The craft beer bubble is bursting. Yes, you’ve probably read similar alarmist pieces by industry outsiders for years, but trust me on this one–it is happening, and it is going to be brutal. Hopes and dreams are going to die, people are going to lose their jobs, and multi-million dollar operations are going to change hands or simply go under. It is already happening.
This is the result of several factors.
- An open market that was not competitive enough. There are many breweries started in the 90’s and 00’s by founders who may have been creative but were not good business people. It was too easy to exceed, with double-digit sales growth every year. Unfortunately a lot of people either made bad decisions with far-reaching consequences during the tail end of this period (2013-2015) or are unequipped to run a company in today’s ultra-competitive market.
- Over-leveraged breweries. This ties into the first. If you expanded production via debt, basing future payments on future growth, you are in a lot of trouble. See Green Flash. The worst situation to be in is to need to get more tanks to brew more beer to stay open. It’s like burning down your house to stay warm.
- Too much beer. Too many SKUs, not enough lines. There is so much beer being produced, you simply cannot pump money into sales reps in order to sell your beer at this point. It doesn’t work anymore. Good representation just cannot win territories outside your home market anymore. There are too many choices, and local is too powerful a force to fight. You need to sell a certain amount of beer with no effort, and if you have a multi-state footprint, this gets extremely difficult.
- The advent of hyper-local breweries and brewery releases. Smaller breweries are putting out fresh releases every week, with beer that is just plain better than lower-cost traditional beers sitting on warm shelves. Together, enough of these make up a lot of bricks in a very hard wall to scale as a larger, distribution-focused brewery.
- The advent of New England IPA. I haven’t seen anything written about how totally disruptive this has been to the beer industry. In an instant, west coast IPA became irrelevant in the beer geek world. Every brewery that built their house on west coast had the rug pulled out from underneath them. I could write an entire post on this subject, but I made the decision to pivot to brewing hazy IPA back in 2016, the first time I tried a Tree House beer. It’s a style with limited shelf life, expensive cost of goods sold, and is very difficult for larger breweries to pivot to. As of right now, there is huge demand for it (sorry angry old heads, it’s not a fad) and it is here to stay as a sought-after style.
The first sign of the times was 2016, when Stone laid off a bunch of employees. That should have been a glass of cold water in the face of many people. But it’s far from over. In the past year, three of my colleagues who worked for three different big breweries lost their jobs, when their entire sales forces were laid off. Distributors are having down months, many for the first time ever. You can’t spend a bunch of money to sell a product with slim margins. The success of beer depended on the fact that it was relatively easy to sell, and turning up the heat in the market is causing those margins to evaporate. The worst part of this is there are many jobs that are just not going to exist anymore, especially on the rep side, and good people who dedicated years of their life to an industry could be left high and dry.
OK, so you’re prepared for all this or none of those apply to you. Great! You should still be preparing to sell less beer. When I say this, I don’t mean this month, this year, or next year, necessarily. You may be in the middle of surging growth for your brewery, but for God’s sake, don’t make the same mistake that a lot of larger, older breweries made. Recognize your growth for what it is, and take advantage of it now. Sell as much beer with minimal effort as you can, while it lasts.
Why would it end? It’s always going to, because beer drinkers are fickle, and novelty is fleeting. Basically, when you’re new or expanding, your beer is sought after because it is new/new to the area. You don’t need a rep beating down doors to sell it. But inevitably, one of two things will happen. The novelty will wear off and some new beer or brewery will become available, and you’ll lose volume. Or you will up production/demand will decrease to the point that your product is no longer rare, which was its selling point to a lot of people. See many many breweries/beers that used to be a huge deal.
What’s really amazing is that the IP/brands from larger, older breweries could be worth LESS in some cases than a new hazy IPA brewer that hasn’t even opened yet. I was just looking at a brand new brewery on Instagram that already has 20k followers and is selling out of hazecans from day one.
The main thing you can do to prepare is to make hay while the sun shines and plan to shrink or stay flat in the future. This applies to hyped up breweries, too. Brewery can releases function because of the novelty and scarcity of the styles. That is not sustainable. The biggest mistake new breweries that are performing well right now could do is take all this for granted. The more difficult and costly way to adapt is to control more points of sale. You can already see this with Ballast Point’s burgeoning restaurants, and also with Veil and Other Half opening more locations. I see beers on tap at bars that a year ago never would have had a prayer at getting a keg from the brewery. The hype era is cooling down, but people still need to sell beer. That puts even more pressure on older, larger breweries, as can release-focused breweries begin to sell their beer in distribution.
If you’ve read all this and think I’m exaggerating or you know better, I can promise you I am not lying to you. We sell a small amount of beer in distribution, not even close to enough to pay the bills. It’s easy to sell ten kegs a week, but it gets exponentially harder to sell more. If you are a new brewery and can’t hit that minimum 75/25 split for taproom volume to distro, you are going to be in trouble. We were 90/10 for a while, but since we increased production way beyond what we planned to, we’ve been hitting 75/25.
Let’s also talk about taprooms. They are not the automatic cash cows people think. They were three or four years ago, when all you had to do was exist and make passable beer. Now, you need great beer, community involvement, events, good ambiance, great service, new can releases, and food. All that costs money, and it’s a ton of work. We’ve had six years to learn and fine-tune, but if you’re just entering the market, you have a nearly impossibly steep learning curve ahead. Why is that? Because you have to do the same or even better than established breweries. Customer habits are getting set. People didn’t leave Facebook for Google+, and they aren’t going to leave their preferred taprooms to go to new breweries unless the experience is better.
In a lot of aspects, I think I am extremely lucky to be in the position we are today. Our slow growth protected us from making some very bad decisions. We stayed small and have been able to adapt. We didn’t get caught up in the distribution boom or can release boom, but have instead built a real income base that is unlikely to change over time because it is ultimately based on local people that like a good beer and taco. Yes, we do can releases every week, but most of our customers don’t follow us on Instagram and just know that they like our place. I believe this will continue, because we haven’t stayed complacent, and complacency kills businesses.
I have poured everything into this. It’s not a retirement dream. I absolutely need to succeed, because if it fails, so do I. That’s why I will fight tooth and nail for it. Whatever lies ahead, I hope to be prepared to weather any storm.