A beer is poured at Atlas Brew Works in Washington, DC.
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Were U.S. beer sales up, flat, or in decline last year? That all depends on who you ask, and what you want to believe.
According to Chicago-based market research firm IRI, beer dollar sales at off-premise retailers grew 5.2%, to more than $37 billion, while volume sales were up 2.3% versus 2018.
However, IRI’s beer data set mostly captures scans from large chains, and includes sales of flavored malt beverages, which grew more than 43% thanks to the success of hard seltzer.
For a more complete picture of how the beer business fared in 2019, let’s consider the latest data from IWSR, a firm that provides insights on the alcoholic beverage market.
According to IWSR, total U.S. beer volumes were down 2.3% — the fourth straight year of declines. The firm also reported that for the first time in 25 years, wine volumes dipped 0.9% while distilled spirits products grew 2.3%.
However, IWSR categorizes hard seltzer within a “ready-to-drink” (RTD) set, meaning that overall beer didn’t benefit from that segment’s growth. The hard seltzer category is worth $8 billion in the U.S., according to the firm, and sales grew 50% in 2019 (according to IWSR, hard seltzers make up 43% of the RTD category).
Meanwhile, Fintech — which collects and aggregates beer, wine and spirits purchasing data from 146,000 retailers (including on-premise operators) and 4,000 distributors — recently teamed up with National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) chief economist Lester Jones for a “2019 Beer Industry Review” presentation that included a treasure trove of data from last year.
Fintech captures roughly 28% of all beer cases sold to retailers, and its assessment of beer category health is generally in-line with other data sources.
Their prognosis? Beer sales were mostly flat in 2019.
And finally, there’s information from the Beer Institute (BI), which recently reported unofficial domestic tax paid shipment estimates from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). According to those figures, U.S. brewers shipped about 1.4 million fewer barrels last year versus 2018.
Not included in the BI’s tally, however, are import figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce, which said the volume of beer shipped into the U.S. was up nearly 3% year-to-date through November.
So, back to the original question: Are U.S. beer sales up, flat, or in decline? Again, that all depends on who you ask.
I recently spoke to CANarchy chief operating officer Matt Fraser, who noted that U.S. beer volumes have been declining for about a decade. However, companies that identify “pockets of growth” can remain successful even when overall trends appear sluggish, he said.
Indeed, there are a number of growing segments within the broader beer category, including craft beer, which IRI reported was up 2.8% in 2019.
Other trending segments? Low-and-no alcohol products, hard seltzer and imports.
If you’re someone who considers hard seltzer a “beer” product – the vast majority of those offerings are made by brewers and sold in the beer aisle after all – the category looks pretty healthy.
Flavored malt beverages (FMBs), which IRI and many other industry stakeholders view as part of the beer set, were on fire in 2019. According to IRI, the off-premise market for FMBs is worth about $4 billion.
Within that segment, hard seltzers have gained 3.2 points of market share at off-premise retail and 2.4 points at on-premise retail, according to Fintech. Meanwhile, research firm Nielsen recently told industry trade publication Brewbound that off-premise dollar sales for hard seltzer increased more than 200% last year, to $1.5 billion.
Non-alcoholic beer dollar sales also grew more than 23% in 2019, according to IRI, while import beer dollar sales increased 6.1%.
For its part, IWSR reported that craft beer consumption increased 4.1% last year, while low-and-no alcohol beers grew 6.6%.
As for sales of domestic beer, those declined somewhere between 3.5% and 4.1%, depending on which source you trust.
Perhaps the NBWA’s Jones put it best during last week’s webinar when he likened the interpretation of beer data to flying a plane.
“You can have a lot of different instruments in front of you,” he said. “Having a good compass is great, and you can fine-tune that compass so you know which direction you are going, but if you don’t know what altitude you are going at, or what other planes are flying around you, you can find yourself in a bit of a mess.”