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It’s Time for Sam Adams to Admit It’s No Longer a Craft Brewer

February 23, 2017, 5:02 PM UTC

Sam Adams brewer Boston Beer helped propel the beloved craft beer movement when it first opened for business in 1984. It may have outgrown the revolution.

On Wednesday evening, Boston Beer (SAM) reported alcoholic beverage shipments are now almost certainly expected to decline in 2017, following a 6% drop in shipments last year to about 4 million barrels as demand dropped for the core Sam Adams beer brand, Angry Orchard cider and the craftier Traveler and Coney Island Brands. With a little over $900 million in annual net revenue, the brewer only commands about 1% of the total U.S. beer market. But to some, that might be too big to be deemed “craft.”

“New craft brewers continue to enter the market and existing craft brewers are expanding their distribution and tap rooms, with the result that drinkers are seeing more choices, including a wave of new beers in all markets,” said Chairman and founder Jim Koch.

During a conference call with investors, Koch explained that retailers were cautious when it comes to buying aggressively on new styles after getting recently burned by the “hard” soda trend that quickly fizzled. Then there is the issue of too much variety: grocery, drug store and convenience stores are maxed out on how many craft brands they can stock in their coolers. Too much variety is also confusing to consumers.

“I’ve heard speculation from a couple of retailers that perhaps the fact that there were too many choices has in fact turned customers away from craft,” Koch said. “When they can’t figure out what craft beer to have, they just say, I’ll have a Corona.” And in fact, Boston Beer said that 2016 was the first year in a “long time” where there was more growth from existing ales than from new innovation.

SIG Susquehanna analyst Pablo Zuanic says the brewer’s fixation on justifying itself as a craft brewer is actually hindering success. Boston Beers and others in the craft space typically make dozens of different ales each year, though only a few generate a bulk of volume. Zuanic argues Boston Beer should ramp up advertising and distribution on a few core brands, mirroring the success of Constellation Brands (STZ-B) which generates close to 90% of beer sales from Corona Extra and Modelo Especial, which are both performing well even though they are bigger volume styles.

“We think they have to outgrow their ‘craft mentality,'” says Zuanic. He says brands like Boston Lager and Rebel IPA have the most upside with the right strategy.

Boston Beer and other larger, independent craft brewers that don’t have backing from a Big Brewer are in a tough spot. They are having a harder time justifying high price points for their ales when craft beer lovers are always on the hunt for something new. They also don’t pump in millions of dollars into advertising like the Big Brewers, nor do they try to compete aggressively on price. Meanwhile, big brewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) and Molson Coors (TAP-A) are scooping up popular craft brands and boosting distribution and marketing in a way that threatens Sam Adams.

In fact, market share declined for four of the top five “craft” brands tracked by industry watcher Beer Marketer’s Insights last year. Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Craft Brew Alliance (BREW) all ceded share. Only Lagunitas grew slightly, and that brand is notably backed by big brewer Heineken, which bought a 50% stake in the company in 2015. Goose Island and Ballast Point, now owned by AB InBev and Constellation Brands respectively, also grew share.

Early sales trends in 2017 indicate that Zuanic may have a point. Boston Beer’s early spring seasonal beers have posted a disappointing performance thus far. Sam Adams recently relaunched the Rebel IPA with a new packaging design and new recipe to aim to give that brand a jolt. And Koch’s statements indicate he doesn’t want to give up on being an innovative brewer just yet.

“We believe that the history, authenticity and quality of the Samuel Adams brand, our unique beers, and our ability and willingness to continue to invest behind our brand position us well for future growth and we are committed to improving our current trends,” he said.