A record 7,000 breweries will be in operation in the United States in 2018, Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson shared Thursday during the opening session of the California Craft Brewers Association’s Craft Beer Summit, Expo and Beer Festival in Sacramento.
Watson called it a “virtual certainty” that the industry will reach that milestone this year, and more breweries are on the way with more than 9,000 active permits filed with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau at the midway point of 2018.
In California, which is home to 944 beer companies, there are more than 1,200 active federal brewery permits. Although California is home to the largest number of breweries, Watson said the state’s per capita beverage alcohol trends mirror the rest of the country.
“California is actually a pretty typical state, which suggests that maybe insanely there’s still room for growth,” he said. “Don’t expect California is suddenly going to become either Texas or Vermont anytime soon. It’s gonna be kind of middle of the road.”
Watson also gave an overview of California off-premise scan data, in retailers tracked by market research firm IRI Worldwide, during the 52 weeks ending August 12. California craft brewers selling more than 1,000 case equivalents (CEs) are up 5.1 percent in the state and up 1.5 percent out-of-state during the last 52 weeks.
As the number of breweries continues to rise, growth opportunities are becoming harder to come by with per brewery growth “lower than anytime” in the last decade, Watson said.
“There’s a lot of growth out there, but it’s not being realized by everybody because there are so many companies competing for that growth rate,” he said, adding that the mid-single digit growth numbers (5 percent through the first six months of 2018) are likely “more of a long-term reality.”
To demonstrate how the growth is being “sliced up,” Watson said there are about 4 million barrels of high end growth is still available for the taking. However, only about a million of those barrels will be left to split among 6,000 small and independent breweries after imports, “super premiums” such as Michelob Ultra, large craft brewers and new craft breweries take their share.
Meanwhile, regional breweries are playing a “zero sum game” with “no growth in the market,” Watson said. Although those beer companies can still grow, it’s likely to come at the expense of other regional players.
One opportunity that exists in the next decade for craft beer companies is to take a page from wine and position their offerings as more “sophisticated” in order to connect with millennial consumers as they reach “peak” craft beer drinking age of 25- to 34-years-old.
“We’re about to have this huge generation that is going to age forward and hopefully as part of this total beverage alcohol conversation we can convince them that they should drink a little bit better beer,” he said.
Many of those consumers are drinking beer in “third spaces,” such as brewery taprooms. During an interview with Brewbound editor Chris Furnari, Watson also shared that direct-to-consumer sales at brewery taprooms could reach three million barrels this year, up from about 2.5 million barrels last year.
At-the-brewery draft sales were about 10 percent in California and about 11 percent nationally, Watson said. In some states, at-the-brewery draft sales are approaching 25 percent.
Nevertheless, being a “local” beer company may be losing its cachet as an increasing number of urban wineries and craft distilleries open in the U.S.
“Local breweries aren’t going to be the only option,” he said.
Watson also shared that beer sales trends are better in states where adult-use cannabis has been legalized.
“The states that are doing the worst have no legal cannabis,” he said.
In a separate talk during the conference, Stone Brewing co-founder Greg Koch echoed Watson in saying he doesn’t view cannabis as a threat. Koch, who admitted to smoking a joint at times while having a beer, said Stone won’t be following other beer companies into the cannabis space.