The Delicious Winners Of the American Beer War

Wolf Richter's picture

Wolf Richter

Amidst all the things in the US economy that aren’t going in the right direction, the debacles, fiascos, and nightmares, is an industry of scrappy upstarts, tiny operations, and larger companies that use American ingenuity, marketing, and the right amount of hops to stand up to Wall-Street-engineered giants.

Beer is one heck of a tough industry in the US. Production peaked in 1990 and has since receded in small increments despite the enormous marketing efforts and Super Bowl ads by the largest brewing empires the word has ever seen. 2012 was a rare up-year, with a growth of a whopping 0.9%. But the growing population over those two decades has covered up an industry horror: per-capita beer production has fallen, according to the latest Brewers Almanac, from 26.2 gallons in 1982 to 19.2 gallons in 2011 as people switched from beer to wine.

But there is one subgroup in the $99 billion industry that is doing phenomenally well: craft brewers. In an economy that was stumbling along in 2012, they booked 15% growth by volume and 17% by dollars, according to the Brewers Association. Their market share in 2012 reached 6.5% by volume—up from 5.7% in 2011. It’s coming out of the hides of the big guys. In retail dollars, their market share grew to 10.2%, the first time ever in the double digits.

The higher market share in dollars is a result of their strategy to sell a premium product for a premium price. And people are buying it! “High quality, flavor-forward” is how Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association describes these brewskis. Craft brewers employed 108,440 people by the end of 2012 and created 4,857 new jobs. For the first time, retail sales broke through the $10 billion mark.

And they’re flexing their new muscles abroad: in 2012, export volume jumped 72%, to well, $49 million. Okay, tiny muscles. Less than 0.5% of the craft beer sold in the US, and barely noticeable in the overall scheme of things. It’s not going to reverse the US trade deficit anytime soon. Canada is the largest export market, with Sweden and the UK in second and third place. And shipments to Japan jumped 57%. Every little bit counts.

Breweries are popping up at a rate of over one a day! By the end of last year, 409 new breweries—310 microbreweries and 99 brewpubs—were in operation. But it’s not a laid-back affair. In addition to being able to brew good beer, they also have to be able to stay alive as a business. Not all did: 43 breweries shut down. So, by year end, a total of 2,347 craft breweries were in operation (1,132 brewpubs, 1,118 microbreweries, and 97 regional craft breweries). Almost all of them were closely held.

Back in the day before refrigeration, when beer didn’t last long and was difficult to transport across long distances, every town worth its salt had a brewery. The Brewers Almanac, whose data series goes back to 1887, recorded 2,269 breweries that year—the highpoint in the series. By 1918, the brewery count was down to 1,092. In 1920, after the prohibition kicked it, it was zero. But in 1933, suddenly 331 breweries popped back up. By 1941, there were 857, and that was it, the second peak.

With more efficient transportation, refrigeration, and industrial production, the industry consolidated into giants—57 by 1975. But a change was underfoot: among these 57 was 1 craft brewery. Now the industrial giants are down to 20. Three multinational corporations own most of them: InBev in Brazil, SABMiller in the UK, and Molson Coors Brewing Company in Canada. Pabst Brewing Company is still independent. And in 2012, they continued to lose market share.

But these 2,347 tiny craft brewers that have now pushed the brewery count beyond the 1887 high of recorded beer history keep winning the hearts and taste buds of American consumers. An incredible feat in our crazy times of financial engineering, outsourcing, and off-shoring. Their small-scale production is no longer just carving out a niche; it’s winning the large-scale beer war against the giants. Because their products rock!

Decades of economic mismanagement, political ineptitude, corruption, and financial fraud in Latin America – overseen by the IMF, now a protagonist in Europe’s Troika – reached their nadir in the Mexican Tequila Crisis. It should have served as a portent of the financial storms now buffeting Europe. Read....  The Tequila Crisis: The Prelude to Europe’s Economic Storm

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
NuYawkFrankie's picture

Craft Beer - "The Lubricant Of the Revolution"

valkir's picture

I have a problem.I can not decide which one is number one for me.Radeberger or Pilsner urquel.

Nobody For President's picture

Well, here we are at the tail end of this discussion, and not many folks will read it, but for a really great read, go here:

I mean:

Alulu Beer Receipt – This records a purchase of "best" beer from a brewer, c. 2050 BC from the Sumerian city ofUmma in Ancient Iraq.[1]

So any arguments we may be having here and now on ZH have probably been going on awhile - ain't it nice to be part of a long heritage?

Think I'll go have a beer...




ebworthen's picture

All hail real beer!

Including the shit I make for myself.

Fuck the InBev pretenders and the low malt high water crap.

GeneralMunger's picture

Sam Adams Boston Ale

Sam Adams October Fest


Guiness Stout

Most Corporat American beer is pisswater....especially InBev, aka Budweiser

"God is great, Beer is good, People are crazy.".....Billy Currington

Orly's picture

Boston Ale is easily the best beer in the world.

Now, I am talking about your average, every-day, get-home-from-work-and-pop-a-top beer that you can find almost anywhere at a price that is comparable to most American rice beers.

Given all the criteria the working-stiff would want in a beer, Sam Adams Boston Ale is tops.


P.S. Not to be confused with Sam Adams Boston Lager.

GeneralMunger's picture

I almost forgot, Sam Adams Cream Stout is awesome!

Orly's picture

No one has given a shout-out to a local microbrewery in Houston, called St. Arnold.  St. Arnold Amber is pretty good.


SWRichmond's picture

Best domestic Saison I've had, and I have tried some...I prefer it to the Ommegang Hennepin, which is also quite good.  Some new American micros try to do Belgian styles, even Saisons, and some are actually quite bad.  I have had the mispleasure of sending some back while sitting at the bar...twice recently, in fact.  One was called a "Tripel" but god only knows what it really was.  It is not simply a matter of using the right ingredients and the right yeast.  Beer is quite easy, great beer is remarkably complicated and hard to do.

1971's picture

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale  Chicoooooooo!

Esculent 69's picture

Here is a saison that is made in collaboration with Sierra Nevada and a local monestary. There is a entire group including a quad, dubel, and barrel aged of both. We also make a french saison on tap. I can't stand the saison's but the quality is excellent. 




Esculent 69's picture

If nothing comes up you can just google it.


Esculent 69's picture

fuck it. if you want something done right do it yourself. here you go.

tenpanhandle's picture

One of the first if not first of the micro-breweries.  One of the things that can be said about them is they have maintained the good taste and quality that they started with even though they have grown into a macro-brewery.  This can not be said of all micro-breweries that have grown in size as can be attested to by the devolution of "Red Tail Ale" from premium to swill.

Nobody For President's picture

The oldest of the Craft Breweries in California is probably Anchor Steam in San Francisco, which predates Sierra Nevada by a whole bunch of years. But I agree that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale remains one of the best, despite going big time.

Technically, Sierra Nevada, Ukiah Brewing, Full Sail Ale, and now maybe Lost Coast Brewery are "Regional" breweries, and not local craft brews.

Good news: "The majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewer."

And if you are gonna talk big versus little ('macro' versus 'micro') and all that shit at the local pub, know what you are talkin' about:

And callin' Red Tail Ale 'swill' is fightin' words asshole = your taste buds get shot off in the war? It has changed some over the last ten years - it used to be my very favorite - but it is far from swill. It still beats the shit out of 98% of the crap available as 'beer' in just about any local grocery store.

IamtheREALmario's picture

I good template for the rescue of the world from the bankers.

Intoxicologist's picture

Half the fun of life is trying different beers!  A couple times a month I'll go buy something new, and last month one of my bar patrons brought me in some home brew.  I almost shed a tear when I finished the last bottle, it was that good (and 8% ABV).

I admit, however, I keep a Dirty 30 of Currz Light or some other diet beer on hand for when the neighbors come around.  Then I give the cans to the local dog shelter so they can get the recycling dollars.  I think last summer the truckload I brought in paid the electric bill for at least a couple of months.   

natty light's picture

I regularly restock a dirty 30 of natty [hence avatar], even though I love craft beers. To wit, 21st Amendment Brewery Back In Black IPA.

Nobody For President's picture

Shit - I left out North Coast Brewing on my list! (To my near south...)

Rasputin is WAY too serious for me, I like their Red Seal though. You sir, are a serious beer drinker - tip of the hat.

Bastiat's picture

Old Rasputin Stout- North coast Brewing Co.  

oddjob's picture

American beer is nosewater.

Esculent 69's picture

the article did say that it was craft brewery's that were doing well. not the bucket o' piss that is budweiser, coors, natural lite, genuine draft. Although a bit of honesty my session beer is miller high life. i know go ahead and junk me, but the problem with craft (heavy, hoppy) beers is the god awful heartburn. a crisp cold high life gives no hangover and doesn't rott my gut.  

malek's picture

Advice I got from a German raised woman when visiting the US first time:

The only acceptable US "beer" you can get in almost every bar/pub is Sam Adams. (Ok, that was 20+ years ago.)

Nobody For President's picture

Actually, 20 years ago, she was more or less right (make it 25) except in Northern California there was also Anchor Steam Beer from San Francsico:

Which in my not so humble opinon was and is superior to Sam Adams.

But both are head and shoulders above anything else that corporate beer makers (I won't call them breweries) were and are making. I started with Oly in high school, which is probably why I quit drinking for 10 plus years when I went off to college, then restarted with bourbon - took 20 + years to get back to beer when good beer started being made locally.

Oquities's picture

Bell's Two Hearted Ale - Kalamazoo, mi

Founder's Porter - Grand Rapids, mi


Bob's picture

Also in MI are Mad Hatter Ale (New Holland Brewing) and Sacred Cow Ale (Arbor Brewing.) 

It's a damn shame crafts are so damn expensive, even if they only travel across town . . . I'm drinking Newcastle Brown because it's cheap! 

Something's outta balance there. 

Fix It Again Timmy's picture

As W.C. Fields once said, "I never drink water because fish function in it." 

NuYawkFrankie's picture

They say that drinking beer makes you smarter -

after all, it did make Bud wiser....

Intoxicologist's picture

Budweiser gives good headache.

optimator's picture

Years and years ago I read a book my wife gave me on the evils of drinking.  I re-read that book and gave it a lot of deep thought.  It was an effort, but I finally gave it up.  I gave up reading.

optimator's picture

Only one beer in the winter.  Optimator, expecially if you can find it on draft.  In summer, only wheat beers, my pick being Franziskaner Weissbier.   The nearest substitute I can find is Blue Moon.  Remember, the Germans take their beer seriously enough to have laws on brewing and contents.  If American breweries had to operate under those same laws tomorrow, they'd all be doing jail time.

grunk's picture

A friend turned me on to Optimator. Expensive, but very good.

I bought some Optimator beer glasses for him I found at an auction to thank him.

SubjectivObject's picture

Optimator! Yeah!

In hand just now.  I pour the bottled hard into a large cold glass chem flask to get rid of the excess carbonation.

At the local bar/grill that drafts it, with others, I order the Optimator making no claims, they sip, I drink, eventially they try it because I ask for it, like, all-the-time, aaand they likes it ... hey Mikey!


Anybody ever partake of the Peruvian dark called "Export"? 

Fix It Again Timmy's picture

I like beers similar to women I'm fond of: 30-40 years old,  robust, full-flavored, never let you down, very satisfying and bring a contented smile to your lips.....

Stares straight ahead's picture

Budweiser drinkers seem to age rapidly. Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon?

I must confess, I like Miller High Life, which to me, has a bright, hoppy flavor. Their marketing campaign, where you saved codes from the twelve packs for High Life "gear", drove me to the brink of alcoholism.

Now I enjoy Sweetwater products, ESP 420.

Happy Easter, everyone!

augmister's picture

Leinenkugle!  (Miller Craft Beer)

Nail it's picture

I live in a Dry County, no beer for me.


NuYawkFrankie's picture

Bring on The Beer Rebellion!


Used to be a time when mentioning "American" & "Beer" in the same breath would get you laughed outta the room... and, if you persisted, given a good ass-kicking.

Thankfully, and gloriously, that is no longer the case - and I'd happily stack some of these US micros up with the best of the Euro-guzzles;)

And , though I've been assiduously applying myself, I haven't gotten around to "sampling" even a sizable fraction of them - yet.... such is the plethora of Pilsners, abundance of Ales, and smorgasbord of Stouts...

But as the philosopher said: "God loves a trier!".   And "It's not the destination, but the journey, the 'getting there' (or, perhaps in this case,  the 'staggering there')  that counts".

To which sentiment I can only add a  hearty: 'Burp On Brother!'

willwork4food's picture


Benjamin Franklin said he knows God loves us because he gave us beer.

God loves me quite a lot lately..

Esculent 69's picture

And by drinking beer it shows how much we love him too.  Happy Easter. 

Graph's picture

As long as we are NOT talking about "beer" with flawor of the season I am in.

Joseph Jones's picture

Ditto, for coffee.  Black, hot, and strong French or other dark roast for me.  Yummmmmmm.....

Nobody For President's picture

Haven't drunk the big business horse piss (Coors, Bud etc) for years - fucking colored water.

Local stuff to the south:

(Their Eye of the Hawk is one of my personal favorites in the summer.)

to the north:

and to the East: Good old

These beers are superior to the English and Continental beers as well as being totally beyond comparison with the American corporate crap sold in cans. Oregon has a pretty good regional outfit in Full Sail in Hood River as well:

You lads on the East Coast probably miss out on these most excellent brews, but have some of your own that I understand are pretty palatable.

Best use for a can of Coors lite: They make great rifle targets.


Tapeworm's picture

I also buy the old formula Schlitz when it is going for 5.99/12 as it is really quite good as a former giant brewery brand that was ruined in the early 1970's.