The health of the craft-beer industry has been a cause of concern this year, because volumes that had been growing at double-digit rates for years have slowed dramatically in 2016. While craft beer now accounts for 12% of all the beer produced in the U.S., some 24 million barrels in all, the Brewers Association industry trade group says it expects production volumes to widen by just 8% in 2016, down from almost 13% a year ago.
Yet in other respects the industry has never looked healthier. There were more than 4,300 breweries operating at the end of last year, 4,225 of them craft breweries. That's more than at any other time in the country's history, and there are hundreds more planning on opening.
Losing its head
The real problem lies with the biggest names in the business. Boston Beer (NYSE:SAM) reports that sales of its flagship Samuel Adams brand are causing depletions to tumble as the year goes on, and now they're expected to fall as much as 6% for the full year, worse than the 4% projection it previously made. Craft Brew Alliance (NASDAQ:BREW) is having similar troubles, with depletions of brands such as Widmer Brothers and Redhook plunging by 20% or more, though Kona, its biggest brand, rose by 18% in the latest period.
Even Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE:BUD), whose own small-batch beers wouldn't be counted among the Brewers Association's numbers because they don't meet the qualifications to be a "craft beer," were also causing the brewer's numbers to fall. A-B reported that third-quarter volumes were down 2.5% and sales to retailers were off 2.6% because of a calendar change for the July 4 holiday as well as the slowdown in the craft-beer industry.
Yet as has been noted before, small craft breweries are still seeing fantastic growth, with sales still up well into the double-digit percentage range. With such heady growth still being enjoyed among the industry's smallest players, it's not surprising that Draft magazine found its 25 top beers for 2016 among them. They're still a robust group, and they, not the large, mass-produced beers, are the brews people continue to buy and enjoy.
I'll drink to that!
Choosing the "best" of anything is a difficult task, and when it comes to beer it's a highly subjective one, and with so many good ones out there it's an even harder job, though they don't deserve your pity -- it's a challenge we should all be lucky enough to have.
This year, though, Draft said its top beers were somewhat different from those chosen in the past, in that where they had previously selected new styles, this time around they "relished in a deepening and broadening of the types of beer we've celebrated in the past." Still, the brews were all new or newly packaged over the past 12 months.
Check out the preceding link for the full list of 25 beers for 2016, but here in no particular order are five of Draft magazine's top craft-beer choices.
- Angel of Darkness by Wicked Weed Brewing. Described as a sherry barrel-aged wild ale with boysenberries, raspberries, blackberries, and cherries, Angel of Darkness was held up as an example of how to do subtlety properly. The liquor barrel flavors didn't overpower, allowing the fruit additions to shine through.
- OVB Orange Cream Pop IPA by Bolero Snort Brewery. A fruit-flavored IPA with orange zest, lactose, and vanilla beans, Draft says Bolero hit it out of the park by melding flavors to give it "vivid melted creamsicle qualities" that aren't overpowering.
- Royal Oil by Bull & Bush Brewery. This whiskey barrel-aged English barleywine took its time getting to market, having been brewed for more than a decade before being bottled over winter. At 13% alcohol by volume, this beer is made to be sipped like a fine sherry, not chugged.
- Gin Barrel Nocturn Chrysalis by Jester King Brewery. A gin barrel-aged wild ale with blackberries, the 7.5% ABV beer infuses the beverage with all the flavors of beer, gin, and the barrel, which imparts wine-like notes.
- Amante by Superstition Meadery. Not a craft beer, but rather a mead -- a fermented honey drink more like a wine. The beverage is one of the fastest growing in the country, and meaderies are sprouting up everywhere. Amante is a mead aged in cinnamon, coffee beans, cocoa nibs, and, for "soft earthiness," roasted chiles.
As this abbreviated list shows, there is a wide variety of brews being created that run the gamut of ingredients, flavors, and styles, and the broader list expands on those. There are a number of IPAs that took the draft in new directions, and various levels of alcohol content that ran from typical to potent. Underneath it all, though, it shows the craft-beer industry remains vibrant as ever.