America’s Alcohol Industry Needs a Drink

Brewers are scrambling to keep up with the country’s newly packed bars.

An illustration of beer bottles with an upwards chart as their label.
Getty; The Atlantic

In the spring of 2020, as a brand-new disease spread rapidly across the United States, millions of Americans arrived at the same conclusion: They wanted a beer.

This was, to be fair, the same conclusion that many of us were coming to before the pandemic began, but the ways we could satisfy that thirst had changed dramatically. As beer spoiled in kegs inside idle bars and restaurants, Americans set out in search of six-packs. Liquor stores and grocery stores, which were both categorized as “essential businesses” and allowed to operate during even the tightest local lockdowns, saw their alcohol sales spike. Booze-delivery services such as Drizly more than tripled their sales. As with things like paper towels and flour, beer producers and distributors scrambled to divert their product into the right packaging and onto the right shelves.

This swing has caused people to speculate that Americans might be drinking more overall, a theory that sounds plausible enough—life has been bad and also boring—but hasn’t really panned out, in the aggregate. Total alcohol consumption in the United States has been quite steady for years, including last year, says Lester Jones, the chief economist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association. What has changed, though, is virtually everything else about drinking. Swirling beneath the placid consumption rate was all the cultural and logistical chaos that has defined American life in the past 15 months: Supply chains broke down at the same moment that our lives changed in ways that had us scrounging around for sources of comfort. Now beer sales offer a glimpse of the lives we want for ourselves—and how disaster-borne limitations are still getting in the way.

For drinking to remain steady throughout the pandemic, Americans had to change both where they were looking for booze and which kinds of booze they sought. In 2019, a little more than half of America’s beer budget was spent “on premises,” in restaurants, bars, stadiums, and other places where you buy and drink in the same place. The rest of beer sales happen “off premises,” in grocery stores, liquor stores, gas stations—places that will call the cops if you start cracking Bud Lights while still inside. During the first wave of the pandemic, the bottom fell out of on-premises sales. Jones told me that for about four weeks last spring, keg sales in the United States actually went negative: More keg beer was spoiling at retailers than was being sold to them fresh.

Cut off from bars and restaurants, people began buying up the beer in grocery and liquor stores, and brewers were forced to pivot as quickly as they could. Beer production “is not a speedboat; it’s like an aircraft carrier or cruise ship,” Jones said. “You start turning that rudder and three miles down the waterway, the boat starts to turn.” For many producers, planning the types and amounts of beer they’ll brew starts anywhere from six months to a year in advance, and that includes contracts for cans and glass bottles. Getting more of that packaging while virtually every beverage company in the country wants to send more product to grocery stores inundated with customers stuck at home has been all but impossible, contributing to an aluminum-can shortage that won’t abate any time soon.

For much of the past 15 months, your first-choice beer might not have been consistently available at your local grocery, even if the brewer had plenty on hand. When buyers have to settle for their second or third choices, their tastes start to change. “People have tended to go toward the products they understand and know,” Joe Gold, a lead distributor at Chesapeake Beverage, in Baltimore, told me. “The experimental beers that were there, or that brewers were trying to come out with, they just got kind of pushed to the side.” Craft brewers finished 2020 with sales down 8 percent, while macrobrewers such as Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors had a strong year. For the first time in his career, Gold said, he found expired Budweiser in the stockroom of a liquor store—not because people weren’t buying it, but because the cases had been misplaced behind a supply of craft brews that hadn’t been touched.

In theory, a shift back toward pre-pandemic socializing now that more Americans are getting vaccinated could help reverse these trends, as people get to sample beers before buying a pint and ask questions of their bartenders. So far, though, Gold said that bars in his region aren’t keen to try new things while they deal with the ongoing financial fallout of pandemic restrictions. Bars that had 10 rotating taps to showcase new beers might be down to 5—or to none at all—because they can’t guarantee that they’ll sell through the unfamiliar beers before they go bad. Gold is still juggling demand with spotty supply: He might be able to get a bar only half its order of Bud Light one week, and the next week it’ll order more because its Coors distributor is tapped out too. At the same time, the demand for hard seltzer is expanding—it’s inexpensive, predictable, and a normal part of the drinking routines of even more young adults after a year hanging out in backyards and parks instead of craft breweries or cocktail bars.

Drinking patterns are now changing in other ways. NielsenIQ’s most recent sales data, for the last week of May, saw the country’s average bar and restaurant sales increase almost 30 percent—not over 2020 levels, but over the same week in 2019. Part of that bump is because the pandemic required businesses to build out new delivery and takeout options that have remained popular, but anyone who’s tried to make a dinner reservation lately can tell you that it’s also because people have started to return to some of their old social habits. And once inside, they’re buying more. Matt Crompton, a director of client services for NielsenIQ’s alcohol-industry business, says that the average bar or restaurant is filling about 5 percent more orders than it did in 2019, but those orders are, on average, 24 percent more expensive.

When appraising these trends, it’s important to account for the fact that many things about American life are intensely regional. Chris Larue, the president of Sunshine State Distributing, in Orlando, which distributes craft beer and spirits, says that although keg sales are still not totally back to normal, the disruption to his business, which also serves Tampa and Miami, hasn’t been as drastic as the swings that others described. “There are ways to much more easily socially distance here, and we have a lot of outdoor seating at bars and restaurants,” he told me. Florida also reopened much more quickly than many other states, giving its most eager residents a head start on returning to their pre-pandemic habits.

With many office workers still staying home for all or part of the work week, sales—of beer and beyond—at businesses that serve city centers remain spotty. In neighborhoods where people live, things are a little brighter, and beer sales are more buoyant, especially for independently owned businesses that people are particularly excited to see bounce back, Larue said. That could portend a strong comeback for microbrewers in the months ahead, but it also poses a problem to beer and spirits purveyors. No one’s really sure if the work-from-home crowd wants to hit happy hour out in the suburbs the way people did when they were in the office, so everyone is forced to guess what (and how much) people might want to drink as their lives and choices once again change rapidly.

Drink orders aren’t the only things changing inside bars. The hospitality sector has had a difficult time coaxing experienced servers and bartenders to return to the industry, where pay is often low, stability is rare even in the best of times, and working conditions during the pandemic have been extremely dangerous. That, too, will affect what these businesses can offer to drinkers who return, and what will sell well to them. Beer will again be a window into how Americans are thinking about their lives this summer—and not just for those buying it.

Chesapeake Beverage’s Gold says that instead of going back to the esoteric craft-beer kegs and cocktail ingredients they were ordering before the pandemic, bars have shown growing interest in ready-to-serve products, which don’t require as much skill or time to prepare, and which help short-staffed businesses or those training new workers meet demand. That means that if you’re headed out to sit in a bar with friends for the first time in a long time, menus might look a little different. Get ready for canned cocktails, hard seltzers, bulk promotions served in buckets, and, yes, beer. But maybe not your first choice.