Craft Brewers Can’t Beat Dry January. Join It (or at Least, Stop Complaining)

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Over the past few years, Dry January has evolved from “weird British thing some people in the United States care about, like Banksy” to a mainstay of the mainstream American drinking calendar. In that time an informal backlash has emerged to this optional, annual practice. The objection is fairly straightforward. Bars, breweries, liquor stores, et al. depend on alcohol sales for those sweet, sweet revenues, and anyone practicing Dry January is unfairly withholding them. The fact that on-premise business had such a tough go during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic lends the appearance of righteousness to this rationale.

Sober-curious millennials are killing bars! It’s an appealing fiction that confirms the priors of your average New York Post reader, which is why that very tabloid last year lambasted Dry January as “pure evil,” an “annual month of self-righteous sobriety … in which mostly young people go cold turkey on booze for four weeks and lord it over their nonsober pals only to immediately hop off the wagon on Feb. 1.” (Rich stuff, coming from a paper published by Mr. Pure Evil himself.) Dry January is woke, you see, and if the dries go woke, the wets go broke. Or something.

For the past several years, related (albeit less contemptuous) grumblings and gags have emerged among some craft brewers and their acolytes on social media. Protest beers are a popular form of anti-Dry January dissent from craft breweries, which tracks sense given the segment’s edgelord-like affinity for making seasonal beers with provocative names. They range from cheeky sendups (names like “Dry Hop January,” “Not So Dry January,” etc.) to direct shots across the abstinence bow (10-percent-ABV “Fuck Dry January” New England double IPAs, and so forth.) On social media, arguments — most good-faith and good-natured, some less so — crop up suggesting your seasonal sobering happens at craft brewers’ expense. “Skip ‘Dry January’ …  support your local brewery,” reads one representative Facebook post this year from BeerAdvocate co-founder Jason Alström. You get the idea.

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The case for continuing to drink this month is infinitely more palatable when it’s wrapped in the industry’s small-and-local rhetoric rather than Fox News’s reactionary palaver, but the underpinning logic is more or less the same. By choosing not to drink, you’re causing hardship to nearby craft breweries you’d otherwise be drinking and spending money at.

Which… what? That’s not how any of this works! Customers do not owe businesses their patronage in this nifty economic system we call capitalism; businesses compete for it. If your customers are good on widgets for the month, trying to guilt them into buying more widgets is not typically a winning proposition. They will say things like “what?” and “no” and “please stop DMing me, I’m at work.”

For another thing, beer is not widgets. Beer is alcohol, and alcohol is, among other things, poison. It just is! It’s a carcinogenic depressant that, when abused, racks up enormous and well-documented social costs. If people want to drink less of it for any reason or no reason at all, you should not make them feel bad about that! (I mean, I guess you should, if you think that “Thank You For Smoking” is an aspirational movie about a bunch of not-sociopaths who just loved public relations, and oil companies should have pipeline protesters arrested more often. But, y’know: You shouldn’t.) It’s a bad look for an industry that really needs to grow up.

It’s also sour grapes. There was a time not long ago, before Dry January hit its stride stateside, when craft breweries were the beneficiaries of an American drinking public willing to try new things. Nobody had a problem with consumers’ whims when they were trading macrobrewers’ adjunct lagers for the full-flavored beers of the nation’s craft breweries. If drinker choice was sacrosanct last decade, as craft brewers insisted while they captured taps and fridges and hearts and minds from big bad Big Beer, calling foul when those same drinkers choose (briefly! so briefly!) not to buy your beer is moving the goalposts, no?

For transparency’s sake: I’m doing Dry January this year, and have done it once in the past, too. I think it’s a nice change of pace. Your mileage may vary, and that’s your business. Of course, it’s also breweries’ business, selling beer to you and me. Business has not been so hot lately, as you may have heard, so it’s not surprising that brewers and their boosters eye warily any threats to already-beleaguered bottom lines. While there are plenty of anecdotes about plummeting revenues during the first month of the year, there’s scant data indicating temporary teetotalers are to blame. January has historically been a slow month for beer sales, and the food and beverage industry generally, since long before Dry January washed up on American shores. And a 2022 Good Beer Hunting analysis of IRI scan data from chain retailers found little variance in beer sales during that year’s Dry January, despite the rising popularity and media interest in the ritual.

Scan data don’t include taproom sales, and given the segment’s topsy-turviness, who knows if this year will follow the logic of last? Maybe not: New survey data from the polling firm Civic Science shows a slight dip in Dry January interest compared to last year. Still, things are fluid, and that’s scary for brewery owners with bills to pay and payroll to meet. (Speaking of which, workers are always welcome to complain about the income they miss out on this month due to fewer shifts and lost tips, as far as Hop Take is concerned. Get in touch anonymously: [email protected]) I don’t begrudge them that apprehension, I really don’t. Considering the practice remains fairly popular, though, those brewers worried about its effect on beer sales have three real choices.

They can share snarky posts and make protest beers in hopes of browbeating customers into buying beer out of a sense of obligation to the industry. This seems like a bad idea, because people don’t typically appreciate impositions from companies that want their money! The Brewers Association has tried a version of this sort of mass-cajoling campaign for years: Its Seal of Independence campaign, introduced in 2017 to blunt Big Beer’s encroachment and convince you that brewery ownership status matters, has yielded mixed results. Can’t imagine the gambit working any better against Dry January, what with the whole “carcinogenic depressant” thing. But maybe?

Option 2 is easier and more ethically defensible: Just ignore Dry January entirely! Yes, people are talking about it, but you don’t have to. It’s a down month, and it’s the same month every year, and breweries are capable of forecasting and adjusting accordingly without subtweeting about it. You avoid inadvertently alienating your broader customer base, and no one mistakes you for a Newsmax-addled boomer. These are second-order benefits, but benefits nonetheless.

The third path is harder, more ethically defensible, and potentially more lucrative. It requires craft breweries to meet drinkers where they are, rather than where the breweries want them to be. The industry used to be very good at this! Twenty-five years ago, drinkers wanted better, more interesting beers than what the macros had on offer. Boom — craft breweries to the rescue. Now, most drinkers still mostly want that, but they also want other stuff, too. They want hard seltzers, fruit beers, and canned cocktails. And yes, during Dry January, some of them want non-alcoholic beverages. So sell them non-alcoholic beverages, for chrissakes! Do you even realize how much money people are paying for a 12-pack of hop-infused non-alcoholic seltzer these days? And it’s so easy and inexpensive to make, according to brewers already cashing in.

Of course, there’s always non-alcoholic beer, which is considerably trickier, but offers nearly alcoholic margins. Breweries that can’t handle that in-house can still stock another’s 0.0 kegs and cases in their taprooms and bottleshops for the month (or year-round, go nuts.) Kombucha, ginger beer, low-alcohol session beers for the “Damp January” crowd… man, the list goes on. More good news: Research from CGA/NielsenIQ shows that 78 percent of people who did Dry January still visited the on-premise channel, and spent $295 million more dollars on non-alcoholic beer, wine, and spirits than they did in 2019.

In other words, drinkers are still inbound, and they’re still thirsty. Craft breweries can’t beat Dry January, but masters of metamorphosis that they are, they can join it — or at the very least, politely tolerate it ‘til February.

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

It’s been over a decade since Anheuser-Busch InBev acquired Goose Island and touched off what would prove to be an eight-year craft brewery spending spree. That was a heady stretch, with lots of wild-eyed predictions flying around as small-time brewers watched the world’s biggest beer company buy its way into the segment it couldn’t kill. Not all of them have come true. (Remember the fear that the macrobrewer was going to roll out Goose’s 312 Urban Wheat with market-specific area codes?) And no one predicted that half a dozen years later, ABI’s inflationary price hikes on its craft portfolio could provide air cover for independent brewers tentatively considering increases of their own. What? No. And yet: “It appears, based on the pricing data we see from beers coming out of AB InBev’s craft unit, that there is ample headroom for smaller producers to take more price in 2023,” writes Untappd CEO Trace Smith in a new all-retail-venue analysis that found (among other things) the average price of a 16-ounce draft pour of Breckenridge Brewery’s Vanilla Porter across Colorado jumped over 15 percent between March and December 2022.

📈 Ups…

Following other macrobrewers, Asahi enters the 0.0 beer game… Congratulations to Corona for surviving and thriving throughout the first two years of the plague that bears its name… Yes, hard seltzer is down in 2022, but not down badLager is set to grow in 2023, predicts Drizly/everyone on Beer TwitterWashington, D.C. judges won’t block Kroger/Albertsons’ $4B cash-out, but Washington State judges still mightNon-alcoholic beer sales will grow in 2023, says nation’s best non-alcoholic beer salesmanWeed and booze are complementary, your freshman year roommate new University of Pittsburgh study argues…

📉 …and downs

Beer Purchaser’s Index hits lowest-ever level as the National Beer Wholesalers Association warns of “very pessimistic” JanuaryBang Energy, reeling from legal penalties and exec departures, faces new opposition on hard seltzer trademark… European drinkers’ spending slows heading into 2023, will Americans follow suit?… Jokes aside, how does Athletic Brewing Co. keep getting this glowing press? We’ve been doing this for like half a decade now… Oh look, someone else found Hard Mtn. Dew merchandised outside the beer aisle

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