As Americans Buy Less Beer, Breweries, Bars and Supermarkets Scale Back

More than a decade ago, when Ryan Guererri was in his early 20s, he became obsessed with craft beer. As breweries rolled out a nonstop roster of new products, he bought hundreds of different beers, from bitter I.P.A.s to strong Belgian ales.

“It was exciting trying everything,” said Mr. Guererri, who is now 35 and a human resources manager in Geneva, N.Y.

But with more than 9,500 breweries across the United States, sampling every pilsner and lager is nearly impossible, and not all that palatable. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed,” he said. These days, Mr. Guererri mainly stocks his fridge with just a small collection of tried-and-trusted brands.

His move to simplicity reflects a broader shift in the beer world. After years of offering a steady, often weekly, succession of new products, many breweries, bars and supermarkets have pared back the number they make, serve and sell.

In part, this is a concession to economic reality: Americans are buying less beer, opting instead for spirits and canned cocktails or refraining from alcohol altogether.

As of last November, sales of beer in stores had fallen 3.1 percent by volume from a year earlier, according to the market research firm NIQ. At bars and restaurants, sales declined nearly 4.7 percent. (For craft beer alone, the drop was even sharper: 5.3 percent in store sales and 6.7 percent in bars and restaurants.)

“People aren’t waiting with bated breath for weekly releases,” said Jacob Landry, the founder and chief executive of Urban South Brewery, which has locations in New Orleans and Houston. In 2020, Mr. Landry’s team introduced eight new beers each week. Today, they produce three or four a month.

Whole Foods Market, which helped take craft beer from smaller breweries to the mainstream, began incrementally shrinking its beer offerings around six years ago to accommodate beverages like hard seltzers.

Though the company is no longer reducing its selection, “we’re asking more of brands,” said Mary Guiver, the company’s principal category merchant for beer. (She added that Whole Foods now prioritizes brands owned by women and people of color, as well as breweries that use heritage grains and champion carbon-neutral initiatives.)

Craft breweries and their complex beers arose as alternatives to mainstream lagers that varied mainly in branding, but not in flavor. And brewery taprooms became destinations for drinkers who wanted to try a variety of beers in the form of small pours.

Suarez Family Brewery in Livingston, N.Y., which opened in 2016, offered a single size (about eight ounces) of about eight beers, including fragrant pilsners and pale ales, which caused “a lot of agony over choosing,” said Dan Suarez, the brewer and an owner.

After the brewery shut its taproom during the pandemic, Mr. Suarez switched to the model of traditional European taverns and breweries that serve only one or two beers at a time. In 2022, the taproom reopened with one draft beer, then added a second last year.

New releases are rare for Mr. Suarez, who produces only one original recipe annually. “It’s something special for me, as a brewer,” he said.

During a decade at Tired Hands Brewing in Ardmore, Pa., where he became head brewer, Colin McFadden made hundreds of limited-edition beers. But he wondered: Wouldn’t it be nice to go deep instead of wide?

In August, he partnered with Keith Shore, a former art director for Mikkeller Beer, to open Meetinghouse, a bar and restaurant in Philadelphia. It offers five cocktails, four wines and five beers, including easy-drinking pale, dark and hoppy ales that Mr. McFadden brews nearby.

“Some choice felt necessary, but too much choice felt problematic,” he said. “I’ve had very few people be like, ‘Why are there so few beers?’”

Selling only a few beers isn’t a new phenomenon. McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York City is famous for offering only two house beers on tap: one light and one dark ale. Sacred Profane Brewing in Biddeford, Maine, follows that tradition by brewing only a pale lager and a dark lager poured from copper tanks. Guests can select the amount of foam and try the beers blended or mixed with lemonade.

“It’s not how many beers we can make,” said Mike Fava, a founder and the director of operations at Sacred Profane. “It’s how many things we can do with the beers.”

Focusing on two beers allows Brienne Allan, the brewery’s brewmaster and president, time to refine them. And that selective approach pleases the beer distributors that link breweries with retailers. Overwhelmed with so many brands, “they’re so happy to hear that we don’t have that many” beers, Mr. Fava said.

Montucky Cold Snacks, in Montana, has found national success with its only beer, a light lager, that is sold in 36 states. “You’re an expert on one thing,” said Jeff Courteau, the company’s vice president of sales.

The downside: If the beer doesn’t sell, “I can’t come in a month later with an I.P.A.,” he said.

Bars might not even have space for additional beers. Many are reconsidering how much beer to buy.

“I don’t need five pilsners,” said Olivier Rassinoux, the vice president of restaurant and bar at Patina Restaurant Group, which is headquartered in Buffalo. At Patina’s Banners Kitchen & Tap, a 72-tap sports bar in Boston, the bar turned two taps over to kegged margaritas last year and plans to add additional draft cocktails and wine.

Max’s Taphouse, a Baltimore beer institution since 1986, is buying smaller kegs to fill its 113 taps and reducing its extensive cellar of large-format bottled beers. They’ve fallen out of fashion, and lingering bottles are “turning into nostalgic keepsakes,” said Jason Scheerer, the general manager.

Unlike wine, most beers don’t improve with age. So bars and shops that sell a limited selection appeal to brewers like Bob Kunz, the founder of Highland Park Brewery in Los Angeles.

“Few retailers can keep beer fresh if they have more than 10 taps,” Mr. Kunz said.

At Highland Park’s taproom, Mr. Kunz is seeing increased demand for a time-honored classic: beer pitchers.

“Nobody has to think about what they’re buying,” he said. “You end up having more collective experiences if you’re drinking the same beer.”

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