Why the Official Beer Of Saint Patrick's Day Isn't What You Think

NEW YORK -- ( MainStreet) -- A green beer can or some food coloring in a yellow lager doesn't make a beer the official beer of Saint Patrick's Day, but apparently neither does a strong Irish heritage.

With all due respect to Guinness and its British parent company Diageo ( DEO), the amount of bubbly, dry stout poured in the U.S. around Saint Patrick's Day still pales in comparison with the pints of paler competitors doled out during the holiday. Back in 2010, Diageo Guinness and its Guinness and Smithwicks brands produced 2.7 million barrels for U.S. consumption. That was a nearly 4% improvement from the year before, but still only a little more than 1% of total U.S. market share.
Guinness is growing in the U.S., but Bud and Heineken are squeezing its Saint Patrick's Day presence.

Compare that with big beer producer Anheuser-Busch InBev ( BUD), which flooded the North American market with 29.7 million barrels of Budweiser, Bud Light and other products in the first quarter of last year alone. Molson Coors' ( TAP) MillerCoors, meanwhile, sent 14.8 million barrels of Coors, Coors Light and Killian's Irish Red to bars, pubs and packaged-goods stores across the country in first-quarter 2011. That represented a year-over-year decline for both companies even as U.S. Guinness sales for last year increased 3%, but is indicative of how all beer makers tend to scrape by around this time of year.

The Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau finds that the early winter months tend to be a down time for beer production, just before the ramp-up to summer's peak beer sales. Around 17 million barrels are produced in March, compared with the more than 18 million typically produced in May, June and July. Last March, however, the 17.7 million barrels that made their way to revelers were the most the beer industry had produced in March since it rolled out nearly 18 million back in March 2006. It was also one of the high points for beer makers all of last year, as it failed to reach that mark in May, July and August and broke 18 million barrels only once, in June.

That March madness and a 2% overall hike in U.S. beer sales last year (to nearly $99 billion) have formed a line at the keg for breweries seeking their share of the Saint Patrick's Day take, according to beer industry group The Beer Institute. With A-B posting a 3.1% decline in North American production last year and MillerCoors' U.S. volume dropping more than 2.7% during the same span, the biggest competition for America's beer money is coming from other sources. Part of the reason the production calendar evened out a bit last year is that more Americans are opting for craft beer, which saw 15% sales growth in the first half of 2011 alone and watched brewery numbers soar from 1,753 in 2010 to more than 1,900 last year, according to the Brewers Association.

"What I'd probably be doing is trying to acquire a local brewery's cask and try to serve some real ale on Saint Patrick's Day to be more authentic," says Matt Simpson, "The Beer Sommelier" and owner of TheBeerExpert.com. "I'm not necessarily one for all Irish beers on Saint Patrick's Day, and I think the United Kingdom in general has a lot of beers that can be employed on that day."

Lots of barkeeps and beer drinkers agree, which is why imports have swelled from a scant 4% of the U.S. beer market 20 years ago to 13% in 2010, according to The Beer Institute. That's been great news for Guinness, whose 3% growth in the U.S. last year has been followed by 8% growth here in early 2012, but it's been fairly significant for other big imports as well.

Crown Imports, a joint venture between Constellation Brands ( STZ) and Grupo Modelo that brings Corona, Pacifico and Modelo beers to the U.S., produces nearly five times as many barrels of its product for U.S. consumption as Guinness does and now makes up more than 5% of the U.S. beer market. That's how a brewer develops enough audacity to suggest its Mexican beer might be the official brew of Saint Patrick's Day.

Heineken USA, meanwhile, produces four times as much product as Guinness in the U.S. and has scored roughly 4% market share. It's an obstacle for Guinness at taps in the states, but Heineken creates a whole other pint full of problems for the stalwart stout back in its home country. Ireland is drinking less beer in general these days, with consumption dropping from nearly 4.16 million barrels in 2010 to 4.14 million barrels last year.

When the Irish do pick up a pint, it's getting a lot less likely that said pint is a Guinness. While Guinness was unquestionably Ireland's beer of choice in the early 1970s, when stouts made up 70% of the beers consumed by Irish drinkers, a 2006 report from Ireland's Competition Authority noted that European and American lagers had become "more fashionable" and taken 63% of Ireland's beer market compared with just 32% for stout. Guinness' Irish market share has slipped from nearly 31.1% in 2006 to just 26.9% last year, according to Euromonitor International. By comparison, Heineken, Budweiser and Carlsberg now account for 33.8% of all beer consumed in Ireland, up from 33.3% in 2010. Given the international competition between beers all owned by multinational corporations and all the non-Irish beers taking up the majority of beer sales, is there any way to accurately declare a beer the official beer of Saint Patrick's Day?

"That's a loaded question for so many reasons that I don't know where to start," Simpson says. "You're dealing with individual pub owners and their preferences and clientele, so the ones trying to gain craft appeal are going to want to try alternatives to macro beer product that folks are used to drinking on Saint Patrick's Day. The ones that consider themselves sports bars or family places may not want to and may want to stick with the best deals their distributors give them."

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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.

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