Marijuana’s disruption of short-term memory apparently applies to the argument about its effects on the beer industry.
Folks are still saying weed is bad for beer, but nobody seems to remember any of the evidence to the contrary.
The latest addition to this purple haze of half-truths is investment bank Cowen and Co., which recently used its interpretation of Nielsen data to assert, once again, that legal marijuana is driving down beer sales. Beer industry publication Brewbound passed along Cowen’s belief that Colorado, Washington and Oregon — states where marijuana has been legalized — have “underperformed” during the past two years. Vivien Azer, Cowen and Co.’s managing director and senior research analyst specializing in beverages, tobacco and cannabis, made the following statement in a report shared with Brewbound:
“While (marijuana) retail sales opened up in these markets at different points of time, with all three of these states now having fully implemented a retail infrastructure, the underperformance of beer in these markets has worsened over the course of 2016.”
Colorado, Oregon and Washington became mature craft beer markets long before legal marijuana arrived.
Let’s ignore, for a moment, that Brewbound featured Cowen and Co. at its conference ($ 900 general admission, $ 700 for brewers) in San Diego just two days after this report was released — making this report the centerpiece of that particular conference. Cowen’s report notes that sales of Anheuser-Busch InBev SA BUD, +1.48% and Molson Coors Brewing Co. TAP, +1.02% economy beers (Busch, Miller High Life) in Washington, Oregon and Colorado are down 2.4% over the past two years, while premium domestic beers (Budweiser, Coors Light) are down 4.4% in those states. Cowen calls that the “biggest drag” on beer sales in each of those states.
What isn’t mentioned, and what we can’t believe we have to say again after we made the same argument in September, is that all beer sales have fallen steadily since the Great Recession. According to the Beer Institute beer industry lobbying group in Washington, D.C., beer sales by volume have slipped from a high of 213.3 million barrels in 2009 to 206.3 million barrels last year. Also, as beer industry publication Beer Marketer’s Insights notes, light lager brands have taken a beating across the board in recent years. Budweiser sales in the U.S. were down 7.5% in 2014 and 2015. Coors Light sales dropped 5.6% during that span. Busch (down 0.4%), Miller High Life (minus 9.6%) and other domestics didn’t fare any better.
But Cowen doesn’t stop with the big targets. The bank posits that craft beer markets in Colorado, Washington and Oregon have slowed, but notes that only Colorado has seen a decline. Even there, statistical analysis is limited to Denver, where volumes were off 5%. Both Washington and Oregon showed growth among their craft brewers.
We aren’t going to sit here and make excuses for Colorado, but it isn’t as if there’s been nothing going on with the beer side of things in that state. Gov. John Hickenlooper, who helped found Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing Co. in 1988, just signed a law allowing full-strength beer sales at grocery stores. The bad news is that it doesn’t go into full effect for another 20 years. Its biggest brewer, Molson Coors, just saw SABMiller PLC — the partner in its MillerCoors joint venture — swallowed up by Anheuser-Busch InBev and had to pay $ 12 billion for the other half of the venture and the global Miller brand portfolio.
Meanwhile, around this time last year, Anheuser-Busch InBev purchased 25-year-old Breckenridge Brewery. That deal briefly caused a schism in the Colorado Brewers Guild that was only rectified in October, when 14 dissenting brewers returned after the Guild chose to make Breckenridge a non-voting member. That’s a lot for even a beer culture as strong as Colorado’s to deal with.
Yet Cowen’s report states that Colorado, as well as Oregon and Washington, are underperforming the entire U.S. craft beer market by 950 basis points. What that point doesn’t take into account is that Colorado, Oregon and Washington became mature craft beer markets long before legal marijuana arrived. When Boulder Beer Co. was first founded as the Boulder Brewing Co. in 1979, there were all of 90 breweries in the United States and no microbreweries in Colorado. When Paul Shipman opened Redhook Ale Brewery in Seattle and Bert Grant opened Yakima Brewing and Malting in 1982, there were just 93 breweries in the country, with Grant’s serving as the nation’s first brewpub since Prohibition. When Richard and Nancy Ponzi opened BridgePort Brewing Co., and Kurt and Rob Widmer founded Widmer Brothers in Portland, Ore., in 1984, the nation’s brewery count was still only 97.
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By the end of 2015, Washington alone had 305 breweries, Colorado had 284 and Oregon had 228. That’s more than 19% of the nation’s breweries in just 6% of its states. Those states rank second, third and fourth in brewery count, respectively — behind only California — and fought many of their statehouse beer wars long before the overwhelming majority of the nation’s current 4,700 breweries existed. Yet you’re going to blame legal marijuana on the fact that their craft beer scene isn’t growing as fast as Florida’s (where consumers just earned the right to fill growlers) or Alabama’s (where laws limited the state’s brewery count to six as recently as 2011)?
Maybe somebody should have dug a little deeper into Nielsen’s numbers and found the portion where, in 2015 after the legalization of marijuana in Oregon and Washington, craft beer accounted for 43.5% of all beer sold in Portland and 38.2% of all beer sold in Seattle — good for No. 1 and 2 in the country. Maybe Cowen’s presentation in San Diego (where craft is 34.9% of all beer sold) should have focused on how cities in states where beer has to compete with legal weed could be so far ahead of San Diego in terms of craft beer saturation?
As both residents and tourists in Colorado — and laid-back Colorado brewers like Oskar Blues — already know, beer and weed can pair well together if everybody’s open to the idea. Brewers in California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine can test that theory after recent ballot measures OK’d recreational marijuana use in those states. However, if you follow the example of Massachusetts beer distributors (who funded a campaign against legal marijuana) and Samuel Adams brewer Boston Beer Co. (which expressed concerns to shareholders about legal weed’s effects), you can make the situation as awkward as was after Massachusetts successfully voted to legalize recreational marijuana in November. Cowen says it’s taking a “cautious view” of Boston Beer Co. as a result of craft beer “deceleration,” but it’s a narrow view at best.
It isn’t marijuana harshing the beer industry’s mellow: It’s some harsh truths about where the industry is headed. Bud, Miller and Coors have had to accept the changing face of the beer industry for some time now. If the beer folks can’t accept that sales of Mexican imports are growing as fast as craft beer, that a near-infinite number of brewery openings is eventually going to put pressure on older brands such as Boston Beer’s SAM, +1.35% Samuel Adams and that the nation’s increasing taste for hard spirits are all more clear and present dangers to the beer industry than federally illegal marijuana will ever be, then we can’t roll a joint fat enough to calm them.
Jason Notte is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @Notteham.