Credit: © 2011 Staci Kennelly-Flickr-Getty Images
The day after Sunday's St. Patrick's Day festivities was one of the few times that America woke up from a hangover and discovered it drank less than it remembered.

In a terrible sign for 2013 beer sales, Nation's Restaurant News and research firm GuestMetrics found that consumers ordered 4% less beer this St. Patrick's Day than they did in 2012. In financial terms, sales were flat from 2012 despite fewer orders, while sales of wine and liquor on St. Patrick's Day jumped 6%. That not only means fewer pints of Diageo's (DEO) Guinness, but it's bad news for Anheuser-Busch InBev(BUD), MolsonCoors (TAP) and the greater economy as well.

That small drop-off is a big deal for the beer industry, which relies on a bump in March sales to end a winter cold spell and start the buildup to peak summer sales. In the beer world, St. Patrick's Day comes at the end of what is typically a long, dry winter. According to the Brewers Almanac put together by lobbying group The Beer Institute, American beer drinkers go into hibernation around Labor Day and don't really emerge until it's time to buy Memorial Day party packs.

St. Patrick's Day and the NCAA men's basketball tournament are where beer's first green, hoppy shoots of spring first appear. In 2010, for example, Americans hit their peak beer consumption in June, when they knocked back more than 20.1 million barrels. They bought roughly 19.5 million barrels a month until the end of summer, but consumption trickled off every month thereafter. It was down to 15 million barrels each month in January and February of 2011.

By March and St. Patrick's Day, however, that shot up to 19.1 million again before settling back to 17 million in April just before the summer buying season.

Blame the end of the Social Security tax break, blame delayed tax returns, blame a lack of expendable income in general, but don't blame all beer drinkers for the slowdown. When orders are down but sales are flat, that means folks are spending a lot more on beer than they have in the past.

Craft beer made by small and regional brewers grew to more than 5.5% of U.S. beer sales by volume in 2011, but reached 9% of all beer sales by dollar amount, according to the Brewers Association craft beer group. That same year, overall beer shipments in the U.S. dropped 1.4%, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.

The Beer Institute's explanation for this is simple: Beer isn't recession-proof. While well-off drinkers splurged for pricier craft beers and imports, working-class types cut down on their 30 packs of Bud and Coors.

They haven't quite come back, either, as A-B InBev sales estimates for 2012 show a near-flat 0.6% uptick, while MolsonCoors suffered a 1.8% setback. Bud has tried wooing high-end drinkers by bumping up alcohol content in new offerings like Budweiser Black Crown. Miller, meanwhile, is going back to its beer commercial roots to plug its leaking sales.

Each could have used a little luck of the Irish this St. Patrick's Day. Apparently, that wasn't on tap.

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