Of the many disputes in which I find myself over the state of the wine world, many come down to the difference between the view from my window and the view the other person sees when they look out of theirs. I say, for instance, that most people aren’t very interested in wine, or – in the UK at least – ready to pay very much for it, and the other person responds that he or she is daily surrounded by masses of enthusiasts eager to hand over their £20 notes. (Ok, I’m exaggerating for effect here, but you know what I mean).
And often, of course, we’re both right. The view from my window includes lots of boring-but-true statistics; the view from his includes handfuls of £20 notes.
To illustrate how we can both be right, let’s shift away from wine for a moment and look at the craft beer movement in the US. By any standards, this is a remarkable success story. From near extinction in 1979, the number of breweries has grown to nearly 3,000.
More recent statistics put the number at closer to 2,400
According to the US Brewers Association statistics I’ve reprinted below, the sector is continuing to grow – at over 15% pa, is worth over $10bn in retail sales and employs over 100,000 people.
This is all very exciting, but to put it into context, craft beers still only represent 6.5% of US beer sales. This may well continue to grow, but will it exceed 10%? I happen to love interesting beer and applaud this explosion in the number of US breweries that produce it (the British market share is still only around 2%), but looking through my window, I cannot ignore the fact that over 9 in ten glasses of beer are not full of craft beer. And that figure is not likely to change radically in the next few years.
It’s possible to thrive in niches; those 2,000+ craft breweries may be very profitable – or at least some of them will be, especially the half that sell their brews over the bar. But craft beer is still a niche. Like “serious” wine. And to overestimate its importance to the mass of consumers makes no more sense than to overestimate the influence a minority political party may have on the way a country is run.
In Britain, this is particularly relevant to some of the overly enthusiastic talk about UK “independent” retailers, a part of the market whose influence is probably remarkably similar to US craft brewers on the other side of the water.
FACTS FROM THE US BREWERS ASSOCIATION – MARCH 2013
Craft Brewing Facts
Other U.S. Brewing Industry Facts