INDIANAPOLIS (MainStreet) -- Craft beer lovers love to boast about how their beer is booming while "yellow beer" fizzles, but on Super Bowl Sunday they're drowned out by Clydesdale hoofbeats.
If craft beer and small, regional brewers are such a game-changing force in American beer, why are they completely absent from the Super Bowl's annual marketing blowout? With Anheuser-Busch now part of by Belgian-Brazilian firm
, Coors owned by half-Canadian
and Miller owned by South African-born, London-based
, that makes brewers such as Pottsville, Pa.-based
and Samuel Adams brewer
the two largest American-owned brewers. Shouldn't they buy into America's biggest televised sporting event?
Anheuser-Busch's exclusivity deal is only part of the reason craft beer is on the Super Bowl sidelines.
Recent beer-buying trends indicate yes. Craft beer sales grew 11% by volume and 12% by dollars in 2010 and jumped 15% in dollars during the first six months of 2011. That's compared with 2% by volume and 4% by revenue growth in wine sales, a 4% spike in spirits sales and a 1% drop in overall beer sales.
Boston Beer became perhaps the only craft brewer to ever run a successful commercial campaign thanks to
. Yet it shies away from splurging on Super Bowl ad space despite production that grew 12% to more than 2.2 million barrels in 2010 -- the highest among small brewers -- and is on pace to grow another 6% for 2011.
"Are you kidding? The big brewers are 80 times our size," says Jim Koch, president and founder of Boston Beer. "Advertising on the Super Bowl is out of our league when one ad costs $3.5 million. Our money is better spent on hops."
Beer's short-yardage gains
The flat reality of craft beer is that despite all the growth within the industry and excitement about its future, craft and regional brewers still make up only about 5% of all beer sold in the United States, according to the Brewers Association. Anheuser-Busch could spill Boston Beer's 2.3 million during the course of the year and still produce nearly 100 million barrels. MillerCoors, meanwhile, holds
about 29% of the beer market compared with A-B's 48%, but still cranks out more than 60 million barrels of suds a year.
Beer Marketer's Insights
estimating that Yuengling will surpass Boston Beer as America's biggest brewer with 2.5 million barrels produced in 2011 -- a distinction that's still waiting on Boston Beer's fourth-quarter numbers -- it and Boston Beer still hold only about 1% of the overall beer market apiece. They could double in size tomorrow and still not reach Super Bowl standards or, in Yuengling's case, even have beers in each of the 48 states. Though 183-year-old Yuengling's
sounds oddly similar to the story Anheuser-Busch will be telling through a Prohibition-themed Super Bowl ad, the brewer says its regional footprint prevents it from taking the national stage.
"Yuengling products are only available in 14 states along the East Coast (and D.C.), and although we would be proud to announce our position as America's Oldest Brewery to the world, only a small fraction of those watching could actually be in a position to purchase our products," says Lou Romano, director of marketing and wholesaler development for Yuengling. "Taking that into consideration, our buy would actually cost more per individual viewer -- who is in a position to buy -- than a global corporation like ABI."
A-B's Super Bowl blocking pattern
That corporation also plays a big role in keeping not only Samuel Adams and Yuengling off the air during breaks in the Super Bowl action, but Corona,
, Miller and Coors as well. A-B paid more than $1 billion last year to pry the NFL's official beer sponsorship away from MolsonCoors and has paid $239 million in the past decade to keep its products in the Super Bowl spotlight, according to
That still wasn't enough. When
documentarian and former
head Anat Baron was asked why Mike's never considered a beer ad, she tweeted back the following response: "A-B has exclusive rights to beer ads during the Super Bowl." Back in 2006, Anheuser-Busch inked a deal with NBC that gave it alcohol category exclusivity for not only Super Bowl XLIII in 2009 and Super Bowl XLVI this year, but for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness through 2010 and Ryder Cup and President's Cup golf tournaments through 2011.
A-B has put such exclusivity agreements in place with various networks since 1989, giving it a 23-year stranglehold on Super Bowl beer advertising. That means not only commercials, but the annual Bud Light Hotel setup in the host city and hosting duties for the
Madden Bowl, the
party and at least two other Super Bowl soirees.
"Advertising during the Super Bowl is a perfect fit for a company like ours," said then A-B president August A. Busch IV in 2007 when the NBC deal was announced. "The Super Bowl is a holiday that combines sports and entertainment, and watching the ads has become a fun part of the evening for many of the game's 90 million viewers."
Craft beer's trick plays
So what's a craft or regional brewer to do on the big day? Cross their fingers or improvise. New York's
, for example, has been backing the Giants throughout the playoffs and made a little
side bet with San Francisco's Anchor Brewery
during the NFC Championship. After Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes sent the 49ers packing with a last-minute field goal, the staff at Anchor was forced to wear Giants jerseys during brewery tours while the brewery itself agreed to put Brooklyn's Sorachi Ale for a week as penance.
Brooklyn let it ride into the Super Bowl by making a bet with Boston- and Vermont-based
. The latter had to pour Brooklyn Lager from its taps for a week when the Giants beat the Patriots in 2008. If the Pats pour ice water all over the Giants' warm Super Bowl memories this year, though, Brooklyn will have to pour Harpoon IPA from the taps at its pubs.
Through no fault of its own, Brooklyn's been drawn into two other Super Bowl bar brawls. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer also put some action on the game, betting New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen a round of craft beers for the entire Senate. If the Giants win, Shaheen has to pick up a round of Brooklyn,
beers. If the Pats take it, Schumer's stuck with the tab for a round of
In a slightly less cordial exchange, however, Foley's Pub and Restaurant in New York's Herald Square has banned Samuel Adams Boston Lager from its taps for Super Bowl Sunday. The Sam has been replaced with Brooklyn beers, but Koch sees a win for everyone in this game.
"We are OK being taken off draft for a couple of hours if the hometown fans want to show their team spirit on Sunday," Koch said in a statement. "I know Foley's, and it's a great bar. I hope they remember that no matter where you're watching the game or who wins, if it weren't for the original New England patriot, Samuel Adams and his cohorts, we might be watching cricket and drinking tea instead of watching the Super Bowl."
The response by the Canary Square bar and restaurant in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, home of Boston Beer's test brewery, was stronger: It changed the name of all the Brooklyn beers on its to Boston-appropriate titles such as Boston Winter, Brookline Lager and Brady's Brown for the big game. That barroom back-and-forth and provincial pride have been craft beer's biggest marketing tools and are exactly what craft and small brewers rely on to sneak their way into Super Bowl parties each year.
Sticking to the game plan
Instead of entering a world of Super Bowl commercial production where they're overmatched in money and marketing experience by larger brewers, craft and small brewers tend to focus solely on the beer and the drinker's experience. Chico, Calif.-based
, for example, has been in business for 31 years and has grown into the fourth-largest small and specialty brewer in the U.S. behind Yuengling, Boston Beer and Mike's Hard Lemonade. Sierra Nevada just announced plans last month for a new brewing facility in Asheville, N.C., that would expand its more than 800,000-barrel production and its East Coast presence. Despite that growth, Sierra Nevada representatives say a national ad campaign isn't on tap any time soon.
"Traditionally, craft beer has never been about anything traditional or mainstream," says Erika Bruhn, marketing manager for Sierra Nevada. "For us, product -- beer -- is king, so we shape our conversations authentically, experientially, with a grassroots, sustainable ethos and approach."
That means lots of tasting and word-of-mouth, but also lots of behind-the-scenes courting of craft beer die-hards and their casual-drinking friends. Sierra Nevada's reps say the company funnels marketing money usually allocated to ad buys into programs such as its beer camp. That program gives fans three days at the brewery to make their own brew with some help from Sierra Nevada staff.
Yuengling takes a somewhat opposite approach by diverting cash toward neither ads nor alternative engagement, but toward reducing the cost of the product on the shelves. By making a higher-quality product and offering it for a price comparable to that offered by the brews in the big-budget commercials, Yuengling believes it's bringing the game to a more level playing than the Super Bowl offers.
"The Yuengling Family makes a quality product, but also sells that beer at premium domestic price, same as Bud, Miller, and Coors," Yuengling's Romano says. "For most consumers, that price-to-value proposition does our advertising for us."
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.