Insightful opinions and timely responses to the most important business issues facing the craft beer industry. Crafting A Strategy members have access to additional blog content from our founders and from industry experts in marketing, financial modeling, economics, and business strategy.


Craft is Global

Sam Holloway, Ph.D. - Crafting A Strategy

Craft is Global – East London Edition

Standing at a craft beer bar in East London, one of the first of its kind, I was trying to blend in and take in the scene. I listened as customers came up and asked innocent questions like “I enjoy Stella Artois, do you have anything like that?” Before the extremely nice bartender could answer, another person at the bar jumped in, pleasantly suggesting: “This is craft beer, not that lager stuff you are used to, try the pale ale from Kernel Brewery, its dry hopped.” The bewildered Englishman took the advice, but didn’t really know what to expect. I felt like I had gone back in time to Oregon from 15 years ago. I distinctly remember the first time I tried craft beer. It was a Black Butte Porter from Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon. I remember it tasted unlike any beer I had ever tried. As I watched this young Englishman taste his first craft beer, I smiled. The craft revolution is alive and well in England.

I was standing at The Craft Beer Co. Clerkenwell, the original location of this thriving chain of beer bars. They had 15 beers on draft and at least another 15 in casks, the bar staff was incredibly friendly and knowledgeable. They had just opened their sixth location the day before, in Covent Garden – a wonderful part of town with an open market, theaters, plenty of people watching and plenty of action. I kept listening, a much more knowledgeable customer asked for a Stone IPA on draft, and reveled with her friends at her visit last year to Stone’s HQ in Escondido, CA. I asked the very friendly and knowledgeable bartender for something local, and she handed me the Kernel Brewery Pale Ale, it was delicious with just the right amount of hop forward taste. We struck up a conversation and she had all the right answers. I was thinking about their business model, about how well trained and well spoken the bar staff was, and as people started piling in around me on this Saturday night in London, I began to feel the energy of something new, something important, and something incredibly local.

The bartender asked me where I was from, I said Portland, Oregon and quickly showed me the cooler behind the bar with 22 oz. bottles of Rogue, Stone’s Seasonal, Arrogant Bastard and many other familiar favorites from the USA. I told her I was a professor that studies beer companies and we engaged in a spirited banter about how excited Londoners were to have local craft beer. As she handed me my beer and glanced over to the patiently waiting customers, I thanked her and sipped my first English craft beer. Before I could set it down, two locals approached me. Stuart and Anna were serious craft beer fans, having traveled all over the USA searching for great beer. Stuart began: “We were eavesdropping on your conversation and you must have the coolest job in the world.” I smiled, offered them cheers and said, “I absolutely do.” Stuart reveled in the pint of Boneyard’s Hop Venom he had on his last trip to California – this guy really knew his stuff! For the next two hours, Anna and Stuart chatted to me about London pubs, the best beer, and their friends who had just started Hackney Brewery a couple of miles away. I’ll definitely be contacting these home brewers gone Professionals, Jon Swain and Peter Hills.

Stuart and Anna could not have been more gracious ambassadors of the burgeoning English Craft Beer scene. As we talked and bought each other beer, I was reminded that people care so deeply about quality, they care about local businesses, and the sense of pride they showed while talking about their friends Jon and Peter, and the beer they were making. Truly, Hackney brewing was the hub of that neighborhood.

I’ll keep this short, but my evening in East London confirmed what I have been watching all over the world – Craft Beer is Global. It gave me the idea to share with you stories about the people I meet as I travel the world searching for new answers to old business problems. I plan to visit Hackney Brewing in a few days, I can’t wait to see their operation, talk to the owners, and enjoy their beers. Keep your eyes open for a regular feature from Mark Meckler and me as we travel the globe this year. Craft is Local. Craft is Global. Thanks for visiting CRAFTINGASTRATEGY.COM



Why Contribution Margins Matter

Kevin O'Brien - Guest Expert

There are certain core financial ratios that any small business owner should understand in order to better manage their business – gross margin %, debt to assets, accounts receivable turnover, etc. One ratio that is often overlooked but proves to be immensely useful is the contribution margin. Understanding this concept is important because your contribution margin is what allows you to cover your fixed costs and generate a profit. Additionally, understanding your contribution margins will allow you to make better decisions as to where and how you sell your products.

Revenue minus variable expenses is the definition of a contribution margin. Whereas revenue less the input costs to produce a case of beer results in the gross margin, the calculation of the contribution margin factors in the additional costs to actually sell the product – the additional variable expenses. If the contribution margin does not exceed a company's fixed expenses, it does not make a profit. A company that has a contribution margin that is less than its fixed expenses incurs a loss.

As a small business owner, you are aware that there is a lot more to your business than just selling your product for more than it cost to produce. There are certain costs that are incurred regardless if you sell a product (fixed costs) and other costs that are incurred as part of selling your product (variable costs). To understand the concept of contribution margin, it is important to understand the differences between fixed and variable costs.

In order to be in business there are certain expenses that are required. These costs don’t vary with the level of output of the business; they are recurring expenses that are also known as overhead. Common examples of fixed costs include rent, utilities, office supplies, permits, and insurance. Regardless of the amount of products sold, these costs are “fixed” in their nature and need to be covered by the business owner.

Variable expenses are costs that increase or decrease relative to the amount of product sold. Said another way, these are the costs that are incurred in order to complete the sale of the product. Examples of variable costs include broker commissions, shipping expenses, distribution allowance, etc. As sales of products increase, these costs increase as well, hence the name “variable” expense.

With this basic understanding of fixed vs. variable costs and how they relate to contribution margins, an owner can now better evaluate sales opportunities. It is well known that certain sales channels (tap room) have higher gross margins than others (distribution). While it does make sense to try and generate the highest gross margin possible it is equally important to understand the variable costs that are associated with completing the sale.

For instance, let’s assume that you sell a 22oz. bomber via the taproom for $10 and in distribution it is $5. Assuming a production cost of $2 per bomber, the gross margins by tap room and distribution would be $8 and $3, respectively. At first glance, it seems obvious that you’d want to sell as much as possible through the taproom in that the gross margin is much larger. However, in order to properly make that determination it is important to evaluate the additional variable costs incurred to complete the sale.

Let’s assume that the variable costs incurred to sell the six-pack in the taproom were $7 (staffing, utilities, samples, etc.) while the variable costs to sell through distribution are $1. Once these costs are factored in, it appears that it is actually more profitable to sell your bottle through distribution than through the taproom in that the contribution margin is $2 per bottle as opposed to $1 per bottle. The extra $1 of contribution margin per bottle is that much more money you will have to cover the aforementioned fixed expenses.

Keep in mind that there are certain fixed costs that rely on the variable costs of selling product in a certain manner. An example would be if an owner spent considerable funds on retrofitting a taproom only to close it a year later because sales didn’t meet expectations. Without selling product through the tap room this cost cannot be recovered and therefore adds that much more pressure to increase contribution margins in other channels. The same situation occurs if a long-term lease is signed and the owner cannot find someone to take it over, this is now a “sunk” cost that must be recovered through other sales channels.

The above is an example of why it is important to understand the concept of contribution margins. Business owners who assume that a higher gross margin is better for their business may find themselves in financial difficulty because they aren’t considering the additional costs to complete the sale. If nothing else, understanding contribution margins will allow you to justify why one sales channel is worth focusing on relative to another.

About Kevin O’Brien, CPA: Guest Expert Blogger for Crafting A Strategy, Kevin is Principal, Zepponi & Company



Give Me Profitability And Give Me Death

Sam Holloway, Ph.D. – Crafting A Strategy

Apologies to Patrick Henry…I just returned from a great week in Denver and the 2014 Craft Brewer’s Conference. It was great to reconnect with old friends, meet new ones and attend some great sessions. One session in particular, “Surviving Rotating Handles” really struck a nerve for me. Congrats and thanks to E3 Craft Strategies’ Marty Ochs for putting together a talented and spirited panel.

For those of us at the panel, we saw some passionate folks who fundamentally disagree on the future. Marty constructed a panel representing the traditional 3-tiered system: Representing breweries was a great brewery co-founder from Elevation Beer Co., Xandy Bustamante. Representing distributors was an old-school brand manager from Philadelphia, Tom Buonanno from Muller, Inc. distribution. And perhaps the most passionate of them all, representing retail was Scott Blair, proprietor of Hamilton’s Tavern in San Diego. What an awesome crew to highlight an impending problem facing the craft beer industry. – Brewers and consumers want variety, but distributors want more sameness. More sameness is more profitable, could chasing profits result in the death of distribution, as we know it?

At Crafting A Strategy, we are business professors who studied many different industries before finding our true love in craft beer. I want this blog to focus in on the role of the distributor – or rather the distributor business model – to explain that distributors may need to wake up and reinvent their business model to survive (Johnson, Christensen, & Kagermann, 2008). Why would this cash cow of a business need to change? Eastman Kodak, Bethlehem Steel, Woolworth’s Department Stores… any of these companies ring a bell?

Clay Christensen and Michael Raynor (2003), have a wonderful book, The Innovators Solution, that shows how leading companies follow the profits to their ultimate demise. Chapter 2 – How Can We Beat Our Most Powerful Competitors, details a particularly important phenomenon, which they term “Fleeing up-market.” This process occurs within an industry’s most powerful firms, when these powerful firms chase short-term profitability found in their traditional business model, and ignore disruptive technologies and processes found in the business models of new entrants. Here’s an example from the steel industry (adapted from Christensen and Raynor, 2003).

Bethlehem Steel, U.S. Steel, remember the dominance of these large, integrated steel mills? Even the Pittsburgh Steelers NFL team celebrates this business model. They had incredible barriers to entry[1], because the only way to manufacture high quality steel was to own large deposits of iron ore. If you own all the good land, no new competitors can get this critical input and thus, you have a dominant market position. How could new entrants get around this barrier to entry? A new entrant, NUCOR Steel, found a way to recycle scrap steel and thus gain the critical input without owning large deposits of iron ore. This new business model was termed “Minimills” because they could be much smaller and more efficient than traditional steel mills that were doing things the old way (Christensen & Raynor, 2003). The only problem, minimill processes were initially crude, and they could only make the most basic and least profitable kind of structural steel, rebar (see chart below). So, what did Bethlehem Steel and the large integrated steel mills do when this new technology for steel production threatened their very livelihood? They let NUCOR have all the rebar – its margins are the lowest and least profitable – and they kept going along as if NUCOR had done them a favor. Imagine the conversation in the boardroom: Bethlehem CEO, “Don’t worry about minimills like NUCOR, their process is crude, they will never be able to make structural steel or sheet steel, just give them the rebar and let us redeploy all of our resources into the higher margin stuff. They are doing us a favor!” In the back of his mind, the Bethlehem CEO may have said, “Since my bonus is tied to share price, and I plan to retire in two years anyway, this strategy will also maximize my retirement, a win-win!” Guess what, Wal-Mart entered in hardware and Woolworth’s let them have it. Fujifilm, Canon, Sony and Nikon entered in digital cameras, and Eastman Kodak let them have it. Sticking with Steel for now, see Christensen’s chart below as to how this decision to “let the new entrants have it” and flee up-market without changing the business model led to incredible profitability, for a few years. Ultimately, NUCOR refined and improved their processes, and was able to make all of the products in the steel industry, cheaper, faster, and at the same or better quality. Bethlehem fled up-market until they were dead firm walking! Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy in October 2001.

Caption: Generic Pattern of Disruption as Incumbent Firms “Flee Upmarket”
Source: Image courtesy of Magpixie under Public Domain 

So now, back to the Marty Ochs’ panel at the 2014 CBC. Distributors are the kings of the castle. Better capitalized, better efficiency, more and better relationships, they seem unbeatable. But on either side of them in the 3-tiered system are partners screaming for a different business model. Rotating handles, variety, appealing to consumer tastes, lower profitability…the brewers and retailers are innovative, looking for a better way, and always told to just keep things the same and it will be better for all of us. Why so resistant to change? I mean, these distributors have been around much longer than craft breweries. Bright, successful people run them. They have better experience and way more information – how many of us small craft breweries can afford Symphony IRI data, after all. How can distributors fail?

Distributors rely upon market research for decision-making – many use IRI data. The fundamental assumption of market research is that the past is a good predictor of the future. Has your distributor ever suggested to you that you go into six-pac glass instead of aluminum cans “because the data shows 96% of all six-pacs are in glass”? What if Oskar Blues had listened to the past instead of forging their own future in cans? Retailers, brewers, and consumers care about variety and are trying to create a future of rotating handles where there previously was no market. There is no past, no market research that they can rely upon to ‘research’ how the rotating tap market might look. Market research is useless to them… But they are forging ahead anyways because they believe variety and choices among quality products is the right thing to do…so what will the future look like?

Something has to give. If Christensen and Raynor (2003) are correct, maybe the rotating handles phenomenon is the rebar of the craft beer industry. Existing distributors will ignore the market demand, let someone else gain a foothold in the market and leverage their sunk costs in existing trucks and warehousing practices, to reap the immediate profits, right into their own demise. A new entrant, with a passion for variety and an understanding of the needs of places like Elevation and Hamilton’s, may bring new technologies and processes to market, perhaps a cleverly designed truck technology – that automatically delivers 1/6th bbl kegs and gathers empties using a conveyor system. Will current distributors continue to ignore these changes in consumer tastes? I sure hope not, but with 10,000 breweries by 2020, the business model of distribution better get ready for change.


Christensen, C. M. & Raynor, M. E. 2003. The innovator's solution: Creating and sustaining successful growth: Harvard Business Press.

Johnson, M. W., Christensen, C. M., & Kagermann, H. 2008. Reinventing Your Business Model. Harvard Business Review, 86(12): 50-+.


[1] For more on barriers to entry, members can view our white paper, “Threat of New Entrants”



Welcome from Kevin O’Brien, CPA

It is with great excitement that I post my first blog entry for CRAFTINGASTRATEGY.COM. Sam and I have known each other for several years so when he asked me to consider blogging for his new venture I jumped at the chance. As a CPA (and home brewer) with a particular focus on the alcoholic beverage industry, I am excited to become part of a program that is supporting the growth of an industry that I have long admired. Sharing a passion for the craft beer industry, Sam and I have enjoyed several pints discussing different aspects of the craft beer industry – where it’s been, where it’s going and more importantly, how we can help. We are both strongly committed to leveraging our experience to assist entrepreneurs in accomplishing their craft brewing dreams.

With many years of experience working with wineries/breweries/distilleries from the start-up phase to over $100 million in revenue, I am excited to share my insight with the CRAFTINGASTRATEGY community. I’ve always enjoyed the numbers and operational drivers behind a great business strategy. My work history has included working on both the buy and sell side of the acquisition equation, helping buyers look for the right kind of company and also helping sellers position their company as an attractive target. Additionally, working at an alcoholic beverage focused CPA firm has allowed me greater insight into specific tax strategies; record keeping best practices, requirements for bank financing and more.

My focus on the CRAFTINGASTRATEGY member’s only blog will be giving you the mindset and the tools to structure and analyze your company from a financial perspective. Here is a look at upcoming blog posts for the next 6-8 months:

  • Contribution margins and business model development
  • Cash is king, the importance of cash flow
  • Using financial models to understand where the profits lie
  • Why good recordkeeping is crucial
  • Valuing your business model as multiple profit centers
  • Positioning your company for a sale, key thoughts on valuation and how to maximize value


As stated above, I am very excited to be supporting the craft beer industry through the CRAFTINGASTRATEGY community. I hope that my posts provide some food for thought in the financial arena and allow you to look at your business from a different perspective. I look forward to being a resource to all members in order to help in the continued success of this great industry!

About Kevin O’Brien, CPA: Guest Expert Blogger for Crafting A Strategy, Kevin is Director of Business Advisory for Irvine & Company CPA’s, specializing in financial modeling, strategic planning, and mergers and acquisitions. Kevin has been involved on both the buy and sell side of over $250 million in food & beverage transactions.

Irvine & Company CPA’s: Certified Public Accounts 345 NE 102nd Ave, Portland, OR, Phone 503-252-8449



Industry Consolidation: Slow Train Coming

Although the craft beer industry has grown a lot, we are not sure where the craft beer movement is in its lifecycle. Are we on the verge of ending an incredible growth stage? Is the industry getting overcrowded? Is the industry maturing? Or is this just the beginning?

It would be helpful to know because there are certain stages during an industry’s lifecycle when consolidation makes a lot of sense. Furthermore, the recommended business strategies at each stage differ, and timing matters a lot. Business history is littered with those who entered or exited to early or too late, and those who held on too long and those who sold out too quickly.

Most expert bloggers I’ve read peg our industry in the mid to late growth stage, already having turned the corner from an increasing growth rate to a decreasing growth rate. There seems to be a growing consensus among analysts that the craft beer movement is headed into industry maturity.

I think they are wrong. And if they are, it could be damaging to our industry. This does not mean that consolidation isn’t happening; it simply means the some experts are forecasting the wrong consolidation phase. It also probably means they are applying the wrong ideas to an interesting and important problem. My thinking about the craft beer industry is more aligned with the work of technological innovation strategists like Geoffrey Moore, William Abernathy, David Teece, James Utterback, Clay Christensen, and others.

Craft breweries are a disruptive business model and way of thinking, when compared to traditional, “clear beer” corporations. Disruptive business models change the status quo[1] (Christensen, Verlinden, & Westerman, 2002) and bring about new windows of opportunity for entrepreneurs entering the industry (Christensen, Suarez, & Utterback, 1998). This is the kind of sophisticated thinking that should guide our way forward. For the most part, other experts are reading the wrong signals, or maybe they do not realize there are multiple types of consolidation[2]. While I do think a major wave of consolidation is coming, I think the industry is at an entirely different point. Soon after an industry hits the growth stage, it sometimes looks like growth is ending. That is when Geoffrey Moore (1991) famously said it becomes time to “Cross the Chasm.”

Once the Chasm is crossed, a dominant business design (Suarez & Utterback, 1995) is set, and huge growth begins. What is a dominant business design? When all of the business models look the same, and economies of scale are achieved. Currently, we’re just not sure. Is the brewpub or production brewery business model dominant? What about contract breweries? Which business model will allow the industry to cross the chasm into the early majority? According to the Brewer’s Association data, we’re just not there yet. There are now more microbreweries than brewpubs for the first time since 1987. Entrepreneurs are still experimenting, suggesting the dominant business design shakeout is ahead of us.

Our thinking is aligned with another Clay Christensen classic (Christensen, Suarez, & Utterback, 1998), which points out that a major shakeup can occur just before a dominant design is set. This may be the stage that the craft beer industry is just about at now (2014). If so, then the correct strategy for larger breweries with access to financing should be waiting, watching, setting up financing, and getting ready to begin buying up the industry. These large firms are strategically looking to where they might combine production, or simply ramp up production of this brand or that brand to gain the economies of scale.

What about the small craft breweries? Right now, demand is huge relative to supply, and all a craft brewery has to do is produce good beer and it will all sell. Some craft breweries can even produce bad beer and it will sell if there are few other choices. Attention to efficiency and competitive positioning is not absolutely necessary to make a profit. However, a growth-based business model is inadequate when there is surplus supply, competition for shelf space and customers, and price-points start dropping. Those craft breweries that cannot adjust, or simply refuse to will fail. These types of failures – when the business model of a craft brewery does not match the dominant design are called ‘stage-based failures’. If small craft breweries simply ride the wave of popularity they are currently enjoying, and don’t prepare for the next stages, they will risk failure when the rapid growth stage ends and breweries are faced with the new reality of approaching market maturity. I don’t think we are there yet, but the slow train is coming.

What will happen when the slow train arrives? Basic strategy tenets will kick in, and we will begin a process of acquisitions and mergers. On the acquisition side, we will likely see breweries that have advantageous access to cash and credit purchasing breweries that are cash/credit strapped. They do this to gain their valuable resources, such as production capacity, distribution channels and their brands. We will also see the large “clear beer” corporations purchasing their way into the craft beer industry to fill out or freshen their product lines to fit the emerging changes in the tastes of consumers.

There will also be mergers of craft breweries with one another so that they can gain economies of scale. They might be able to share overhead expenses, sales forces and distribution channels. Those who survive will have to become efficient if they want to maintain attractive margins. Small breweries might find that by combining production capacity, they get large enough to attract the important distributors and get access to customers, or large enough to start purchasing inputs in bulk to save money. But the slow train isn’t here, we have to cross the chasm, and then enjoy the ride. However, don’t be complacent and craft a good strategy.

Suggested readings: brew.aspx craft-beer-saturation/


Christensen, C. M., Suarez, F. F., & Utterback, J. M. 1998. Strategies for Survival in Fast-Changing Industries. Management Science, 44(12): S207.

Christensen, C. M., Verlinden, M., & Westerman, G. 2002. Disruption, disintegration and the dissipation of differentiability. Industrial & Corporate Change, 11(5): 955-993.

Moore, G. A. 1991. Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and selling high- tech products to mainstream consumers. New York: Harper Collins.

Suarez, F. F. & Utterback, J. M. 1995. Dominant designs and the survival of firms. Strategic management journal, 16(6): 415-430.


[1] For a complete analysis, become a member and read our white paper: When the industry indicates it is time to outsource.

[2] We address this in more detail in a member’s only white paper – “Predicting Major Changes in Industry Structure.”