The race for craft beer domination is coming from the very top of the industry and it’s making a lot of people angry. News broke Wednesday that Bend, OR's 10 Barrel Brewing Company will be Anheuser-Busch’s third craft acquisition in as many years, followed by a wave of mixed emotions from those who support the industry: outrage, then hatred, and finally, confusion. As the dust settles, one thing becomes very clear: craft brewery acquisitions aren’t going to stop any time soon but they may actually be what keep craft beer in check.
Back in 2011, when Chicago’s Goose Island was purchased by Anheuser-Busch for nearly $40 million, there were concerns from fans that the beer would suffer as the brewery grew. This hasn’t been the case at all, as even brewmaster Brett Porter has marveled at the incredible range of resources at his disposal. Goose Island's sales more than doubled to 320,000 barrels a year, and although they moved production of their best-selling beers like IPA and 312 Wheat Ale to out-of-state facilities, the complicated and time-consuming barrel program expanded and stayed in-house. Although it’s too soon to see the long-term impact on Patchogue, NY’s Blue Point Brewing, which was acquired by AB in 2014, the brewery seems to be reaping similar benefits.
There’s plenty of irony in the cards to go along with craft brewery acquisitions. Blue Point religiously touted that they would be independently owned forever, famously playing an April Fools' prank by announcing that Miller had acquired them, only to turn around and get bought out for real by Anheuser-Busch. 10 Barrel still has a pop-up on their homepage which checks if you're 21+ before entering their website, listing one option as “I’m a brewery owner with no game trying to steal your ideas.”
I can’t help but imagine that these three acquisitions aren’t randomized but were carefully laid out in a boardroom some years ago. First, AB execs tapped Goose Island, securing both a major market share in Midwest craft beer, alongside the largest barrel program in the country, which added instant credibility amongst beer geeks. Then, they focused on a New York brewery with solid and approachable selections. Then came Bend. Bend isn’t a large city, but has some of the best breweries in the U.S. It's viewed as a sacred haven for craft beer and a major craft beer tourist destination. Three of the biggest cities for craft beer in the U.S. now have a (formerly) craft brewery currently owned by AB-InBev.
Most of 10 Barrel’s fans aren’t happy. Currently, their facebook page is ablaze with hate. “Sell-outs" is a popular term being thrown around, but in between the many lines of anger there are several congratulatory posts. And I mean, how about that? Doesn’t 10 Barrel deserve respect for building a brand so well that a larger company took notice?
Craft breweries have become a return to the mom and pop business of old, which is why their fans are so passionate about keeping things small. For drinkers or frequenters to the brewpub, even if nothing actually changes it will “feel” different. Craft beer drinkers are nostalgic for simpler times when you felt connected to a business. Sure enough, it feels great when every beer you buy seems to be directly contributing to a small brewery’s success. But what about when they do over-achieve? What then, when the brand requires further expansion, distribution and investment?
10 Barrel’s Brewers/owners released this video, saying that nothing will change.
One of the main reasons expressed for the sale is the difficulty in packaging and distribution, an area where AB has the resources already in place to push the brand to the next level. If you are a real fan of the brand this should make you happy. The beer will reach more people and the recipes will likely stay the same.
Why is all of this potentially a good thing for craft beer? Note that with 3,000 breweries in the U.S. today, the threat of oversaturation looms. I have seen dozens of brands come and go through the beer section of stores because they simply don’t sell. There’s always room for good beer, but simply stated: there is some terrible craft beer out there. Be careful not to fall for the term "craft." Some craft brewers use the same pay-to-play tactics that the big guys use. Some non-craft brewers make awesome beer. The fact that the big guys see the craft industry as a threat means that good beer is profitable. If AB-InBev or MillerCoors wants to invest in one craft brewery, they are helping the industry by promoting beer with taste. It’s an investment in better beer and better beer is a win for us all.
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