Over the past year or so, there's been a fair amount of public speculation that the craft-beer category might be peaking. In December, Business Insider published a decidedly cautionary outlook for the craft industry. Two other independent sources signaled more caution. GuestMetrics reported 2013 on-premise craft beer sales up just 3.8%, slowing and well below the rate for off-premise retail stores. Even more striking, Restaurant Sciences, reported a 4% drop in craft-beer sales in a single quarter in their monitored restaurant/bar sample. These on-premise trend reports fueled the growing unease. For good reason.
Any proven weakening in on-premise sales--where these beers have been riding a consistent upward trend for years-- would be particularly unsettling to craft brewers. As beer sales folks know, ordering a beer at the bar, or in a restaurant, is the most brand-conspicuous buying moment. Unlike the retail store-shelf, brand-calls at the bar are least influenced by price, most influenced by what the drinker believes his public beer-choice says about him. So, on-premise is where beer brands always weaken first.
Until now, if you'd asked craft brewers who their competition is, they pretty much would've all responded the same way. Something like: "The cr@p sold by Big Beer." And they would've been right, at least about the Big Beer part. Because until now, craft beers were blissfully free to concentrate on one collective competitive set: the mega-brands.
As a result, craft brewers were also free to devote little, if any, energy to battling each other. They were a happy band of like-minded Davids, merry allies at war with the evil, monolithic, Big Beer Goliath. And to the delight of many pundits, these Davids were winning. But to mix metaphors a bit, a good part of their momentum lay beneath the surface, where a rising craft-beer tide was lifting all the Davids in the same boat at once.
Now comes an in-market claxon that one important David is abandoning the happy-boat.
New Sam Adams ad calls out IPAs, porters, stouts, brown ales among "beers (that) have come and... gone"
The TV ad below does not appear on the Sam Adams website. But it has run on the MLB Network. It was captured off-the-air and subsequently posted on YouTube. That's why the sound is tinny and the picture's a little hazy. Clear as can be, however, is the distinctly competitive message: Sam Adams, by far the largest and most successful David of them all, is firing a marketing cannonball at other craft beers that have come to market since the 1980s.
Talk about rocking the boat.
"Small" is no guarantee of "good"
In marketing as in nature, no upward trend lasts forever. Brand-to-brand competition is the natural path to weed out the inefficient, the less desirable, and the redundant options in any market. Even the most rabid aficionado will admit there are craft-beer brands that don't deserve to live. The market, in its natural progression toward maturity, will take care of that.
Competition is why America saw some 700 brewers disappear since Prohibition. And competition is why a significant number of today's craft brewers will inevitably go the same way. For now, though-- to paraphrase a hero of the American Revolution who doesn't yet have a beer named after him-- the fight has only just begun.