Times are tough, but not for brewers

Life's guilty pleasures usually thrive during tough economic times. Though we may forgo new frocks or fancy dinners out, we have traditionally turned to the three big vice industries – gambling, smoking and drinking – to help ease our pain.

But this time around is different. Smoking has fallen into such ill repute that many municipalities ban it. Fuel costs have made driving or flying to a casino a pricey proposition. Now it seems the only acceptable – and affordable – sin left is alcohol, namely beer.

“It's really considered a consumer staple kind of industry,” said Dan Ahrens, author of the book “Investing in Vice.” He put it on par with toothpaste, or, say, soap. “People gotta drink no matter what's going on with the economy.”

More than 16 million barrels of domestic beer were sold in the U.S. in July, and annual sales through that month are up 1.4 percent, the largest increase since 1990, when the economy was headed toward a recession, according to the Beer Institute.

The uptick is significant for a mature industry with roughly $50 billion in annual sales, particularly as consumers reduce spending on other discretionary purchases, such as venti lattes and designer jeans. Trade groups for the liquor and wine industries report consumption of those beverages has also increased. But beer is America's most popular alcoholic beverage, claiming more than half the market, and the go-to drink during these times of economic distress.

According to a Nielsen survey this summer, 13 percent of consumers said the economic downturn had significantly affected how much they spend on beer, the smallest percentage of any category. Nearly half said there had been no impact.