Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Craft Beer Explosion in a Mature Dull Beer Market

Regular readers of New Zealand economic blogs don't have to go very far to be convinced of the attraction between Economists and beer, as the number of post on Eric Crampton and Seamus Hogan's blog Offsetting Behaviour website can attest.

Besides the obvious, what makes beer so interesting is the extraordinary proliferation of new and diverse craft beers that has occurred in recent years.  Despite the beer market being what economists would describe as "mature" and a "low volume growth" market, recent years have seen a plethora of new entrants trying their hand at commercial success making and selling beer.  In fact just down the road from me in Silverstream, Upper Hutt, is Kereru Brewing (big ups to Chris!  Like your beer mate!) who has just moved to bigger premises.

Kereru isn't alone in its journey from being a "S(sss)" to becoming more a "SM(aaa)", part of the long journey to "SME(eee)". In recent years, along that road has travelled:
And that's just off the top of my head in less than 10 seconds. In 2006, the Brewers Guild of New Zealand was founded.  Here's the members, and it reads like a who's-who of craft brewing.  

Sadly, I'm old enough to remember a New Zealand who's drinking pallets were dominated by the limited offerings of New Zealand's largest breweries: Lion Nathan and Dominion Breweries.  Together, those giants sewed up New Zealand's bars and pubs with agreements which ensured only their mediocre beers would be sold: the practice of "buying taps". 

The anti-competitive issues with those arrangements (which are coming back unfortunately) are not the subject of this blog (although they will be soon).   Instead, what I find interesting, from an economics perspective, is why, in what can only be characterised as a mature low/no growth market, there has been this prodigious growth of craft beers.  

Unlike the market for smart phones, or even social networking connectivity, beer brewing in New Zealand is as old as New Zealand itself. The rapid customer uptake of new i-phones, computer tablets, or the rush of new sign up's to Facebook, are what typifies "growth" markets that attract a rush of new markets like some modern day gold rush.  Each and every one of the recent craft beer makers has put their money where their mouth is and banked on making a dollar from a market dominated by large players in a product hardly considered new.

From the outside of the market looking in, the history of New Zealand's brewing demand doesn't looks like something which should attract these beer entrepreneurs into it.

Figure 1:  Total Beer Available for Consumption:  1984 - 2012
New Zealand's demand for beer is characterised by long run falling beer volumes. Beer volumes have been declined an average 1.1% per year over the duration of Statistics New Zealand's information. Per capita rates of beer available for consumption have approximately halved  over the same time.

However, here's something that collectively entrepreneurs may have sniffed out... Beer prices, over the long run have been steadily sneeking up.  From a low comparative price level base in 1983, consumer beer prices have been increasing fastest than general rates of consumer price inflation (Figure 2).  Beer price to general price "relativities" having been increasing in beer's favour.

Figure 2:  Consumer Price Index - All Group Consumer Prices and CPI Level 3 (Beer) Prices
So, from figure 2, beer prices have over a long period of time been increasing, relative to the price of all over household expenditure commodities.  And in response, the volume of beer consumed has been falling (figure 1).  That's the Law of Demand:  as relative price increases, demand declines.  If the large breweries set the market price for beer, then increasing it faster than the rate of general inflation has had the effect of dampening down the demand for their beer.  From figure 3, the decrease has occurred in the lower alcohol level beers.  As the price of beer in general is becoming more expensive, consumers are shifting to the comparably higher quality/alcohol beers.

But why have craft breweries entered such a market of falling quantities and increasing relative prices now? Given the 30 year history, what's been the trigger point?  What's the smoking gun?  What's the reason why dozens of entreprenuers have taken the punt?

Well - and this is me out in a limb here - but did you seen the Kereru equipment in the background here? And the Garage Project equipment in the foreground here?  Well, it looks a lot like one of these.  And from and economics point of view, THAT looks a LOT like technical progress lowering the fixed costs of micro brewing production. 

If profit is the difference between total beer revenue and total cost of production, then on the total cost of production side of the profit equation, Farra Engineer's  equipment has lowered the total cost of production through lowering the fixed set up costs of entry.  On the total beer revenue side of the profit equation, the dominant brewers have been sneeking up beer prices over time increasing the revenue of beer production.  That's provided the pricing margins for micro-brewers to test the waters with different types of beers despite the higher per unit costs of production associated with their lower volume throughput.

The trigger point probably may have been in 2009, where from figure 2, relative beer to general consumer prices took off AND sometime around then, Farra Enginneering's equipment lowered entry costs (I'm guessing about the time they released 50SBB personal brewer)?

Given most craft beers exceed 5.0% alcohol,  I'm really looking forward to see how this graph changes over the next few years:

Figure 3:  Beer Available for Consumption by Alcohol Strength

Because, despite the fact beer is an "old" market, as a consumer I want choice and variety in what is available to drink.  If lowering the cost of beer production has generated a whiff of profit in the noses of micro-brewers and created the opportunity for them to experiment with the demand for non-lagers or non-India Pale Ales, then I'm as every bit interested in giving them a go as I am in downloading the last app of Grumpy Birds for my smart phone.

And THAT untapped consumer market for non-traditional beers which retail for comparable prices as stock-standard run-of-the-mill lagers is what drives the growth in craft beer, and makes Jamesie a very happy Economist.

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