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Craft Brewers Tackle Super Bowl, Beer Industry’s Marquee Event

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    Craft Brewers Tackle Super Bowl, Beer Industry’s Marquee Event
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    Craft beers — defined as beers from independently-owned, traditionally styled brewers making less than 6 million barrels a year — are more popular than ever across the U.S.

    New Yorkers packing the Roebling Sporting Club on Super Bowl Sunday will be watching the Brooklyn bar’s eight TVs to see whether the Patriots or Seahawks reign supreme.

    Ryan McLaughlin, the bar’s manager, will follow a different contest — one played out at the beer taps.

    “Bud Light will outsell any other beer that day, except maybe Budweiser,” said McLaughlin, who has worked the taps there for about a year and a half. But he’s “absolutely” seeing more people ordering craft beers like Great Divide’s Nomad or Coney Island’s Mermaid Pilsner, even during the Super Bowl, he said.

    Craft beers — defined as beers from independently-owned, traditionally styled brewers making less than 6 million barrels a year — are more popular than ever across the U.S. But Super Bowl Sunday has traditionally been home turf for big American brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Miller-Coors, which can compound their worldwide cultural status with titanic advertising budgets.

    Ryan McLaughlin, the manager and barman at Roebling Sporting Club.

    Rather than try to compete on the grand scale, craft brewers say they’ll celebrate in their own small ways — unveiling a specialty beer, hosting a brewpub game-watch or simply posting a timely reminder on Facebook.

    “We prefer word-of-mouth, social media and more organic advertising,” said Hilary Coalis, the director of marketing for San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits, which is growing rapidly and now distributes on both coasts. “We know it’s a big beer-drinking holiday, and we rely on our fans to make their choices.”

    Stone Brewing Co., one of America’s largest independent craft brewers, has sworn off advertising altogether, said Nickie Peña. The brewery in Escondido, California, instead hosts what Peña calls "anti-Super Bowl" events. On the morning of the game, Stone invites its fans — national sales director Jason Armstrong calls them “true beer geeks” — to sample vintage or archived beers.

    In 2013, American craft brewers collectively dethroned America’s biggest brand, Budweiser, shipping 16.1 million barrels to Budweiser’s 16 million, according to industry analyst Beer Insights. Craft beers have steadily grown by 10.9 percent over the past decade, said Julia Herz of the Craft Brewers Association, even as overall domestic beer sales have fallen.

    “[Our fans] understand that instead of spending money on ads, we’re spending money on the product that we’re pushing out,” Peña said. “We’d rather create a product that’s locally made with high-quality ingredients, that isn’t watered-down, and put our money in that place, rather than putting our money on ads.”

    At Top Hops Beer Co., a beer shop and tasting bar in New York specializing in craft beers, patrons said they prefer craft beers for the Super Bowl but are also picking up familiar brands for their friends.

    “I like craft beers, Ommegang especially, but I think the general population is drinking Bud Light, Coors Light, and the other light stuff,” said Jonathan Spinner, a builder and designer. His friend Mike Warshaw, a plumber who was hosting his own Super Bowl party, said, “I’m probably going to buy a case of Corona, and Newcastle, but I’m into different-flavored beers.”

    Ted Kenny, the owner of Top Hops, says he expects Budweiser and Stella Artois to sell well on the fourth Super Bowl he’s been in business. But he also expects to sell more craft beers than any other day of the year.

    “I expect to sell more New England beers for people who want more themed parties — Sam Adams, Smuttynose,” Kenny said.

    This year’s game has also provoked some friendly bets between brewers in Seahawks and Patriots country. Harpoon Brewery, with plants in Boston and Windsor, Vermont, and Elysian Brewing Company of Seattle (although recently acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev) have each staked three kegs on the outcome. The loser will serve the winner’s beer.

    That’s another trend lifting small brewers: Drinking local. Small, independent brewers celebrate their hometowns, they say, and local fans respond by celebrating with their beer.

    “More people are looking to buy local products and support businesses that are made or grown closer to home,” said Eugene Simor, the president of San Antonio’s Alamo Brewing Company. “That’s what’s driving craft, and the big guys can’t compete with it. It’s not an advertising or marketing thing. It’s people going back to the roots of what the beer industry used to be about.”

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    Simor has leaned heavily on local support to drum up Super Bowl business. Alamo partnered with Texas Public Radio, local academics and several local businesses to host a panel discussion of Super Bowl advertising and marketing. The panel will be hosted at the beer hall in Alamo’s newly-opened brewery in in downtown San Antonio. Simor expects a capacity crowd: 125 people.

    Tim Miller, a craft brewer from Maryland, is hoping a sense of local pride can also restore some luster to old brands. In 2011, Miller resurrected National Premium Beer, an old Baltimore brand, with an eye on Baby Boomers nostalgic for a local favorite.

    “Our market is male, 50-plus, from the mid-Atlantic, really loves the beer, loves the story, remembers it fondly,” Miller said. “Our plan is that during, say, the Super Bowl or Father’s Day, a father will tell his son about this beer he used to drink, their special beer.”

    Craft brewers still face an uphill battle against the entrenched American heavyweights, however, especially during the Super Bowl.

    “Over the course of 2014, 30 percent of the case volume sold nationwide was premium light beers: Coors Light, Miller Lite,” said MillerCoors spokeswoman Cat Corrigan, citing a Nielsen statistic. “We know that those beers will be the prominent choice for sports fans who are sitting down to watch the Super Bowl.”

    Bartenders at sports bars know it, too.

    A beer selection from Top Hops in New York.
    Photo credit: Michael Rodio

    “I predict Bud Light, Miller Light, and Coors Light,” said Pete Fecht, a manager at St. Mark’s Ale House, a Manhattan sports bar. “A football crowd always drinks the cheapest beer in the biggest quantity.”

    Big brewers are paying handsomely for that attention. Anheuser-Bush is the Super Bowl’s exclusive beer advertiser, ensuring that spectators will get their fix of the brand’s iconic Clydesdales (and, now, golden retriever puppies). MillerCoors, on the other hand, is promoting its brands through live events likely to drum up outside media coverage. Coors Light is sponsoring ESPN’s Super Bowl party, Corrigan said. Miller Lite is sponsoring a Super Bowl party co-hosted by Rolling Stone magazine and featuring Aerosmith.

    Back at the bar at Roebling Sporting Club, McLaughlin will have Bud Light on hand. But craft beers will be on tap.

    “People ask for what’s local,” he said. “I’m a staunch craft beer supporter. It’s the beer renaissance here in the United States.”