Outside of beer behemoths Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE:BUD) and Molson Coors, American consumers usually have no idea which breweries actually churn out the most product year after year. Today we're looking at the top 10 U.S. brewers in 2013 to see if we can use it to paint a more meaningful picture of the industry for beer investors.

The rankings
The good folks at the Brewers Association build this list every year based on annual sales volumes:



Popular Brands


Anheuser-Busch InBev

Budweiser, Bud Light, Lime-A-Rita



Miller Lite, Coors, Blue Moon


Pabst Brewing

PBR, Schlitz, Old Milwaukee


D.G. Yuengling & Son

Yuengling Lager, Black & Tan


Boston Beer (NYSE:SAM)

Sam Adams, Twisted Tea


North American Breweries

Genesee, Magic Hat, Pyramid


Sierra Nevada Brewing

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale


New Belgium Brewing

Fat Tire


Craft Brew Alliance (NASDAQ:BREW)

Red Hook, Kona, Widmer, Omission



Shiner, BridgePort

Source: Brewers Association.

The first two slots are not much of a surprise; again, many of us take the size and dominance of Anheuser-Busch and Coors for granted. There can only be so many mega-brewers, though, which leaves plenty of slots on this list open for craft operations like Boston Beer and Craft Brew Alliance.

What makes growth possible
Every brewer on this list is chasing growth, trying to increase their sales numbers year after year. As investors, it's important to recognize what ultimately makes that growth possible. In the beer industry, it's distribution. Without an effective distribution network, most beer stocks will fail.

Think of distributors as middlemen. After a brewer produces its beer, it sells it to the distributor, who in turn sells it to bars, restaurants, stores, even sports stadiums. In some places it is actually illegal for a brewer to sell its beverages directly to the consumer; it must go through a distributor.

So what do these distribution networks look like? Boston Beer uses 350 distributors to move its products, and the company highlighted its distribution risk in its most recent annual filing:

With few exceptions, the Company's products are not the primary brands in Distributors' portfolios. Thus, the Company, in addition to competing with other malt beverages for a share of the drinker's business, competes with other brewers for a share of the Distributor's attention, time and selling efforts. 

In other words, the brewer is beholden to the distributor. Though some of the brewers on this list -- Craft Brew Alliance, for one -- operate brew pubs where they can cut out the middleman, distributors remain vital to the long-term growth story of U.S. breweries.

This reality forms the basis of a pretty strong competitive advantage for Anheuser-Busch InBev. At 500 wholesalers -- 17 of which are owned outright -- the company's U.S. distribution network is much larger than that of Boston Beer.  Does it pay to own 17 wholesalers in markets like Boston, New York, Denver, and Los Angeles? You bet. Consider this gem from the company's annual filing: "Revenue per hectoliter derived from sales through own distribution tends to be higher than revenue derived from sales through third parties." It's just one more way Anheuser-Busch wins with distribution.

Craft Brew Alliance, despite being smaller than Boston Beer right now, is able to harness the vast power of the Anheuser-Busch network via a distribution deal with the company that gives it national distribution and "provides efficiencies in logistics and product delivery, state reporting and licensing, billing and collections." Craft Brew pays Anheuser-Busch a variety of fees in exchange for these services, and you can read more about the relationship between the two companies in Craft Brew's annual filing.

Bottom line
There are no Top 10 lists for "Best Distribution Network" and there probably never will be. It's not glamorous, but it is one of the most crucial aspects of the beer business, especially when it comes to growth. You can't grow if you can't get your beer to your customers, and investors need to remember that when it comes to evaluating the long-term prospects for beer stocks.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.