There are nearly 9,000 craft breweries in the US – but big beer dominates

Small breweries have set up in almost every town in the US but getting bigger is not easySupported by

Like most of the country’s nearly 9,000 breweries, the Wichita Brewing company would like more Americans to drink its beer. That’s been an unexpectedly difficult hurdle for the Kansas company.

While craft beer drinkers in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Wyoming can enjoy Wichita beer, the brewery has been trying for a year to sell its beverages in Minneapolis. Its inability to do so is thanks to post-Prohibition state laws that force most breweries to rely on a limited number of distributors to get their products into stores, bars and restaurants.

Most of those distributors are tied to brewing giants Anheuser-Busch InBev or Molson Coors and take on only a handful of small, independent breweries, so craft brewers are forced to pitch their brands to the few wholesalers willing to consider them.

It’s a similar story for small breweries trying to grow in other parts of the US. The bottleneck, which has been exacerbated by the acceleration of new alcohol laws since 2012, means many small brewers can sell their beer only in their own brewpubs, since most states prevent brewers from distributing beyond their neighborhood – if they’re allowed to distribute it at all.

“Say you’re a small brewery and you want to sell beers to bars within a few blocks,” said Jeremy Horn, co-owner of Wichita Brewing company and president of the Kansas Craft Brewers Guild. “You can self-distribute up to a certain amount, but the wholesalers will fight hard even with that to prevent even one toe from getting over the line. It’s 100% self-preservation.”

While Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors, Constellation and other mega-companies have snapped up scores of craft breweries over the past decade, acquisitions have slowed since Constellation’s disastrous $1bn purchase – and subsequent sale for a fraction of that price – of craft brewery darling Ballast Point.

But now, consolidation within the distribution industry arguably is having an even greater effect on beer drinking in the United States. The country has far more breweries than ever before – 8,800, up from about 1,800 in 2010, a stunning fivefold increase in just over a decade – but most craft beer is limited to the region where it’s brewed.

Just four firms dominate 78.6% of the market for beer sold in grocery stores in the US, according to an investigation by the Guardian and Food and Water Watch published in July, based on an analysis of sales data: Anheuser Busch (41.6%), Molson Coors (24.3%), Constellation Brands (8.9%) and Heineken NV (3.8%).

Earlier this year Joe Biden in July ordered a review of beverage distribution, including beer, “to protect the vibrancy of the American markets for beer, wine, and spirits, and to improve market access for smaller, independent and new operations”.

“It’s challenging for a lot of small brewers to get access to market when there’s this choke point, when your only option is to go with a distributor that already has 2,000 brands,” said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association. “It makes it difficult for small breweries to grow. When you control the taps, you can control your own destiny. But it’s difficult to scale up.”

Even when a craft brewer can find a distributor, that doesn’t necessarily solve distribution problems, said Wyndee Forrest, president of the Nevada Craft Brewers Association and owner of CraftHaus Brewery in Las Vegas. “A distributor will go and collect brands just to prevent a competitor from getting it, but there’s nothing saying they need to distribute your brand,” she said. “I absolutely do prefer having a distributor, but if a brewery is just starting out and being forced to use a distributor that doesn’t represent them, that’s not a level playing field.”

In California, distribution is dominated by Reyes, the country’s largest beer distributor and a Molson Coors partner. Reyes does business in California as Harbor Distributing and did not respond to interview requests.

After Molson and Coors merged about 15 years ago, the company cut ties with several California wholesalers, including Mussetter distributing near Sacramento. Mussetter and some of the other companies spent a couple of years fighting the decision in court but eventually gave up because of the cost, said general manager Jason Mussetter.

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