By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Buyouts. Closures. Startups. The roller coaster of Oregon’s brewing industry has seen more twists and turns than ever lately. As we start 2018, it’s time to take a good hard look at what this year and the next few might look like for craft beer in this state. And there’s no better person to talk with than Patrick Emerson. The Oregon State University economist also produces and co-hosts the “Beervana” podcast with Jeff Alworth, and his research focuses on development, labor economics, industrial organization and applied microeconomics. He offered his thoughts on where the industry is going — and whether or not there’s cause for alarm.
What is your outlook for 2018 through 2020, especially for Oregon’s craft beer industry?
The future is still very bright, but markets are now maturing — particularly Oregon — and in these markets competition is increasing and the pressure that this creates is starting to result in exits from the market. I expect this dynamic to increase in the next few years. There are still a lot of new breweries opening up, but not all will be successful and some more established breweries will exit as well. A good example is The Commons Brewery in Portland, an established brewery with an excellent reputation recently called it quits.
Why are new Oregon craft breweries growing more than more established ones?
In most industries, smaller businesses tend to have faster growth than bigger, more established ones. In craft beer there is definitely a novelty effect where new breweries have a certain buzz, which helps propel sales and growth. What we are seeing more and more nationally is the larger legacy craft brewers like Sierra Nevada, Widmer and Boston Beer Company are finding it harder to sustain sales, let alone continue to grow as they face intense local competition from newer brewers. The old model of growing through the focus on a flagship beer is starting to fade as the industry becomes more and more fad-driven.
What is driving craft beer’s current growth?
Innovation and novelty is a big part, but the artisanal nature of craft beer plays a big role, too. Consumers want some kind of personal connection to the beer. They want to know about who makes it, are proud of local beer and are interested in new and unique experiences. Macro brewers cannot offer any of that.
What does the merger-and-acquisition trend of the past few years portend?
The hurricane has subsided as the overall growth has slowed a little and as the macro brewers have grown fairly large portfolios of regional craft breweries. There is less of an incentive for venture capital and less of a need for companies like AB InBev to find more breweries to acquire.
How much do people care about who owns a brewery?
It has less to do with ownership and more to do with beer. Yes, there is a small percentage of consumers who really care a lot (and know enough about the industry to know who owns whom), but I don’t think this is very significant. More significant is great beer at a good price. If breweries with large corporate owners can maintain quality while leveraging the scale and distribution that corporate ownership can provide to keep prices low, I think the consumers will be there.
Are we reaching a point where there will be a brewery shakeout? What factors do you think will cause craft breweries to close up shop in the next couple of years?
I would not characterize it as a shakeout, but there will be a lot more breweries going out of business simply due to the maturation of the market. The breweries that are more likely to close are those with inconsistent quality, poor business acumen, are overly leveraged and/or fail to gain traction with their brand. All pretty standard factors, but the window for really gaining traction with a brand is becoming smaller and smaller as so many brands proliferate. It is going to become more and more important that brewers do the job of telling their stories and helping consumers connect with their brands.
How is increased shelf space competition forcing breweries to rethink distribution?
When there is a distributor in the middle, many breweries are relying on these folks to tell their stories and try to get shelf space and tap handles. But distributors represent many brands now. Breweries are really going to need to do more personal outreach to retailers and pubs. Distribution is tricky, but many breweries are doing self-distribution for this reason.
Should Oregon expect to see more growth in urban markets, such as Portland or Eugene/Springfield, or are we going to see more breweries opening in rural areas and small towns?
We will see both. Smaller towns have relatively untapped markets (pun intended). Bigger cities have established markets and are exciting places for brewers to be — not to mention all of the brewers currently getting on-the-job training whose dream is to have their own brewery someday.
How much attention will Oregon craft breweries give international markets?
This will continue to be a very minor market for most craft brewers, especially as transport costs are high and local craft beer is growing in those markets as well.
Is the industry healthy, and how should breweries steer the ship?
People should not view brewery closings as a sign of a market in trouble, but the sign that the market has matured. This is good for consumers: it will result in higher average quality and consistency and lower prices. For breweries, however, the market is going to demand a high degree of discipline: good and consistent beer, good brand management, good business acumen and tighter margins.
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