With a swipe of his pen, President Donald Trump has signed into law changes to the country's tax code that could alter financial realities for a generation.
Almost universally, independent and nonpartisan economists have shown the bill is bad for the vast majority of Americans, as the U.S. prepares for another trial of Trickle Down Economics, an experiment that has only ended in error with previous attempts. According to a final CNN poll leading up to the historic vote, only a third of Americans thought favorably of the legislation, while Republican narratives about boosts to the middle class and businesses carried their reform efforts.
Among 355 amendments included in the Senate's version of the bill was the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, No. 99 on that list of additions. Changing tax law for brewers has been a top priority for the Brewers Association for a decade, and the latest proposal was a partnership between the BA and Beer Institute to combine their collective lobbying efforts. With federal taxes cut in half for most American brewers, from $7 to $3.50 per barrel for those making less than 60,000 barrels (BBLs) a year, the change would be transformative, BA president CEO Bob Pease said in a statement.
"Small brewers are the growth engine in this industry, and our expectation is that [the bill] will spur additional growth in the months and years ahead," he wrote.
As always, there's something of a caveat to this language, highlighting what "small" means, especially in terms of financial savings. Three-quarters of U.S. breweries produce less than 1,000 BBLs a year, according to latest figures reported by the TTB. In all, 3,771 businesses make between zero and 1,000 barrels, meaning their absolute maximum savings on the new barrel tax is $3,500. Or, roughly the cost of a low-end, 3-BBL fermenter. An additional 18% of breweries fall between 1,001 and 7,500 barrels, maxing out their savings to $26,500, or what it costs to essentially hire a full-time employee at minimum wage. There are 935 breweries in that range, per the TTB.
On a volume basis, Big Beer is also getting a new tax structure that can’t be ignored as a major source of savings. Along with new corporate tax rates that drop 16%, per-barrel taxes are decreasing from $18 to $16 per barrel up to six million barrels produced by these companies, with the rate remaining at $18 above that threshold. According to estimates by the Brewers Association, and based on previous production levels, AB InBev’s High End portfolio collectively amassed around two million barrels in 2017, accounting for a savings of about $4 million. That’s the ad spend for 30-seconds during the Super Bowl.
All along, the Brewers Association and Beer Institute echoed Congress’ expectation that American businesses benefiting from reform would reinvest in their business through equipment and/or people. But that presents a true wrinkle of this bill: the majority of breweries who will have lower federal taxes won't receive enough money to make the kind of significant impact these lobbying groups pitched to beer drinkers around the country.
With the tax change set to expire in two years, does it make more sense to invest in a one-time cost of equipment (the new bill also allows breweries to expense 100% of capital investments up to $1 million) or a recurring payroll addition? This is not an argument for one political belief or another, nor the ideals of capitalism more generally, but an honest question owners must ask themselves regarding the viability of their business.
The price of packaged beer isn't going down, and for the majority of American breweries who produce hundreds—not hundreds of thousands—of barrels of beer, their production level might not even go up.
This tax change could even present a more strenuous situation for some brewers. Regionally-sized production facilities, who may see savings that would allow them to actually buy equipment or hire more people, all of a sudden have a leg up on smaller competition. In theory, the larger breweries who will see impactful savings could use that new cash flow to produce more beer in what is historically a supply side industry that pushes to the consumer rather than responding to demand.
“For comparison's sake, imagine a small indie brewer that makes 1,000 barrels a year and a conglomerate that makes six million,” political scientist and professor David Faris recently wrote in an analysis of the bill for GBH. “For the small operation, that’s a savings of $3,500 a year. But for the larger brewer, that means $12 million in pure gravy that didn’t exist before. The relative gains that this bill affords larger organizations could allow them to out-produce, out-stock, and out-compete their smaller competitors.”
But the change isn’t a zero-sum game. In that same piece, Notch Brewing's Chris Lohring intimated the money he saves on roughly 13,000 BBLs (about $45,500) equates to a job. Denizens Brewing Co. produces around 1,700 BBLs, meaning their savings is about $6,000.
“It won’t necessarily be enough money to buy a tank, but maybe a fermenter,” said Denizens co-founder Julie Verratti. “We could give our employees higher wages.”
Still, it’s the “trickle down” effect that deserves attention. More money for breweries isn’t going to benefit the consumer directly, and possibly not at all, so it’s important to try and identify what these savings will actually do. Smaller brewers may use it to boost their business in one way or another, while a publicly-traded business like Boston Beer could see a bump of around 30% in its stock price and decide to shift savings to its shareholders, like so many other major companies. (When asked about implications for the business, a Boston Beer spokesperson instead suggested talking to the BA’s Pease about broader impacts of reform.)
If anything, there’s an argument—made by Freetail Brewing founder Scott Metzger on Twitter—that now would be the best time for a brewery to take a risk that was not financially viable under old tax law. Use this moment to build some momentum, with savings creating additional capacity that can help turn a profit.
Still others questioned whether brewers themselves would even see the full amount, wondering allowed how much of a cut wholesalers might feel entitled to. “I’ll bet you 10 BBLs worth of excise taxes this will actually hurt consumers,” said New Belgium Specialty Brand Manager, Andrew Emerton on Twitter. “Distribs will nickel and dime [price to consumer] when brewers don’t share the margin benefit.”
Metzger explained his view similarly: “We’re talking a little over $0.06/6pk. Even if brewers cut that off [price to wholesaler], I have a feeling distribs and retailers would find a way to consume it before it made it to [price to consumer].”
That is, of course, if a brewery’s altered tax bill even presents enough savings to do so.
There’s no distinct transparency for what this bill might do, but there are opaque questions left unresolved. If more beer is being produced while the category is essentially flat, and BA-defined “craft” is growing slower than previous years, what is the benefit of adding even more to the marketplace? If conversations already exist about battles for shelf space and too much choice, shouldn’t we also consider the impact of what more beer means?
For several years, the beer market has been slowing due to consumer choice, and in 2017 the maturation of the industry showed with a larger net amount of closures and consolidations. Yet the story of tax reform is that a freer flow of money will allow expansion of operations in production and staffing, providing more beer for the market.
A decade ago, craft beer grew at phenomenal rates thanks to pent-up demand and a lack of options that traversed the flavor spectrum. Now that we can act like kids in a candy store every time we wander down a beer aisle, it’s not so easy to maintain the same level of sales—maybe even enthusiasm, too. What this opportunity presents, in a small way, is a two-year window for some trial and error that benefits some in a very micro sense, while allowing others a chance to inch closer toward a volume-heavy macro reality long identified as not “craft,” per se.
Is that equipment, to continue an upward trend of production that may or may not be needed? Or is that people, whose salary may or may not be as easy to fit on a budget line in two years?
But there’s a twist: at the same time beer is getting a boost, so too are wine and spirits, and it’s liquor that may end up getting the sweetest deal of all.
Distilleries are about to get an 80% decrease in their tax rate, falling from $13.50 per proof gallon all the way to $2.70 for the first 100,000 gallons produced and imported. According to the American Craft Spirits Association, 92% of U.S. craft producers make less than 10,000 proof gallons annually, but account for about 13% of total cases sold, similar numbers in comparison to Brewers Association-defined craft beer. If community breweries are seen as utilizing this tax break to ramp up production, their distillery counterparts should be eyed as well.
In on-premise accounts, sales of beer have been falling. From October 2016 to October 2017, volume sales of beer decreased 2.1% at bars and restaurants while spirits increased 3.2%, according to recent reporting from Nielsen. In total dollar sales over that same time period, spirits amounted to $42.6 billion dollars, $200,000 more than beer's tally of $42.4 billion.
"In this modern, experience-driven, on-premise environment, premiumization is evident in all categories, however no category highlights this more than spirits," Scott Elliott, senior vice president of Nielsen CGA told BeverageDaily.com.
Even still, competition within beer is worth noting. Despite “just” a $2 per barrel savings for large breweries like Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada up to AB InBev, it’s a drop in cost worth millions of dollars. Publicly traded companies may simply push that money over to shareholders, but what about a company like Sierra Nevada, which saw dollar sales decrease about 5.5% this year? Based on their 2016 sales of a little more than 1.1 million barrels, they’d have a tax savings around $2.3 million. Of course, that’s before any of these companies may also receive corporate tax breaks, which are falling from 37% to 21%, which further increases both their spending power and their resilience to unexpected market competition.
As with so many pieces of legislation, the actual outcome isn’t as simple as the pitch sold to beer lovers. The “small, Main Street brewers” the BA recently highlighted as “incredibly pleased” of the law’s passing are surely delighted their bills can be adjusted positively—but to call multinational brewers like Brooklyn Brewery and private-equity-fueled operations with three factories around the country like Oskar Blues “Main Street brewers” seems disingenuous at best, and exploitative of “small and independent” labeling at worst.
These changes parallel the broader implications of the full restructuring of tax reform. Sold to the small through the language of “main street” and consumer benefit, but ultimately benefiting larger corporations in ways that could have more impact and for far longer. How these advantages define the success of this bill—and the array of businesses it’s set to help along the way—is now left to the open competition of the marketplace, where large brewers and spirits companies both have history, and recent momentum, on their side.