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The Evolution of Craft Beer's Top 50

By April 22, 2013Infographics

A couple of weeks ago the Brewer’s Association released their annual Top 50 list that ranks craft breweries by sales volume. Each year the craft brewing community takes a look at the list to see where they fall in the ranks of craft beer’s elite breweries. With 2,403 breweries currently up and running it takes a lot to even break into this list and simply getting no it is no guarantee that you will stay there.

The Brewer’s Association was formed in 2005 when the Association of brewers and the Brewers’ Association of America merged and have been putting out these ever since. While 2005 doesn’t seem that long ago, in beer years quite a bit has changed. The popularity of craft beer has skyrocketed in that time and is enjoying it’s highest market share in the modern era.

As you may know by now I am a fan of visualizing data to find trends and patterns that aren’t always apparent by looking at the numbers. I thought it would be interesting to see what these top 50 lists can show us about the growth of craft beer and who is taking the most advantage of it’s popularity. I compiled the top 50 lists from 2006-2012 and plotted the progression of each brewery through time. 2005 is missing because I could not locate the craft beer version of the list for this year. Surprisingly the Brewer’s Association does not keep an archived list and anything 2008 or later took some digging to find.

I will point out that without the actual sales volume numbers this is an incomplete picture of how well these breweries are doing. The Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) is number one by a large margin but in these lists they are only one spot above Sierra Nevada. That being said you can still see relative relationships compared to their peers.

Here is the result.

Visualizing the Top 50 Breweries list over time.

Visualizing the Top 50 Breweries list over time. (Click to enlarge)

Here are a couple interesting trends that I noticed while plotting this data.

It’s Good to be King

The Top 10 breweries over time. (Click to enlarge)

The Top 10 breweries over time. (Click to enlarge)

Yellow – Breweries that have stayed in the Top 10 since 2006
Orange – Breweries that have moved into the Top 10
Blue – Breweries that have fallen out of the Top 10 since 2006

The first thing that jumps out is that you don’t see a whole lot of variation in the the Top 10 list. The guys who were big 7 years ago are still big. Of the top 10 breweries in 2006 six are still there and there is virtually no movement in the top four once Gambrinus was added.

Excluding Gambrinus (which was added in 2007), three breweries have worked their way up to the top 10 list. The biggest climb came from Lagunitas Brewing which sat at #27 in 2006. Most of their ascent took place in the last three years when they jumped 20 spots

The domination if these brands makes sense as established breweries are more widely distributed, can obtain loans to build even bigger operations, and have name recognition that newer breweries can’t compete with. Even the three breweries that have fallen out of the top 10 since 2006 (Boulevard Brewing, Full Sail Brewing, and Alaskan Brewing) are still producing a lot of beer with the furthest only dropping to the 24 spot.

Steady Risers

Breweries that have avoided major falls in the Top 50 rankings.

Breweries that have avoided major falls in the Top 50 rankings. (Click to enlarge)

Yellow – Breweries that have never dropped in the rankings since 2006
Orange – Breweries that have never dropped but have nowhere to go but down.
Red – Breweries that have had steady growth with a one time drop.

Since 2006 there are only three breweries that have managed to rise in the rankings every year with a handful of others that had a small drop one year but have still shown steady growth. Naturally the top 3 don’t show much variation, but there is no where to go when you are at the top.

Bell’s Brewery, Stone Brewing, and Victory Brewing have never dropped a spot while expanding their operations during the same stretch Deschutes Brewery, Brooklyn Brewery, and Lagunitas Brewing each had a one year drop only to keep moving up the list the following years.

While a lot of things go into moving up this list it is safe to say that these companies have proven their ability to adapt to the changing market place and grow at a steady rate. This is a truly impressive feat in a highly competitive industry. It will be interesting to see how they continue to fare in the next 5 years.

Up and Comers

The rising stars of the Brewer's Association's Top 50 breweries list.

Young guns of the craft brewing world. (Click to enlarge)

Within the last couple of years there have a been a couple of breweries that have made big moves up the top 50 list. I have called out breweries that have entered the list in the last four years and have moved an average of least 5 spots each year.

Oskar Blues Brewery: 44th in 2009 to 27th in 2012
Bear Republic Brewing: 50th in 2009 to 34th in 2012
Ninkasi Brewing: 50th in 2010 to 31st in 2012
Founders Brewing: 42nd in 2011 to 30th in 2012
Left Hand Brewing: 49th in 2011 to 43rd in 2012
Cold Spring Brewing: unranked in 2011 to 28th in 2012
Southern Tier Brewing: unranked in 2011 to 37th in 2012
Ballast Point Brewing: unranked in 2011 to 46th in 2012

With such a stellar rise I’m curious to see which of these will be able to maintain the momentum keep rising. (On a personal level I would like to note that we have visited six of these eight breweries. They have no doubt benefited from our presence ;))

The emergence of Cold Spring Brewing might seem like a bit of jump, but they have actually ranked on the Top Breweries (note not restricted to craft breweries) at 34th in 2011. Apparently their status has been moved from a regular brewery to a “craft brewery”. You gain a “craft” distinction by being Small (less that 6,000,000 barrels produced each year), Traditional (not relying heavily on adjunct ingredients), and Independent (no more than 24% of the company is owned by other beer entities).

It should be noted that craft beer isn’t necessarily an industry obsessed with being the biggest or putting out the most beer. Many craft breweries have philosophies that limit how much they expand both in brewing capacity and distribution range. These lists serve primarily to promote the craft beer industry and the breweries that find themselves on the list. In the end a great brewery always comes down the beer itself and the people who make it.



Author Brian

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