That doesn't mean it shouldn't.
As of midyear 2013, craft beer shipments were up 13% from the same six months the year before. The craft brewers that make up the Brewers Association beer industry group now account for more than 7% of all beer shipments and roughly 11% of all sales. For the sake of comparison, that's a larger presence than that of Constellation Brands' Crown Imports -- which accounts for nearly 6% of the overall U.S. beer market thanks largely to its Corona brand. Crown saw shipments increase 3% last year as a tweak in Anheuser-Busch InBev's buyout of Corona parent company Modelo gave Constellation brands all U.S. rights to that Mexican brewer's brands.
If not for that deal with A-B, Constellation Brands might be more open to airing a beachside Super Bowl ad of its own and squeezing the megabrewer's market share like a twist of lime. But A-B's shipments already slid 3.4% in the first half of 2013, which would seem a lot worse if main U.S. rival MillerCoors hadn't recorded a 4% drop over the same span.
That leaves a wide-open opportunity for smaller brewers to strike back at big beer during its premiere event. A-B InBev and MillerCoors -- the U.S. joint venture of international megabrewers SABMiller and MolsonCoors -- account for roughly 75% of U.S. beer shipments, according to Beer Marketers' Insights. Since the recession, that share has fallen steadily as the popularity of flagship brands including Bud Light, Budweiser, Miller Lite has decreased.
Even regional brewers including Pottsville, Pa.-based D.G. Yuengling & Sons -- whose Yuengling Lager outsells MillerCoors' Blue Moon and A-B's Bud Ice and is among the Top 20 brands in the country -- have made inroads as the big breweries faltered. Yet Yuengling's plan shuns ads and big social media blitzes in favor of pouring money into keeping down the cost of its core product. Besides, the Super Bowl would hit a bigger audience than Yuengling and its Pennsylvania and Florida breweries could serve.
"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," Lou Romano, director of marketing and wholesaler development for Yuengling, told us a few years back. "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."
Still, there are some small brewers out there with enough business and availability to get a boost from a Super Bowl ad. While a $4 million ad is still a bit steep for any of them, the following five groups and companies may be reaching the point where such a big spend would be worthwhile:
Beer produced in 2012: 2.73 million barrels
"Are you kidding? The big brewers are 80 times our size. Advertising on the Super Bowl is out of our league when one ad costs $3.5 million. Our money is better spent on hops."
That's what founder and president Jim Koch told us in 2012 when we asked about the potential for a Samuel Adams Super Bowl ad. At the time Samuel Adams was one of the few breweries of its size to actually produce commercials and now has not only a dedicated YouTube page but a playlist of its TV spots -- with almost none of them bearing the trademark George Thorogood riffs of its early run of commercials.
Its full-year advertising and promotional expenses now come in just under $200 million, or roughly $26 million to $32 million more than they were in 2012. That would make a Super Bowl ad roughly 2% of the grand total, which is significant, but not out of the realm of possibility.
Also consider that Samuel Adams is in a unique position that many of its craft beer cohorts aren't. Not only is it on track to bring in $800 million in revenue and nearly $400 million in gross profit this year, but it's able to run side projects such as its Burlington, Vt.-based Alchemy & Science wing. That branch is developing brands and working on styles including shandies and has acquired brands and breweries including Southern California Brewing and Coney Island Craft Lagers.
It can also build a cider brand from the bottom up and transform it into the in the United States. Angry Orchard has grown exponentially since launching in 2012 and inspired Boston Beer to spend on some commercials for its workhorse cider brand.
We understand Koch's underdog mentality and realize a Super Bowl commercial goes against many of the reasons he began his business, but that business has grown substantially in the past 30 years or so. Not only does a Samuel Adams or Angry Orchard Super Bowl commercial not seem out of the question, but it would be almost odd if NFL fans didn't see one in the next five years or so -- especially when its own ads imply that it's lost clout with discriminating beer drinkers.
Sierra Nevada Brewing
Beer produced in 2012: 966,000 barrels
One million barrels is an arbitrary threshold that, in the greater beer industry, doesn't really mean a whole lot. There were nearly 1.5 million barrels of Steel Reserve malt liquor produced in 2012, while Mike's Hard Lemonade cranked out more than 1.4 million barrels of its flavored malt beverages that same year.
Still, in terms of scale, 1 million barrels is a big beer number. Those 2.73 million barrels Boston Beer produces come out of three facilities in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ohio -- the latter two being enormous. We recently had the opportunity to tour the recently expanded brewing facilities of Atlanta-based SweetWater Brewing and were awed by the size and number of kettles that could one day help a brewery that produced 110,000 barrels in 2012 produce 600,000 barrels.
Make no mistake: Chico, Calif.-based Sierra Nevada's 1 million is big, and that figure is just the beginning. Construction continues on the brewery's second facility near Asheville, N.C., which should add about 300,000 barrels of capacity when it opens this year. That's the equivalent of opening about three Sweetwater Brewings or two full-capacity versions of Delaware-based Dogfish Head Craft Brewery.
That alone should be reason for a Super Bowl-sized celebration. But is there a better reason for founder Ken Grossman, who's worked on Sierra Nevada since 1979, to shake off his garage-built roots and hit the big time?
Absolutely. Sierra Nevada is one of craft beer's old guard and, as such, has gone through fluctuations in its existence. Evolving tastes have turned the Pale Ale that has long served as Sierra Nevada's flagship beer into a pale likeness of other, more complex beers with more appeal for younger drinkers. Sierra Nevada has responded by putting its more hop-heavy Torpedo IPA front and center and building many of its expansion efforts around it. Torpedo was among the first Sierra Nevada beers canned, it is the namesake of the Torpedo Room taproom Sierra Nevada just opened in Berkeley, Calif., and it's bringing a once mellower microbrewer into the modern IPA-mad craft world.
With Sierra Nevada about to become an even more familiar face in its coast-to-coast distribution radius, it might not be a bad time for the pioneering craft brewery to reintroduce itself to a fanbase consistently distracted by the next big thing. In fact, it's taking a big step toward doing just that by touring the country this summer and brewing a 12-pack of beers with Allagash in Portland, Maine; the Asheville Brewers Alliance; Ballast Point in San Diego; Bell's in Kalamazoo, Mich.; Cigar City in Tampa, Fla.; Firestone Walker in Paso Robles, Calif; New Glarus Brewing in New Glarus, Wis.; Ninkasi Brewing in Eugene, Ore.; Oskar Blues in Longmont, Colo., and Brevard, N.C.; Three Floyds in Munster, Ind.; and Victory in Downingtown, Pa.
Sierra Nevada has a story to tell and new places to tell it. That story is now bigger than the niche it helped create, and that's something everyone who loves beer should celebrate. The Super Bowl would have been a great place to throw that party.
New Belgium Brewing
Beer produced in 2012: 765,000 barrels
Yes, New Belgium is opening a facility near Asheville, too, but there's been a lot more going on with this brewery than even that $120 million expansion in 2015 would suggest.
As we discussed with chief executive and founder Kim Jordan last year, the company's Employee Stock Ownership Program gave New Belgium's workers in Fort Collins, Colo., full ownership of the company in 2012. A portfolio of beers that once lined up behind the company's flagship Fat Tire amber ale has grown more diverse through both its Lips Of Faith collaborative series and a continually rotating mix of seasonal and barrel-aged beers.
The brewery's distribution has expanded from just 14 states in 2006 to 36, with Ohio joining the mix at the end of 2013 and Alabama and its recently revised beer laws coming aboard in late January. By transitioning some of its more popular styles to cans and introducing simple, palatable varieties including Blue Paddle pilsner and the mild Snapshot Wheat, New Belgium has taken its complex, German style offerings and reintroduced them in a form that a much broader audience can enjoy.
While that doesn't mean they'll put down a few million for a Super Bowl commercial, it does mean that they'll at least give commercials some consideration. New Belgium spots have shown up on Hulu and elsewhere in recent months and have given the already quirky, bike-loving, scavenger-hunt-organizing brewery a voice to match its identity.
Whether it could turn those mostly 15-second clips into a 30-second Super Bowl ad is still a mystery, but the last few years of growth and change at New Belgium haven't left anything out of the question.
Craft Brew Alliance
Beer produced in 2012: 675,000 barrels
If it wasn't for those pesky financials, this would be an outstanding fit.
Earnings are looking up from 2012's $169 million, while net income shifted from a $33 million loss in 2008 to a $2.5 million gain 2012. A Super Bowl commercial doesn't exactly slide into that budget without incurring some pain, but this brand's brands and relationships suggest it would be a great fit in the Super Bowl lineup.
For one, it doesn't have to have the existential debate about whether the a Super Bowl commercial is "craft" or not. While other firms and publications count CBA's beer sales in their craft categories, the Brewer's Association doesn't consider the group or its beers craft at all. Anheuser-Busch InBev owns a 32% stake in CBA, which violates the Brewers Association's big-beer minority ownership threshold of 25%. It's an arbitrary number, but BA makes the rules.
Secondly, CBA has a bunch of brands already tied into sports. Its Widmer Brothers brand, founded by brothers Kurt and Rob Widmer in 1984, has brewed several varieties for Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers and has its brand's banner in the rafters of Portland's Jeld-Wen Stadium. It's Redhook brand, meanwhile, ditched its ill-fitting hippie-yuppie hybrid personality of the early aughts for a friendlier, gateway persona that's led to partnerships with sports radio host Dan Patrick on the brewery's Audible Ale and with big-screen sports chain Buffalo Wild Wings on its Game Changer Ale.
The CBA is by no means a small operation. It has coast-to-coast distribution in the U.S. and breweries in Portland, Ore.; Woodinville, Wash.; Portsmouth, N.H.; and Kona, Hawaii. Putting an ad for its Kona brand's Pipeline Porter into a Super Bowl taking place in bitterly cold East Rutherford, N.J., could help warm both hearts and bellies, but it would take a lot more cash than CBA has on hand to make that happen.
Maybe A-B, which has strongarmed its partners at the NFL into an exclusivity agreement for much of the past decade, could throw its craft beer business associate a little help?
Beer produced in 2012: 13.2 million barrels
That number above is how much beer its member breweries produced in 2012. It would need help from just about all of them if it wants to take craft beer's message to the big game.
The Brewers Association has made its presence felt throughout the beer industry in recent years by not only coming up with a hard-and-fast definition of a craft brewer -- though it had to change that definition's production limit from 2 million to 6 million when Boston Beer grew more quickly than it anticipated -- but by lobbying Congress for a tax cut. Its Craft BREW Act would ease the burden on all breweries making 6 million barrels or less, which is basically all breweries but A-B, MillerCoors, Constellation's Modelo brands and Heineken USA, but it's going to need some support.
A competing bit of legislation has also made its way to Congress with the help of those big, left-out breweries and is recommending a sliding-scale tax cut for all U.S. breweries. Some breweries in the Brewers Association camp have thrown their support behind that one with the argument that any tax cut would be helpful, but the BA remains adamant that its legislation is the way to go.
Honestly, the BA does some great work that it gets just about no credit for. It helps out small breweries, it advances homebrewing through lobbying and education and it runs huge beer events that give even its tiniest members some big exposure. In the past year, however, the Small Brew Act and its craft brewer definition -- and the ensuing "craft vs. crafty" debate -- have made its message seem more about what big jerks the large brewers are and not about the great work small brewers do.
A "God Created a Farmer"-style ad for small brewers could do just that, but it's a costly proposition. The Brewers Association brought in just $13.4 million in revenue in 2012 and came up with only a $1 million surplus. That's about $3 million short of what it would take to reserve ad space, never mind what it would cost to pay a firm to put it together.
Our suggestion: Pass the hat. That Super Bowl ad cost may be tough for any one brewery to absorb, but BA includes three of the breweries on our list among its ranks. If some of those breweries can split the total and present a united front extolling the virtues of all small U.S. brewers, it could pay off in a big way. If not, best of luck to its members on those inter-city side bets and little-viewed YouTube ads.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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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.