Despite the recent explosion of breweries, craft beer festivals, and events like North Texas Beer Week (which continues ’til this Sunday, folks), the vast majority of Americans still spring for sometimes watery lagers churned out by multinational conglomerates.
After three years of writing our weekly online beer column (On Tap in Fort Worth), I’ve learned that craft beer breweries add a helluva lot to Fort Worth’s quality of life. But, like jazz, not everyone is going to dig it. Whether your sixer boasts a Budweiser or Rahr & Sons logo, this roundup of what’s new in the always mercurial brew market should be of interest to all you hopheads out there.
Beeronomics 101: If Adam Smith penned The Wealth of Nations today, he’d probably save a chapter for beer. The overall U.S. beer market saw nearly $112 billion in sales last year, according to the craft beer trade group the Brewers Association. That’s about as much as liquor and wine combined. Americans spent a record $26 billion on craft suds last year, and the total number of breweries in this country recently topped 7,000. Those numbers are encouraging, but there is a concurrent, paradoxical trend within U.S. drinking culture — Americans are consuming less and less beer. A 2016 report released by the national trade association the Beer Institute reported, “Although total volume declined very slightly in 2015, beer’s growth in consumer spending indicates strong health in the U.S. market.”
It should be noted that retail sales continue to rise. Rabbit Hole Brewing head brewer Matt Morriss theorized that craft beer converts were guzzling less watery beers and opting to sip heavier artisan brews instead. That’s my guess as well. The rise of retail sales amid a slightly declining production volume suggests that Americans are increasingly opting for pricier craft beers over cheaper macrobrews. No one in the beer industry seems to have a definitive answer at the moment, though.
Getting Political: Like other large markets, the beer industry is susceptible to unexpected market shifts and collateral damage from political maneuverings. The escalating trade war between our orange-frocked head of state and China has unsettled aluminum commodities in recent months. The Beer Institute, which represents both craft breweries and macrobrewers, recently announced that Donald Trump’s tariffs will cost the U.S. beer industry around $350 million a year. Ironically, the alarm over aluminum prices comes on the heels of a legislative victory for the craft beer industry. Last year’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act included a two-year reduction in the federal excise taxes paid by beer breweries. One local brewery cofounder told me the tax cuts meant his business has an extra “$4,000 for staffing and new equipment.”
Given the volatile political environment, few were surprised when the Brewers Association announced last month that it plans to form a political action committee with the expressed purpose of ensuring the craft beer tax breaks don’t expire at the end of 2019. Texas Brewers Association, which represents microbreweries in the Lone Star State, formed a PAC earlier this year. Charles Vallhonrat, Texas Brewers Association executive director, recently told me that his group formed the PAC to combat the heavy political sway of distributors and macrobrewers, which donate heavily to Texas politicians. The new committee, CraftPAC, aims to loosen antiquated Texas beer laws, such as the restriction that breweries cannot sell beer to-go.
Beer has traditionally been defined by its four constituent ingredients: grain, hops, yeast, and water. That definition, however, may become obsolete as brewers across the country experiment with marijuana-derived ingredients, kombucha, and ciders. The job of defining “craft beer” falls on the Brewers Association. The craft beer trade group has occasionally tweaked that definition, often to ensure that larger members like Samuel Adams can still claim the moniker.
Eric Wallace, Brewers Association board chair, recently emailed the trade group’s members to say they are considering dropping “traditional” from the standing definition that craft beer include “traditional ingredients.”
Nearly half of Brewers Association members recently polled said they would consider producing beer that contains CBD or THC, he added.