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What You're Really Paying for That Beer

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- It's an exciting time for beer in the United States, unless you're one of the many beer drinkers in this country who've been priced out by the recent economic downturn.

There were roughly 80 brewers in the U.S. in the early 1980s and about 1,600 breweries in America back in 2009. According to the Brewers Association craft beer industry group, there are more than 2,500 breweries in the United States today, with more on the way. The Brewers Association gives those small brewers credit for increasing sales of "craft" beer 15% by volume and 15% in dollars in 2012. That gave those small brewers 6.5% of all beer sales volume and 10.2% of its income last year.

It should be noted, though, that those brewers rake in the cash because they tend to cost more. According to market research firm Symphony IRI, craft beer fetches an average $33 a case. That trumps the $29 brought in by imports and the $20 a case for premium domestic beers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev's Budweiser and MolsonCoors' Coors Light. Lower tier brands including Pabst Blue Ribbon, Busch and SABMiller's Miller High Life go as low as $15 a case.

The Beer Institute, a beer industry organization based in Washington, points out that craft's gains came at the cost of overall industry losses. As Beer Institute spokesman Chris Thorne put it, "Beer isn't recession proof." The Beer Institute compared unemployment rates to average monthly beer shipments during the same period and found that overall shipments began decreasing steadily in 2009 and continued through June of last year in direct correspondence with job numbers.

Meanwhile, overall U.S. beer sales had been in free fall since the recession. U.S. beer sales just recorded a 1.2% uptick in 2012 to stop the bleeding, but A-B sales increased only 0.7% while SABMiller/MolsonCoors joint venture MillerCoors watched sales slip 1.1%.

"What you had was guys who build roads, hang drywall and deliver appliances out of work. These are guys who drink premium and premium light brands, because it's affordable and that's what middle-class Americans drink," Thorne says. "Meanwhile, Wall Street bankers, lobbyists and other well-paid professionals survived the Great Recession just fine and continued to plunk down big bucks for high-end beer, thereby growing their share of market."

So how have the big brewers reacted? Well, A-B opted to steer folks toward its import brands such as Stella Artois and craft-sector offerings such as Wild Blue, Shock Top and Goose Island. MillerCoors, meanwhile, has leaned heavily on its Tenth & Blake craft and import division with its popular Blue Moon and Leinenkugel craft-style brands.

All of that has served only to increase the average price of beer as big brewers' bread-and-butter working-class drinkers cut back. With that in mind, we've taken a look at the average price of beer through various sources and came up with the prices you should be paying for your favorite suds in today's beer market: