Craft Beer Learns Big Brewers' Summer Games

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- It took craft beer a while to come around to it, but it's finally embraced summer beer season and the lighter, more available brews that go with it.

Craft beer has never had trouble brewing wheat beers, light summer ales, Kolches and other refreshing summer beers for the season, but the small brewers always seemed to stop just shy of turning down the alcohol content and bulking up their packaging. It's tough to blame them, considering summer beer season used to look a lot like this:

That's kind of the opposite of what small craft brewers have been going for, but it's tough to argue with the results. When the 30-packs show up on shelves and the beer coolers come out of storage, the whole industry gets a boost. Last year, the beer industry produced between 14.5 million and 16 million barrels for the first four months of the year. By the time Memorial Day came around in May, that number was up to 17.5 million. That million-barrel bump from April to May has been constant since the recession, but was a 4 million-barrel leap in 2008.

That's around the time craft beer's window into the Big Beer-driven summer beer market opened. The Beer Institute, a beer industry organization based in Washington, notes that as craft beer gained market share during the recession, the overall industry kept posting losses -- including a 1.4% drop as recently as last year. The Beer Institute compared unemployment rates with average monthly beer shipments during the same period and found overall shipments began decreasing steadily in 2009 and continued through June of 2012 in direct correspondence with job numbers.

That corresponds with plummeting sales and market share for big brands including Bud Light, Budweiser, Miller Light, Natural Light and Busch. Budweiser and Busch saw already sliding sales plummet 5% apiece between 2010 and 2012. During that span, craft beer began embracing both cans and low-alcohol session beer. In 2011, there were just 130 craft breweries canning or planning to can their beers. That number has jumped to 1,462 beers and 94 styles from 406 breweries, according to CraftCans.com.

While there are nearly 400 India Pale Ale and American Pale Ale varieties in cans, a increasing number of session beers are finding their way into cans. Brooklyn Brewery has been canning its Summer Ale since at least 2011, while Boston Beer's Samuel Adams just got around to canning its Summer Ale last year. This year, its Porch Rocker radler summer seasonal joins Summer Ale and Boston Lager In cans.

While big players such as Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Harpoon are now canning -- with even big cidermakers including Angry Orchard and Woodchuck canning summer varieties -- a few are just starting to steal a few pages from big brewers' seasonal playbook. Founders Brewing in Kalamazoo, Mich., is better known for its high-potency stouts, but this year released its year-round 4.7% alcohol-by-volume All Day IPA not just in cans, but in at Kansas City Royals games, and New Belgium just straight-up started airing these ads last summer:

With the Brewers Association craft beer industry group placing small brewers' growth rate at 18% by volume and 20% by dollars in 2013 -- which makes its share of the $100 billion overall industry 7.8% by volume and 14% in dollars -- maintaining that momentum is going to be key to future success. If the craft beer industry can continue to lighten up when it comes to packaging and alcohol content, it should soak up a lot more of that summer beer boom.

-- 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.

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