Friday, August 17, 2007

Slim pickins, but gettin' better

Beer drinkers who like variety might not be satisfied in the Southeast, but distributors and craft brewers looking for growth will find plenty of opportunity here. That's my take on some of the numbers from sales-data presentation I listened to by phone yesterday.

The "Power Hour" presentation was presented by the Brewers Association, a trade group representing craft brewers. The data came from Information Resources Inc., which measured beer sold at U.S. supermarkets nationwide during the last half of 2006 and the first half of 2007. The most interesting part of the presentation, to me, was the regional breakdown. I got a good sense of the South's beer tastes and habits as compared to rest of the country.

For starters, there's not many different labels on our shelves, relatively speaking. There were just 263 craft beer brands for sale in all of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. That might sound like a lot, but it was the smallest selection of any region in the country, well behind the next-lowest place, California (treated as region unto itself), at 317 brands. Every other region boasted at least 340 brands, with customers in the Great Plains states choosing from among 507. Meanwhile, craft beer made up just 2.7 percent of all the beer sold in the Southeast. It was at least 4 percent of the market in every other region, and as high as 12.5 percent of the market in the West.

I'd imagine that lack of selection stems from the fact that the Southeast is home to two of the three states in the country which still restrict sales of beer to a low -alcohol content - Alabama & Mississippi. And of course, South Carolina raised its 6-percent alcohol-by-volume limit this year. Georgia's was lifted in 2005. And that's where the good news for fans of beer variety comes in.

The Southeast showed the biggest gain in sales of craft beer among all regions, with 33.8 percent growth over the previous year. I figure that's due at least in part to Georgia's decision to lift its alcohol limit, letting in a flood of specialty brews. If Alabama and Georgia ever follow suit, that sort of growth can only continue.

To be sure, there's much more to beer than craft brewing, and IRI's numbers show that. I'll be digging into them further over the next few weeks to bring you whatever interesting nuggets I can find. Meanwhile, feel free to dig through them yourself. They're in PDF format at The Brewers Association Web site.