As Craft Beer Gets Bigger, Will It Become More Like Big Beer? Or Perhaps Wine?

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After another year of huge growth, it’s clear that craft beer is big business—perhaps too big, or at least too snobby.

The Brewers Association, which represents “small” American breweries that produce less than six million barrels annually, proudly announced that craft beer had a terrific 2012. Across the board, craft beer numbers were up: 18% more breweries in the U.S., 15% more beer produced by volume, a 17% increase in sales, and a whopping rise of 72% in American craft beer exports.

Overall, beer sales by volume increased just 1% in 2012. Sales of traditional mass-produced beer in the U.S. have basically remained flat for several years, giving the impression that if consumers are drinking more beer, they’re probably turning to craft beverages. Drinkers even seem to be shying away from the usual beer options on chug-happy holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, when beer sales declined by 4% over the weekend at bars, compared to last year.

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All that said, craft beer still accounts for a small portion of the market. A little over 10% of all U.S. dollars spent on beer is directed to craft brews, and in 2012 6.5% of the total volume of beer purchased in the U.S. was craft, up from 5.7% in 2011.

Yet as the craft beer movement gets bigger, will it come to resemble “big beer”? Already, the definition of craft beer is blurring. In 2010, the Brewers Association tweaked its definition of a craft brewery from one that produces a maximum of two million barrels annually, to one that brews no more than six million barrels per year. That change allowed the Sierra Nevadas and the Samuel Adams of the world to be able to still claim the craft beer label, probably for some time to come. Still, these aren’t exactly the kind of tiny mom-and-pop companies one normally associates with the term “craft.”

What’s more, the beer industry’s true giants have been muddling the market further by producing “crafty” beers like Blue Moon and Shock Top. They’re made by MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev, respectively, though you’d never know it based on their craft-beer-like labels—which don’t state prominently the huge corporation responsible for the brand.

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Going forward, indie brewers may struggle if they get too big and start losing their funky, artisanal appeal, or just if the giant beer corporations manage to steal their thunder by producing brews that win over drinkers with decent “crafty” taste and affordable prices.

Speaking of which, another risk for craft beer is that it becomes too expensive. The New York Times recently reported on the trend to sell craft beer in 750-milliter bottles. Not because the beer tastes better that way, but because marketers think consumers are more willing to pay more for beer if it comes in a wine-like bottle:

“A wine consumer in general accepts pricing stratification for 750 milliliters,” [Dogfish Head CEO Sam] Calagione said. “They understand that an amazing bottle of merlot can cost three times as much as a bad bottle of merlot.”

But if they do the math, they’ll also realize that the price-per-ounce in a bigger bottle can be double that of beer purchased as a six-pack. The bigger bottles also turn some beer drinkers off because they don’t necessarily want to drink that much in one sitting, especially not if it’s a dark, heavy brew.

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Most likely, the mainstream will stick with mainstream, working-class, easy-drinking beers that are reasonably priced, as one industry insider told NPR:

“This is a very middle-class beverage, [a] working-class beverage,” says Chris Thorne, a spokesman for the Beer Institute, the largest beer industry trade group. “So what a lot of people are looking for is what’s affordable.”

What else are drinkers look for in a beer nowadays? The answer’s very subjective, which hopefully means that beer drinkers will continue to have a huge number of options to select from, from the palest Coors Light to richest small-batch stout. There are even new beers based on the HBO show “Game of Thrones,” and on the input from legendary heavy metal band Iron Maiden. Rock (and drink) on.