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Why Craft Beer Needs Its Own Blue Moon

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- There's one highly effective way for small brewers to fend off big brewers' encroachment on their turf: Make and promote better beer.

By Moody's measure, multinational brewers including Anheuser-Busch InBev and SAB Miller/MolsonCoors joint venture MillerCoors have swallowed up 18% of the U.S. craft beer market. A-B's acquisition of Chicago's Goose Island and Long Island, N.Y.'s Blue Point have helped, but it's Belgian-style witbiers including MillerCoors Blue Moon and A-B's Shock Top that have made the biggest impression. Other wheat beers including Leinenkugel's Sunset Wheat and Honey Weiss have elbowed in as well.

Those beers once served as gateways away from large brewer offerings and into craft brands. But as Goose Island, Leinenkugel's and Blue Moon expand into IPAs, imperial stouts and seasonal offerings, that gateway increasingly funnels drinkers toward a growing portfolio of other beer styles. Those wheat beers won't do craft beer's work for it anymore -- small brewers are going to have to do it themselves.

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And they'd better get on it. Blue Moon has grown by double-digit percentage points each year since the recession. Blue Moon production alone jumped from 1.45 million barrels in 2010 to 1.9 million in 2012, according to Beer Marketer's Insights. That 450,000 barrels of growth was roughly the output of Bend, Ore.-based Deschutes Brewing (253,000) and Petaluma, Calif.-based Lagunitas (235,000) combined in 2012. Altogether, MillerCoors craft-style beer sales grew 20% through November -- compared with 7% growth a year earlier. How can we be sure the gateway strategy is working? Roughly 30% of that MillerCoors craft growth went directly into Leinenkugel's broader portfolio.

Meanwhile, A-B's Shock Top grew 64% by volume in 2012 and another 15% through October. But what A-B beers benefited the most from that growth? Goose Island, which saw distribution spike 70% last year. The frightening part for small brewers is that craft-style beers are only about 1% of all A-B's output, but Shock Top alone accounts for nearly 475,000 barrels. That's bigger than the Craft Brew Alliance's entire Widmer Brothers brewery and bigger than Redhook and Bell's combined.

But why wheat beers? Because wheat beer is essentially a summer beer, and summer is when beer business booms. Production increases by 1.5 million to 4 million barrels per month from spring to summer as demand for lighter, more refreshing beers increases. While the folks at Symphony IRI have made it clear that India Pale Ale is the best-selling craft beer style with 18% of the market, wheat beers (5%) and seasonal beers (which often includes summer wheats, 17%) account for more than one out of every five craft beers bought.

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