PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The small brewer is on the rise in the United States, no matter what name you refer to it by.
There were roughly 80 brewers in the U.S. in the early 1980s and about 1,600 breweries in America back in 2009. According to the Brewers Association craft beer industry group, there are more than 2,500 breweries in the United States today, with more on the way.
The Brewers Association craft beer group credits most of that growth to "craft" brewers, who saw sales grow 15% in volume and 17% in dollars last year even as the entire beer industry grew by less than 1.5% after years of post-recession losses. Meanwhile, "craft" beer's retail value hit $10 billion for the first time in 2012.
Yet that includes only the breweries the Brewers Association considers "craft" under its pedantic and ever-changing definition of the term. Of the nation's 2,538 breweries, the association says only 2,480 are "craft." That leaves 58 brewers who fall outside that definition.The nation's two largest brewers -- Anheuser-Busch InBev and SAB Miller/MolsonCoors joint venture MillerCoors -- are obviously out. Just as well: A-B has seen sales slump since the start of the recession and ended its string of bad luck last year with a scant 0.7% sales uptick. MillerCoors, meanwhile, saw U.S. sales slip 1.1% in 2012. That leaves 56 breweries the Brewers Association doesn't feel are part of the gang. There's a little list to consult just in case you're curious about who's "craft" and who's "crafty." That list includes brewers such as Minnesota-based August Schell, which was not only founded in the late 1800s and persevered through prohibition without selling out or changing its recipe, but saw demand increase from 89,000 barrels in 2008 to 132,000 barrels this year. In fact, there are more than a few brewers on the Brewers Association's list that produce fewer than 3 million barrels a year and have shown remarkable growth over the past five years or so. But the definition of "craft" is too narrow to accommodate them and, to small brewers' detriment, discounts the true growth of the small brewing industry here in the United States. Tax-related beer legislation in Congress would change beer brewing categories and, ultimately, kill the term "craft beer," but lawmakers have shown as little will to pass those bills as they have to do much of anything lately. Instead, it falls on industry observers to take a closer look at the numbers and see which brewers are really driving growth in the industry. The folks at Beer Marketer's Insights play no favorites and focus primarily on the industry as a business made up of several segments. They've come up with a category known solely as "small/specialty brewers" that separates small U.S. brewers from their larger competitors and importers. It doesn't separate by "craft" and "crafty." It doesn't care how many breweries a brewer operates or what kind of beers they make. It just tells the story of small brewing by showing its production numbers, which are booming.
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