Good Beer Hunting

Here Comes the Sun — A Look at Some of the Winning Brands and Breweries of 2019’s First Quarter


Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors' “corntroversy”—which quickly escalated from Super Bowl attack ad to rebuttals to a lawsuit—now has a winner in the court of public opinion.

In the first three months of 2019, Miller Lite scored a sales "victory" against its main competitor, in that its sales remained steady for another year. That might not sound like an impressive achievement, but with beer growth slowing, and slowing the most among macro brands, the act of simply not losing ground can be considered a win.

Compared to the first three months of 2018, Miller Lite stayed flat in IRI-tracked sales volume and dollar sales in grocery, convenience, and other stores. Meanwhile, Bud Light is down 6.3% in volume and 5.4% in dollar sales, and Coors Light has decreased 4% in volume and 2.7% in dollar sales in those same timeframes.

For those keeping track of the Big Beer Battle, sales trends are at least one way to measure a win. Still, it’s important to note that, in the ongoing war between these companies, Bud Light is still outselling Miller Lite and Coors Light combined, racking up $1.15 billion in IRI sales from January–March. Even after adding the two MillerCoors products' dollar sales together, Bud Light still outsold them both by $209 million in the timeframe.

This battle of the titans is just one example of how consumers have directed their money and attention in the start of 2019—and recently released numbers from the first (calendar) quarter of sales reveal other noteworthy figures and surprises.

Boston Beer's overall IRI numbers appear to be strong. The company's sales volume is up an incredible 15.4% in Q1 2019 vs. Q1 2018. However, almost 80% of that total volume comes from non-beer brands, including 56% from Twisted Tea and Truly Hard Seltzer. It’s a positive indication of what summer will bring for the seasonally-focused alcoholic seltzer category. Truly has already sold almost 3.5 times more in the first three months of 2019 than what moved in the same timeframe in 2018—a year of wild growth for the category that beat expectations and peaked at around $500 million in total sales.

The Samuel Adams collection of brands has decreased 16% in comparison to last year’s Q1. That includes a surprising drop for Sam '76 (-6.9%) and an expected decrease for Boston Lager (-15.5%), which has been slipping for years.

It's also a mixed bag for some of Boston Beer's peers, with Sierra Nevada down 4.8% compared to last year and Shiner showing a 3% decrease as its parent company, Gambrinus, sorts through a variety of challenges. Yuengling and SweetWater were mostly flat, and Lagunitas (+2.2%) and New Belgium (+2.8%) showed life.

The hard realities of functioning as a national craft player aren't new, and were highlighted in the Brewers Association's recent annual report. But at least one takeaway from the plight of these companies is that struggles in the first three months of the year are normal. Historically, Q1 sees some of the biggest drops in beer sales of the year, and 2018 had January–March selling less than October–December, according to numbers reported by the Beer Institute. It was the first time that's happened, according to the most recent publicly available figures, since 2012.

There was still plenty of growth for other, "smaller" breweries, most notably those owned by AB InBev. Elysian (+26.8%) and Karbach (+19.8%), both owned by ABI, were among business leaders who showed strong total volume and percentage gains in IRI channels when comparing Q1 2019 to Q1 2018. Other InBev brands getting a sales boost include Devils Backbone (+12%), 10 Barrel (+16.3%), Four Peaks (+20.7%), Golden Road (+68.7%), and Breckenridge (+89.5%). Wicked Weed is on pace for another record-setting year in grocery, convenience, and other stores, selling about 2,500 barrels’ worth of beer in January–March, about 40% of all the IRI sales from last year.

Despite continued declines for its flagship Pale Ale and Torpedo Extra IPA, which led to a rough start to the year, Sierra Nevada's Hazy Little Thing continues to impress. It sold an equivalent of about 14,300 BBLs through the end of March (more than twice what it did in last year's timeframe), racking up $7.7 million. The haze craze has been kind to Sam Adams New England IPA, too. Deviating from a pattern set by fellow Sam Adams brands, that beer sold 36% of its entire 2018 IRI volume, tripling sales in the start of 2019 vs. early 2018. It's the same story for New Belgium's Voodoo Ranger Juicy Haze IPA, which doubled its Q1 sales in 2019.

Cigar City's Jai Alai IPA was on a similar path, and is a big reason the Florida brewery was 66% ahead in this year's Q1 stats vs. last year's. Jai Alai was up 75% compared to last year, and it sold a little more in volume than the entire IRI portfolio of Rhinegeist Brewery, recently featured on GBH for its strong and strategic growth.

Among this year’s noteworthy Q1 figures were plenty of other growth brands that may be familiar to readers:

Keep an eye on these brands and others, as May is when beer traditionally hits its stride among American shoppers. April–June is historically the best quarter for beer sales, which always get a summer bump. Cinco de Mayo (#6 in 2018), Memorial Day (#3), and the Fourth of July (#2) are all top-10 occasions for beer consumption; July 4 and Labor Day (#1 in 2018) typically duke it out for the top spot.

The upcoming timeframe could be of particular help to Sam Adams. With its beer brands slumping at the start of the year, the company launched a campaign for its Summer Ale called #SummerStartsWithSam, complete with a tongue-in-cheek online petition to change the first recognized day of summer to Memorial Day weekend. Seasonal brands have always been key for the brewery, representing around 40% of IRI sales in recent years.

A similarly slow start may be normal for some brands at the beginning of the year, but a rough few months in a down year—as they’ve all been recently for the overall beer category—isn’t the kind of lead breweries need before the best part of the year for sales.

Which brings us to one of the key plotlines going into summertime. After hard seltzer set the booze world on fire in 2018, it’s showing no sign of stopping. In the 52-week period from March 23, 2018–March 23, 2019, the category sold $585 million of product.

Breweries big and small have gotten into the space, and packaged sales indicate a record-setting year to come in 2019. According to analysis by Beer Marketer's Insights, hard seltzer is set to double in sales this year, which would push it close to becoming a $1-billion category. By the end of March, a collection of major brands had already gained around $150 million in IRI sales, a leap of almost five times what was earned in the same period last year.

That kind of threat isn’t exactly a “corntroversy” that will hang over the industry, but it does create one more interesting wrinkle that Big Beer has to contend with on top of its mud-slinging and declining sales. It’s gonna be a competitive summer for the beer world.

Words by Bryan Roth