Does craft beer by any other name still taste as heady? If you listen to the megabrewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE:BUD) and Molson Coors (NYSE:TAP), so long as the beer's cold and tastes good, it doesn't matter if it's called "craft beer" or not. Craft brewers, as you might imagine, have a different outlook on it, and they're not happy about the big boys' foray onto their turf.
It's not so much that A-B is trying to pass off Budweiser as a craft beer or that Coors is changing the marketing on its Silver Bullet to suggest that some wizened brewmaster is painstakingly stirring a copper kettle to get the formula just right. Rather, it's their smaller beers like Bud's Shock Top and Coors' Blue Moon Belgian Wheat that gets the Brewers Association -- the trade group for real craft beer -- into such a froth.
A rose by any other name
The association penned an editorial yesterday slamming the giant breweries for trying to pass themselves off as small craft shops, pointing out that A-B and SABMiller control three quarters of the beer market between them. Just because they push out a few small-run brews doesn't make them craft beers, and acquiring smaller craft brewers as they have skunks the definition.
There's certainly a reason behind why the biggest brewers want to be associated with the craft beer movement. It's the only one that's really growing. The craft beer segment grew 13% in 2011 by volume and 15% in dollar terms and over the first six months of 2012 volumes are 12% higher and dollar sales are up 14%.
Boston Beer (NYSE:SAM), which arguably put the craft beer movement on the map with its Samuel Adams brand, just reported it expects 2012 earnings to be between $4.30 and $4.60 per share, up from an earlier view of $3.80 to $4.20 while analysts had expected earnings of $4.34 per share. Shares of the brewer rocketed 15% higher last week.
An industry in ferment, er, foment
It's not such a heady situation for the beer market in general, though, where the overall beer market has grown just 1.9% over the first eight months of 2012, according to the Beer Institute. Yet brewers can't really complain since sales are at least moving in the right direction: In 2011 they were down 1.5%.
Despite the apparent health of the craft brew industry -- there are more breweries in existence now than at any time since Prohibition -- it's not evenly applied. While Craft Brew Alliance (NASDAQ:BREW) saw a 21% increase in depletions of its Kona brand, Widmer Brothers dropped 9% last quarter. Its Redhook division rose 6%, but there was an overall of just 4%. While that might not seem so bad, Craft Brew is reliant upon Anheuser-Busch for its distribution, so it's not one to be whining about their presence in the industry.
Why even bother defining it?
Nor is Boston Beer, for that matter, which is only considered a "craft brewer" these days because the Brewers Association moved the definitional goal posts of what constitutes a craft brewer so that the Sam Adams maker could still qualify. Previously it had been the production of up to 2 million barrels annually would let you call yourself a craft brewer, but when Boston Beer started bumping up against that limit, it was raised to 6 million barrels.
Moreover, Boston's biggest-selling segment isn't its Sam Adams beer, but rather its hard teas and ciders (it seasonal beers have done well, too). Last quarter, the brewer reported that depletions jumped 15% on the strength of its Angry Orchard and Twisted Tea while Samuel Adams fell. They're among the fastest-growing segments it has, and both MillerCoors and A-B have acquired hard-cider makers of their own.
Tastes great, less filling
In reality, most beer drinkers don't care about such industry minutiae; they're just interested in good-tasting beer regardless of who makes it. You have your beer snobs who will turn their nose up at mass-produced "craft" beers, and who'll lump Boston Beer in with that crowd (though they'll praise Yeungling in the same breath even as it tops out Sam Adams).
There may be purity in Germany's Reinheitsgebot, the regulations that dictated what can go into beer (water, barley, and hops), but there's no such bright line here in the U.S., even among the craft brewers themselves or their mouthpieces. Heck, when even Costco (NASDAQ:COST) can get into the act and brew its own craft beer, is it really worth fighting over whether Busch and Miller are calling some of their beers "craft made?"
Rich Duprey has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Costco Wholesale and Boston Beer. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Beam, Costco Wholesale, Boston Beer, and Molson Coors Brewing. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.