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The year in beer: 2015 brought big changes to craft brew market

The year 2015 had quite a few ups and downs for craft beer. Here are a few of the biggest stories of the year with some predictions for next year:

The year of the acquisition

For the duration of its existence, the craft brewing industry has mostly avoided what many industries face constantly: acquisitions.

This year, all that changed with six American breweries selling out to larger brewing conglomerates. Back in 2011, Anheuser-Busch’s purchase of Goose Island for $38 million sent waves through the craft brewing community. The independent spirit is one of craft beer’s points of pride, and when someone as revered and respected as Goose Island sold, it felt like the first domino to fall.

It took awhile for more to follow , but the biggest one by far was San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing selling last month for a reported $1 billion to alcoholic beverage conglomerate Constellation Brands.

Breckenridge Brewery in Colorado, Lagunitas in California and Four Peaks in Arizona are other names that Texan drinkers probably recognize that sold this year. Shockingly, Colorado’s New Belgium — which is employee-owned — was mentioned as entertaining an offer. Nothing materialized on that sale, but from some of the recent news, it appears no brewery is exempt from a potential sale.

Money talks, and it’s difficult to fault a mid-size business staring at a billion-dollar check. Guaranteed, as megabrewers continue to focus on growing their craft segments, this is only the beginning.

2016 is likely to see even more, and most intriguing will be to see who will be the first in Texas to sell. It’s certainly coming.

Two fallen soldiers

Money talks for the big guys, but it also talks for the very small.

Bearded Eel in Fort Worth and Firewheel in Rowlett both shuttered their doors recently. It stands to reason that as the craft beer market continues to grow and competition increases, breweries without the right combination of cash flow, brewing ability or marketing will fall off.

Passion only goes so far, and these two brewers found out the hard way.

Colorado invasion?

In an interesting turn of events, Firewheel sold its brewery to Colorado’s Backcountry Brewery a little more than a month after closing for good. Backcountry plans to use the former Firewheel brewery as a satellite location and brew Backcountry beers distributed for the Texas market.

Also, earlier this year, Colorado’s Oskar Blues brewery announced it would be constructing a brewery in Austin. This will be its third location, as Oskar Blues opened a brewery in North Carolina in 2013.

It remains to be seen how local beer consumers will react to this pseudo-local invasion. Is it a local beer if it’s brewed here but owned by an out-of-state company? Not really, but most consumers probably won’t care either way.

Crowler Crackdown

Speaking of Oskar Blues, part of its business is selling Crowler machines that it invented with the help of the Ball Corp.

These 32-ounce cans that can be filled like a growler and sealed on site as a can have gained popularity. The Collective Brewing Project in Fort Worth was the first to get one in Texas and uses it as a significant part of its business.

They even introduced a “Crowler Club” in which patrons can purchase a membership that includes discounts on merchandise, early access to bottle releases and four Crowlers included for each month of the membership.

However, brewers aren’t the only ones with Crowler-filling machines. Locals like Lone Star Taps & Caps in Lewisville and several Austin and Houston bars were filling Crowlers for beer to-go. They got away with it for awhile until the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission caught wind and decided that filling Crowlers constituted “packaging” the beer for sale.

It’s a thin line that defines the difference between filling a temporary container like a growler with a swing or twist-on top and a vessel of the same size that seals the top in a similar manner that packaged cans undergo. It’s a manual one-at-a-time process, so it’s not really the same as how most breweries would can their beers, but it all depends on how the law is interpreted.

Ultimately, TABC ordered the practice to stop and these retailers were forced to stop selling Crowlers.

As craft beer continues to grow, these types of innovations will continue and Texas brewers and retailers will have to decide what’s important to prioritize in lobbying legislators to modify vague or restrictive laws.

Sadly, one like this is small enough that it might not see a champion for its change any time soon.

Distribution expansion

As more breweries open locally and import their beers from out-of-state, the need for distributing increases as well. Some breweries like Revolver have dug in their heels on self distribution and aren’t interested in signing with a distributor.

But for every Revolver, there are many who don’t want to hassle with managing a distributing operation along with a brewing operation.

As a result, smaller, new businesses like Sons of John Distribution and Full Clip Craft Distributors are gathering portfolios of brewers that want a smaller, more hands-on approach than larger distributors like Ben E. Keith or Andrews seemingly provide.

This is resulting in brewers from other parts of the state distributing to DFW that might not have without the existence of these smaller distributors.

Have a question or tips for Scooter?

Shoot him an email at texasbrew@dfw.com.

And for more beer columns and news, visit www.dfw.com/beer.

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