supply chain issues are pinching tight bottom lines, government programs that helped many brewers weather the most challenging parts of the shutdowns have ended, and the alcohol market is becoming ever more complex with new competitors vying for consumers’ attention. Plus, the first quarter of 2022 has seemed to yield a continual list of brewery’s going out of business.
The Brewers Association remains bullish, though. The recently concluded World Beer Cup and last fall’s Great American Beer Festival saw a record number of entrants, which shows the thirst for creative beers has not dried up.
“Hopefully, this year will see us get back to production numbers that equal or exceed those of 2019,” says Bart Watson, the chief economist for the Brewers Association. “As more of the volume shifts back into taprooms and brewpubs from package where it moved during the pandemic, you will see the sector’s overall health improve. That’s a good thing.”
As the sun keeps shining and life returns to normal, craft brewers can focus on doing what they do best—making tasty suds and serving up smiles one pint at a time. That is a good thing for beer lovers everywhere.