Commentary

'Small Brewery Sunday' Hopes To Prevent Craft Beermakers' Real Last Call



On-premise consumption of liquor of all kinds is down significantly nationwide — but probably no one in the business is being hurt more than craft beer brewers.

For many of them, the only place for consumers to buy their products is the brewer’s taproom.  And all across America, many of them closed for months during the COVID-19 crisis.

So this year’s second-ever Small Brewery Sunday nationwide, on Nov. 29, won’t just be a chance to help the local brewpub. It may be its last chance.

“Our most recent member survey revealed only 78% of small breweries are confident that they’ll still be open at this time next year,” said Bob Pease, president and CEO, Brewers Association, the organization that serves 8,300 or so purveyors.

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Things are tough all over. Small Brewery Sunday follows Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, all filled with ugly financial ledgers this year.

The Brewers Association is mounting a national paid social media ad campaign and partnered with the geosocial beer-centric networking service Untappd to support the event.  There’s a Brewery Finder service on the SmallBrewerySunday.com. website.

There’s a sense of urgency in the campaign.  A report from Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, uses a variety of data sources that average on-premise performance of craft brewers was down 22% in Q3.

But that’s actually up significantly from Q2, when performance for brewpubs and taproom was down 45%.  

A brewer quoted in Watson’s report said, “November 2020 – February 2021 will be the ‘make it or break it’ months. Right now, we are doing well because we have considerable outside seating. Our inside seating is greatly limited due to social distancing and the number of people who will still want to go out once outside seating is no longer available or limited will drastically diminish.”

Even for bigger craft brewers that package their beer for sale in stores, Pease notes, things are grim. There’s a worldwide aluminum can shortage, and the little guys often get hit worst.

In stores, alcoholic beverage sales are way up, even in some premium categories. But in this stay-at-home environment, consumers want tried-and-true. Craft beers are both blessed and cursed by their variety of labels, styles and spotty availability.

Still, craft beers that have been distributed widely for years saw median growth of 42% for those sales. But that makes up a sliver of all craft beer sales.

And the popularity of craft beers cuts both ways, too.

A decade ago there were 1,500 or so craft brewers. The jump up to 8,300 in the years since is phenomenal.  Indeed, the SmallBrewerySunday site boasts that most Americans live within ten miles of a craft brewery. That’s not necessarily a plus.

 “There’s just too much beer out there,” Jason Mcadam, the former owner of Portland’s Burnside Brewing, told The Oregonian newspaper, months after he folded Burnside last year.  

Still, communities trying to rejuvenate themselves sometimes look for a craft brewer to provide the magic. The New Jersey Brewers Association website even has a tab, “Towns Looking for Breweries.”

 At the moment Woolwich Township, near Philadelphia, has a closed Army base it would like a brewer to help redevelop. Its sales pitch suggests “the Township believes a portion of the site is ideally suited for a Cold-War or similarly themed brewery (think Forbidden Planet, Lost/Dharma Project, etc.).”

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