The State of American Beer

What's rising, what's fading, and what people are really drinking

What's going on in Beer World? Beer lovers of America might be forgiven if their grasp of the current brew-scape feels iffy. Alice herself would be at home in this Wonderland. It's a world in which up is down, little is big, and there's no Blue Moon on the horizon. 

It's a world in which old standbys are faltering (case sales of Miller High Life were down almost 10 percent in 2013 from the prior year). Mexican labels are dominant (Corona, Modelo, and Dos Equis, account for three of the top four imported beers). And a craft-beer company founded only 20 years ago is coming on strong ("Bartender, pour me a Lagunitas").

The March 2014 issue of Beverage Industry offers us a through-the-looking-glass portrait of Beer World in the United States today. The magazine unleashed its writers on data gathered by Information Resources Inc. (IRI) of Chicago from supermarkets, drug stores, mass merchandisers, gas and convenience stores, military commissaries, and select club and dollar retail chains for the 52 weeks ending December 29, 2014. I made graphs and charts from their tabular data.

Before we delve into the particulars, let's remember the big picture: over the past twenty years, per-capita consumption of beer in the U.S. has been declining. Derek Thompson wrote about that here last August, citing this report. But twenty years is a long lens. Let's take a look at the state of Beer World in the last year. 

Domestic Beer

If you were to hazard a guess as to which domestic beers are the top sellers by volume, you'd probably manage to guess at least half of the top ten. These are the familiar, less-expensive brands, regular as well as light, that you see everywhere—Budweiser, Coors, Miller, etc. The table below tells the story about the top ten domestic beers in 2013. 


This pie chart makes it easier to visualize the relative size of these various domestic brews, as measured by annual case sales. Bud Light accounts for nearly as much market share as all the other non-top-10 domestic beers combined. Lumped together, the beers ranked six through 10 also account for a smaller market share than Bud Light. 

Stephanie Cernivec's report in Beverage Industry reveals a far more interesting picture emerging when we look at what kind of year each of these top 10 domestic beers had in 2013. The following chart shows the percent change in case sales that each of the top ten brands experienced from 2012 to 2013.

Michelob Ultra Light was the big winner among the top ten, with its case sales rising 6.5 percent. But seven of the top ten domestic beers suffered sales declines for the year. In the case of  Natural Light and Miller High Life, the declines were steep—7.5 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively.

Imported Beer

While the domestic-beer category is hurting, the imported-beer category is thriving, according to Jennifer Haderspeck's report in Beverage Industry. Imported beers grew in volume by 4.5 percent in 2013. The following table contains the particulars on the top ten imported beers:

Presented by

John Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former professor of American government at Boston College. He is the author of Organized Interests and American Democracy (with Kay L. Schlozman) and The U.S. Postal Service: Status and Prospects of a Government Enterprise.

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