The State of Craft Beer: 5 Things to Watch in 2015

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The convention floor of the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference // Photo © Jason E. Kaplan

The Brewers Association’s (BA) annual Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) & BrewExpo America wrapped up last week in Portland. The conference brought 600 exhibitors, vendors from 11 countries, and more than 11,000 attendees to the Oregon Convention Center, all there to discuss and learn more about the wonderful world of craft beer.

During the conference, the BA hosted its annual State of the Craft Brewing Industry presentation. We listened in via teleconference (and shed a couple tears wishing we could be there in person) and gathered the following craft-beer news, some surprising, some exciting, and some a little nerve-wracking. Here are the five biggest things happening now—or soon—that you should know.

1. FDA Calorie Mandates + Beer = Trouble

On December 1, 2014, the new Food and Drug Administration law requiring calorie and nutrition labeling for menu items offered at restaurants with 20 or more locations went into effect. By December 2015, all chain restaurants will have to list calories and other information for every item featured on a menu—including beer and wine.

Here’s the language in the FDA rule: “[Calories will be listed] if the alcoholic beverage is a standard menu item that is listed on a menu or a menu board. The majority of comments supported covering alcohol due to impacts on public health. In some instances, information may be presented in ranges for beer and wine rather than for each specific offering.”

The take-away here was multifaceted and explained by Paul Gatza, director of the BA. The main concerns he pointed out include:

  • Many small breweries don’t lab test their beers, meaning they don’t have numbers on the calorie content for their brews.
  • There is variation from batch to batch with craft beer, making it difficult to provide accurate labeling.
  • Many craft beers are higher in calorie content than the “standard” beers (Budweiser, Miller, Coors, etc.) and this could lead more calorie-conscious consumers to passing over craft for the bigger brands.
  • Mixed drinks are exempt from the ruling because the FDA considers spirits bottles as “food on display” and not standardized in terms of recipe.

There are still many things up in the air surrounding the rule, and Gatza said the FDA will be providing more guidance in mid-May. Stay tuned—we’ll keep you updated as we learn more.

2. The World Loves American Craft Beer

The buzz about U.S. craft beer is growing overseas. In 2014, the top importers of craft beer were Canada, Sweden, the U.K., Australia, South Korea, and Japan. And as craft exports rise, so, too, does the need for education.

The BA emphasized that while they’re excited about the growing interest in U.S. craft beer, they are also concerned that distributors and importers might not know the proper ways to transport, store, and serve it. To ensure international consumers have the best experience possible when drinking American craft beer, they are working on further developing their export development program. Think quality over quantity—at least for now.

3. Brewpub Growth and Sustainability

Microbreweries and brewpubs grew tremendously in 2014—33% and 20%, respectively. Bart Watson, chief economist of the BA, hypothesized that the renewed interest in brewpubs, which dipped in popularity in 2012, is due to chefs and restaurant developers redefining what it means to be a brewpub.

Basically, brewpubs are getting fancy.

Watson dubbed the new brewpub model “brewery restaurants,” saying beer-focused menus and chefs are rising in popularity and expanding beyond the idea of “brewery in the back and burgers out front.” Beer is big, and people are capitalizing on it.

Another possible reason for the popularity boost: According to Watson, 50% of brewpubs that have opened since the BA started keeping track in the early 1970s are still in business, while 60% of standard restaurants close within their first three years of business. Beer as insurance—we like it.

4. We Want Beer!

The BA hired its first full-time lobbyist in D.C.—Katherine Marisic—earlier this year. The goal: To pass the Small BREW Act.

Competing with the BREW Act is the Fair BEER Act, which extends tax relief to companies headquartered outside the U.S. (Anheuser-Busch InBev and Heineken, for example) as well as foreign breweries exporting beer to the U.S. The BREW Act, by comparison, would limit tax cuts to domestic production and “recalibrate the federal beer excise tax that small brewers pay on every barrel of beer they produce.”

The BA is up against two major players in the beer battle: the Beer Institute, which represents AB-InBev (who spent $3.8 million on lobbying in 2014), SABMiller, Deschutes, and Brooklyn Brewery; and the National Beer Wholesalers Association. Both support the BEER Act.

Despite the ongoing battle, progress with the BREW Act is being made and relationships are being forged on the Hill. Plus, what better sign of craft beer’s growing popularity—and strength—than Budweiser’s $9 million Super Bowl ad mocking microbrews? If Bud is squirming, something is going very right.

5. How Things Add Up

Much of the good news and exciting trends happening with craft beer can be best expressed with numbers. Here’s how much craft grew last year:

SALES:

  • Overall beer sales rose 0.5%
  • Craft beer sales rose 17.6%
  • The overall beer market earned $101.5 billion in retail sales, of which craft beer sales accounted for $19.6 billion (a 22% growth)
  • Craft exports rose 36%
  • Convenience-store sales up 20%

 PRODUCTION:

  • Craft beer production rose 18%, while overall beer production rose 0.5%
  • Regional craft breweries accounted for 79.2% of the total craft-industry production, with microbreweries (14.3%), brewpubs (5.3%), and contract-brewing companies (1.2%) making up the rest

GROWTH:

  • 615 craft breweries opened and 46 closed in 2014
  • 2,051 craft breweries were in planning stages at the end of 2014

Details aside, the craft-beer scene is thriving right now and the future looks brighter than ever. And that’s something all beer lovers can drink to.

Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.

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