Marketwatch.com

Forecast for 2017: Craft Beer Turf Wars

The number of craft breweries continues to grow rapidly, while the growth of the craft sector is slowing. Which means something has to give.

Jason Notte of Marketwatch.com predicts that 2017 will be the year of the turf war; there will be less mergers-and-acquisitions activity and more competition among breweries to claim shelf space.

This could be the year that craft breweries lay off workers and make other cuts in an effort to trim costs. Industry leader Boston Beer Company has been hit hard by shrinking sales of Samuel Adams Boston Lager; the company’s shares have tumbled 50 percent from their 2015 high.

We’re also likely to see more breweries bring in private-equity firms. Already this year, Victory Brewing Company and Southern Tier Brewing Company have formed such partnerships with such firms.

And we’re likely to see smaller brewers focus on taproom traffic and food sales and avoid the battle to get their products on store shelves and on bar and restaurant menus.

Notte believes that Oskar Blues is the brewery to watch because it has been the craft sector’s trend-setter for years. The brewery was the first to can its beers and the first to build a second facility in the eastern United States. Two years ago, it kicked off the private-equity trend when it sold a majority interest to Fireman Capital. It then used some of that money to acquire craft breweries in Michigan, Florida, and Texas; the latter two states are considered underserved beer markets. Oskar Blues also borrowed from the big national brewers’ playbook. It rolled out more mainstream beers, sponsored sporting events, and put an emphasis on brand recognition.

Notte concludes, “Whether drinkers benefit from [this] turf war or become victims of it remains to be seen.”

Craft Brewing’s Growing Pains

In the last couple of months, MarketWatch.com’s Jason Notte has seen disquieting trends in the craft beer industry:

  • Craft Brew Alliance’s Redhook brand announced layoffs at its Woodinville, Washington, brewery. The Woodinville plant is contract-brewing for Pabst Brewing Company, but the Pabst business accounts for only 30 percent of its capacity.
  • Stone Brewing Company, headed by fiercely independent CEO Greg Koch, admitted that it had received $90 million in private equity financing and would lend the Stone name to a hotel. It, too, is cutting jobs.
  • And homebrew supply retailer Northern Brewer has agreed to be acquired by than Anheuser-Busch InBev.
  • Notte doesn’t think these developments mean the craft beer bubble has burst. He writes:

    “If anything, it all begrudgingly recognizes that the players in all tiers of the beer industry have found themselves in the same predicament: Running a business in an environment where constant growth isn’t a given and where big decisions are often followed by unintended fallout.”

    The Significance of Snoop Dogg v. Pabst

    The legal battle between rapper Snoop Dogg and Pabst Brewing Company might sound like tabloid material, but the case is putting the spotlight on financing deals that have become increasingly common in the craft beer industry.

    Snoop Dogg contends that his agreement to promote Colt .45 contained a “phantom equity” clause: if Colt .45 were sold, he’d become a 10-percent owner of the brand. Pabst, which owns Colt .45 and numerous other brands, was sold last year. Pabst’s new owners told the judge that the sale changed “control” of Colt .45, but not its ownership—which was, and still is, Pabst. The case will be tried before a jury this fall.

    Marketwatch.com’s Jason Notte urges would-be buyers of craft breweries to do their homework or else face the possibility of a similar lawsuit. He points out that a number of craft breweries, some of them worth hundreds of millions of dollars, have legal obligations to meet in the event of a sale. For example, employees own a substantial number of shares of New Belgium Brewing Company, whose estimated valuation well over $1 billion. If New Belgium is ever sold, its employees are in line for a big payday.

    At least New Belgium’s ownership structure is straightforward. That isn’t the case of some other craft breweries, which are part of larger holding companies, controlled by private equity funds, or both. If those breweries have outstanding agreements like the Snoop Dogg contract, there are tricky questions as to what transactions would trigger the obligation to pay—and who actually has to write the check—after a sale occurs.

    Which brings us back to Snoop Dogg. Notte observes, “Snoop’s case against Pabst could set a precedent for how breweries in those umbrella portfolios are treated, and how they can treat their employees, investors and contractors, in the future.”

    Big Wins for Small Brewers

    As expected, the U.S. Justice Department has approved the merger between Anheuser-Busch InBev and SAB Miller. However, MarketWatch.com’s Jason Notte reports that the Brewers Association, which represents craft brewers, won major concessions from the government:

    • A-B, which sells 10 percent of beer through company-owned distributors, can’t acquire any more distributors.
    • A-B  can’t require independent distributors to drop competing brands, and can’t offer incentives that would reward distributors for giving A-B brands preferential.
    • Any future craft brewery acquisitions by A-B must first receive Justice Department approval.

    Notte attributes the craft brewers’ win to the Brewers Association’s paying more attention to government relations. The BA has hired a full-time lobbyist in Washington; and, earlier this year, it flew craft brewery executives to the capital to ask members of Congress for tax relief.

    According to Notte, state capitals will become the next battleground, now that states–even thouse as small as North Dakota–have enough craft brewers to form a trade association. Some of the issues these associations will raise include bars selling tap handles to the highest bidders, supermarkets putting distributors in charge of choosing their inventory, and limits on the number of liquor licenses.

    Goose Island and the Domino Effect

    Five years ago, Goose Island Beer Company announced that it would be acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev. John Hall, Goose Island’s founder, stayed on as an A-B InBev employee. He was put in charge of the company’s craft and import division. That division, now called High End, followed the Goose Island precedent and began buying craft breweries. There are now eight in High End’s portfolio.

    There was another member of the Hall family to Goose Island: John Hall’s son, Greg. He left Goose Island after the sale and opened Virtue Cider on a farm in Michigan. Demand for the cider overwhelmed Virtue’s inefficient packaging equipment. Greg Hall wound up selling a controlling stake in Virtue to A-B InBev. The deal also allows Virtue to save on capital expenses; it uses Goose Island’s bottling and kegging operation in Chicago and thus doesn’t have to buy its own equipment.

    Jason Notte of Marketwatch.com recently spoke with the Halls just a few weeks before the fifth anniversary of the Goose Island sale and discussed “life afterward, the changes that have occurred in both the craft beer and cider markets since and what the sale meant to Virtue Cider and other A-B InBev High End offerings”. The interview is on the lengthy side, but definitely worth reading

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