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Good times for the craft brewers

There’s a lot more growth to come for the craft brewing industry.

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Texas’ smaller craft breweries increased production last year by nearly half and made deeper gains in the overall beer market, suggesting the industry’s growth spurt will continue.

“Yes, this is a long-term trend,” said Charles Vallhonrat, executive director of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild. “Do I think we’re approaching a saturation point? No.”

The guild on Tuesday is releasing figures showing Texas craft breweries made 833,191 barrels of beer in 2013, an increase of 17.6 percent. When the Spoetzel Brewery in Shiner, maker of Shiner Bock and other widely distributed beers, is excluded from the list, the remaining crafts saw their production mushroom by 44.3 percent, to a combined 265,958 barrels.

Biggest among this group of 98 breweries is Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Co., which expects to brew at least 65,000 barrels as it commemorates its 20th anniversary this year.

A barrel of beer would fill 55 six-packs of 12-ounce cans or bottles.

“That’s what people think of beer now,” Saint Arnold founder Brock Wagner said of the public’s evolving attitude. “It’s not just mass-produced light lager.”

[…]

As a percentage of the total beer market, the craft numbers seem tiny. Last year, the 98 smaller crafts that reported to the Brewers Association trade group produced 1.36 percent of the beer sold in Texas.

But that is up from 0.93 percent a year earlier. Vallhonrat said the rapid increase proves demand is growing, while the small market share indicates there is plenty of room for growth. Even including the much larger Spoetzel brewery, Texas craft beer accounted for less than 5 percent of the beer consumed in Texas.

“Texas is just a really big, big beer market,” he said. “There’s tremendous opportunity for growth in Texas.”

The Brewers Association reports that U.S. craft production rose 18 percent last year, to 15.6 million barrels. The Texas guild notes that means Texas produced 5.3 percent of the total.

The guild hopes to mirror the Brewers Association’s goal of doubling U.S. market share by 2020. On a national level, bolstered by record numbers of new breweries and the emergence of several very large players in the craft segment, that would mean increasing market share to 20 percent by that year.

“As the BA doubles, we’d expect this number (in Texas) to double as well,” Vallhonrat said.

The fact that the craft brewers’ overall share of the market is still in the one percent range shows the potential for more growth. There are still tons of beer drinkers out there that haven’t really given the non-major alternatives a try. I don’t know what the saturation point is, but I feel confident as well that it’s a fair bit higher than this.

The big dog of craft brewers in Houston, Saint Arnold, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, and they get a feature story on their history and outlook to help celebrate it.

As Wagner likes to joke, in 1994 he had a great idea for a business in 2006. Except for a hard-core group of enthusiasts, many of them homebrewers, most of them male, college-educated and in their 30s or 40s, consumers were initially reluctant to part with their light, familiar beers in large numbers.

“It took 20 years to teach everybody who had forgotten what beer was like,” Wagner said.

In 1996, Wagner and original business partner Kevin Bartol, both former investment bankers, predicted in the Houston Chronicle that they would be making 100,000 barrels within a decade. In reality, sales flattened at just over the 5,000-barrel mark for the next few years.

Twelve years later, production exceeded 20,000 barrels for the first time.

Wagner stuck it out, buying out Bartol, repurchasing shares from initial investors and building Saint Arnold into an iconic local brand through its Saturday tours, pub crawls and an array of community fundraising projects. His and Bartol’s goal from the beginning, he says, was to make the best beer possible and to build a company that Houston and the state of Texas would be proud of.

By late 2009, business was booming and Saint Arnold was constrained only by physical space. That’s when Wagner moved his brewery into a renovated warehouse overlooking downtown, even though it would’ve been cheaper to buy a custom-built building outside the city center. But again, he said he wanted to create a community gathering point. Again, his decision paid off.

Wagner took on investors to raise enough capital to convert the century-old warehouse into a modern brewing facility with a huge beer hall that serves lunch daily, packs in crowds during tours and special events and is rented out for private parties. The brewery attracts an estimated 100,000 visitors annually.

The new digs also significantly increased capacity. Production is expected in the range of 65,000 to 70,000 barrels this year, boosted not only by consumer demand but also by changes in state law last year that Wagner had pushed for over several legislative sessions. Those production numbers are expected to continue to grow.

Read the whole thing, it’s a nice story about a great local business. I don’t remember exactly when I first discovered Saint Arnold beers, but it was back when their Saturday tours were free and a lot smaller than they are now. I never liked the taste of the big mass-produced beers, and after coming to Houston and becoming acquainted with Shiner while I was at Rice, I never looked back. I’ve been delighted by the success of the small brewers, and as you know I was extremely pleased by the long-awaited passage last year of legislation to help free up their operations. There’s still work to be done in that regard – one item on their wish list is being able to sell bottled beer to customers on their premises – but we’re making progress. This KUHF story on Saint Arnold’s 20th anniversary sums it up in a pithy little way:

A 2012 study prepared by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild puts the industry’s economic impact on the state at more than $600 million per year. The trade group says that’s likely to increase nearly tenfold by 2020. That’s thanks in part to reforms passed by the Texas legislature last year, loosening the state’s restrictions on marketing and distribution for small brewers.

Scott Metzger, founder of San Antonio-based Freetail Brewing, recently addressed the House Economic & Small Business Development Committee on behalf of the Brewers Guild. He says more reforms are needed to help Texas brewers to compete with those in other states.

“Just to make it clear, if the breweries of Texas were regulated by the laws of California, we would be worth more,” Metzger testified.

Take that, Rick Perry.

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