The national battle between Big Beer and local craft breweries is playing out on the shelves of your neighborhood Publix — and some favorite Florida brewmakers are losing.
The guild that represents Florida brewers says at least 12 small breweries have had merchandise reduced or completely taken off the shelves in some Publix stores across the state.
What’s in its place? Craft brews from across the country — several of which are owned by one of beer’s biggest players, Anheuser-Busch InBev.
"They’re blatantly removing Florida craft ones and replacing them with beers purchased by these big guys," said Joshua Aubuchon, an attorney and lobbyist with the Florida Brewers Guild.
Staples like Cigar City, Tampa Bay Brewing and Coppertail are among the remaining beers in area stores, while breweries such as Gainesville’s Swamp Head and Bradenton’s Motorworks have had their stock cut completely, according to display maps obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. St. Petersburg’s 3 Daughters’ set space has been halved from two beer options to one.
Publix, the dominant Florida-based grocery chain, overall shrank its craft beer section in half to 8 feet, freeing up more space for domestic beers such as Budweiser and Bud Light and imports such as Corona, area displays show.
When asked about its product shift, Publix said in a statement that it monitors sales and customer demands could have changed prompting a switch-up. When brands are added and removed, it can vary store to store.
Spokeswoman Brenda Reid said in a statement that craft beer has been a growing segment of beer sales for nearly a decade and that stores "continue to add new products as customer demand increases."
A shift in chains toward conglomerate-owned craft beers is happening all over — a grocery store tale of David vs. Goliath.
The Brewers Association, which reps small brewers across the country, said its members started complaining during spring shelving resets. Small brewers told the group its craft products were being pulled from grocery chains and replaced by the once-independent craft brands that massive beer companies bought out.
Anheuser-Busch is part of an ongoing North Carolina lawsuit, from which a document came to light last month showing the conglomerate made a deal with a Raleigh distributor to favor A-B products over all others.
"As the large-multinational brewers have begun acquiring brands and pushing them more widely in distribution, we have certainly seen a trend nationwide of acquired (now corporate) brands displacing independent brands," said Bart Watson, the chief economist for the Brewers Association, which has more than 10,000 members.
Watson said it’s not unusual for A-B, or other big beer companies, to make a map for stores and distributors — they do it as part of the role of "category captain." He said the companies are supposed to act as neutral third parties when giving advice to stores.
"It’s not surprising that their advice comes with a particular point of view," he said.
A-B InBev did not respond to requests for comment sent to its media email. Publix did not release a list of which beers it will no longer carry in local stores.
"Craft beers have a smaller share of the total beer category," Reid said in her statement. "Customers continue to purchase a higher percentage of traditional beers as opposed to the craft beers."
A map of a Publix craft beer section layout obtained by the Times shows the standard craft beers Publix now carries in its stores in Tampa and St. Petersburg and where they should be placed on the shelf. In the left corner of the document is an Anheuser-Busch logo.
Publix expanded its line of Belgium-Brazilian company A-B InBev’s beers to at least seven brands, including Goose Island, Elysian Brewing, Golden Road and Karbach.
By the end of the first week in June, Publix stores across Tampa and St. Petersburg were in varying degrees of transition to the new layouts.
The craft beer cold display in the Publix on First Avenue S in downtown St. Petersburg had "our apologies" tags in place of some brews — like the 3 Daughters’ Bimini Twist that likely won’t be restocked. Its Blonde Ale, however, is included in the latest set plan. The store at 4th Street Station had a couple of the remaining Swamp Head’s Big Nose on its clearance rack.
At the Tampa Publix on W Neptune on Dale Mabry, shelves were nearly cleared out of Goose Island’s IPA. It was on "BOGO" offer. A few weeks before, Karbach, another A-B InBev brand, had the same deal.
The Times reached out to five Florida brewers affected by Publix’s shelving change. None wanted to comment for this story. Some admitted they were fearful it may alienate them from possible business deals with Publix.
"Our members are expressing concern over what’s happening," Aubuchon said. "They’ve come with a common thread: ‘Our sales are doing good,’ ‘We didn’t see a drastic percentage drop.’"
Data which the Times obtained from Nielsen Holdings — a trusted third-party tracker — shows what sales were like for some of the affected beers from 2016 to 2017 in Publix stores statewide.
Last year, 3 Daughters was growing toward $1 million in sales between Publix’s Jacksonville and Lakeland (which includes Tampa Bay) store regions — sales in the Jacksonville region jumped 20 percent, more than making up for a slight dip in its Tampa Bay area sales.
Swamp Head’s Publix sales soared in the Lakeland region and in its hometown market within the Jacksonville region to a combined $838,000.
Among bigger brews: Cigar City — which, while still brewed locally, sold a controlling interest of the company to a Colorado brewery in 2016 — sold about $2.8 million within its hometown Publix region, up 8 percent. A-B InBev’s Goose Island saw sales in the general Tampa Bay market drop by about 11 percent to $1.2 million.
A-B InBev bought Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Company in 2011, and Goose Island’s founder left the company by 2012. Since then, A-B InBev has acquired a total of 10 former independent breweries.
The operations director for Colorado’s Brewers Guild, Steve Kurowski, calls the independent-turned-corporate beers "fake craft brands."
"We’re trying to educate the public the best we can for them to do research about where the beer comes from," he said. "There’s no doubt there’s some confusion in the marketplace."
The Brewers Association is pushing small brewers to use a seal it created to make it easier for shoppers to identify the products it considers authentic and independent craft beers.
In Colorado, a new law will go into effect in 2019 that will allow grocery stores to sell full-strength beer, which now can only be sold in liquor stores. Kurowski’s guild worries grocery store chains will be swayed from carrying local craft in favor of Big Beer’s version.
"We hope what is happening in Florida isn’t going to happen here," he said. "Our fingers are crossed."
Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] or (727) 893-8862. Follow @sara_dinatale.