You’ll never understand it
Try to buy and brand it
I win, you lose, cause it’s my job
To keep craft beer elite.
This beverage ain’t your fuckin’ industry.
~Fat Mike, if he were a beer blogger, probably.
As it is with music, there is an important distinction in beer between what we might define as that which is indie and that which we might deem corporate.
Craft beer, you might say, is something generally akin to your favourite band that’s still playing local clubs, manning their own merch tables, and banging out records on a small record label–or even no label at all. Much like craft breweries, indie bands maintain a devoted local following because they make a quality product and there is a perception that they do what they do because they love it and they’re not just in it for the money, man.
By the same token, we might readily compare big breweries to something along the lines of a boy band or the Spice Girls: a sort of fabricated version of the concept of a “band,” assembled by people with an understanding of the market and a unique ability to create a product that will have mass appeal. It’s often a profoundly successful “product,” but to those who are passionate about the scene, it’s a watered down, passionless version of what should be a good thing.
This is a simplified analogy for sure, but to me there are actually a lot of parallels between craft beer and independent music, the most notable of which is that rather icky feeling we all get when a treasured brewery or band suddenly becomes financially successful.
The brewers are good ’til they make enough cash
To eat food and get a pad
Then they’re sold out and their beer’s cliché
Because talent’s exclusive to brewers without pay.
~ Joey Cape, if he was into craft beer, I assume.
Now, this isn’t a situation we’ve had to deal with much in Ontario, but given the fact that craft breweries in the US are increasingly being bought up by big guys and the fact that trends in the US usually foretell where Ontario might end up in a few years, it’s probably worth exploring the concept of the craft beer “sell out” and preparing ourselves for the inevitable.
In the US, craft beer “sell outs” have been met with a rather virulent strain of beer fan outrage: A handful of US craft brewers have sold their companies in the last few years, including Pyramid, Magic Hat, Anchor Steam, Kona, and Goose Island. AB InBev has also bought up New York’s Blue Point Brewery Co., Oregon-based 10 Barrel Brewing, and Seattle’s Elysian was purchased as recently as January of this year. In virtually all these deals, the response from fans of these breweries has been swift and angry. Social media exploded when betrayed beer drinkers publicly aired their distaste, confusing comparisons to Nazism abounded, and cries of “sell-out” were myriad.
A quote from Seattle-based beer blogger Steve Body’s post about the sale of 10 Barrel fairly nicely captures the pervading sentiments in the aftermath of virtually all these acquisitions:
If you care about craft brewing – about the community of people, not corporations and not abstract legions of faceless laborers – then you do NOT, under any circumstances and for any amount of money, sell your craft brewery to a company whose stated objective is to bring about the ruin of that community.
On the one hand, I’m with you, Steve (and the thousands of other outraged craft beer evangelists). Fuckin’ eh, man! From a philosophical standpoint craft beer does and should stand in diametric opposition to the way big brewers run their largely profits-first beer business. AB InBev buying their way into the craft marketplace is a pretty obvious attempt to stem the tide of consumer change that is trending increasingly toward craft beer. It’s a transparent attempt for a big company to literally buy some indie cred.
But…on the other hand, is this really worth getting worked up about?
I know, I know this seems weird coming from me. I essentially wake up every morning with already high blood pressure just from residual rage about the business practices of large breweries, but the more I think about the brewery version of “selling out” and the more I consider the effect it has or will have on Ontario’s beer scene, the more I think, “Hey, this actually might not be another one of those put-your-head-through-drywall-in-a-rage moments.”
Consider a hypothetical situation: You are lucky enough to welcome a great craft brewer into your neighbourhood. You now have a great source for well-made local beer close to your house and, as you continue to frequent said brewery you actually get to know the folks that work there and own the company and, as luck would have it, they are great people. You are happy to support a small business making great beer in your backyard. Sunshine, rainbows, and happiness abound.
Suddenly, one day, you find that your favourite local brewery has agreed to be purchased be a larger brewery. Now, before you light that Molotov cocktail and run over there to burn those mother effing sell-outs to the ground, consider: what does this really mean for you and for the shiny happy people you’ve come to know working at that brewery?
Well for those brewers, it likely means a shit ton of money. 10 Barrel, the object of Body’s scorn, above, was purchased for $10 million and Chicago’s Goose Island welcomed their corporate overlords for a substantial $38.8 million. Presumably, given that you like the folks who own your local brewery, you should be happy to see them succeed and, regardless of your indie sensibilities, it’s pretty hard to see pocketing $38.8 million as anything less than a pretty fucking major success.
And what does it mean for you, as a beer consumer? Well, it likely means the people making the beer you’ve come to enjoy will have more resources with which to make that beer, and your beer drinking experience will improve. You know those times you rode your bike to the brewery only to find that your favourite Ultra Dank Stink Bomb IPA wasn’t in stock because the hop supplier didn’t come through in time for the brew? Never again. Papa InBev just bought a farm that grows Columbus Hops exclusively and they have a guy chained to a tractor who will do nothing but harvest the sticky green stuff all day for the production of your favourite IPA until he dies (and is replaced by another guy).
It also means that your brewing friends will get to share their beer with the world.
Thanks to the plane full of money flown to Chicago from Leuven, Belgium, for example, Goose Island has been able to enjoy far broader distribution of a handful of their brands, including their excellent vintage ales. As a consumer, that means you get to try more interesting beer made in smaller and far away markets you wouldn’t otherwise likely enjoy: case in point, the above pictured Goose Island IPA that’s been in the Beer Store since April 20 and is available at the LCBO as of yesterday.
Corporate ownership aside, as a person who likes to put good beer into their face and as a craft beer fan who likes to see craft brewers succeed and make their beer to the best of their abilities, are these really bad things?
Obviously, the devil is in the details. There is the potential that these craft brands might now be sold and promoted in the same less-than-awesome ways that big brands are sold and promoted. We are yet to see them, but there is of course now the potential for bikini clad Elysian Girls and rumours already abound that Goose Island kegs are hitting the market at deflated prices in order to saturate the market and hurt competitors. So too might employees of purchased breweries feel a little butthurt to learn about the change to who signs their cheques: one morning you’re going to work for a cool craft brewery, dedicated to making interesting beer, and the next you’re technically an employee of one of the world’s largest beer companies and wondering if you’re going to be replaced by a team of robots that I assume AB InBev and Miller-Coors are assembling in a warehouse somewhere. Most importantly, there is the issue of beer quality. Speculation has been rampant following every major acquisition that standards would slip as the big companies find ways to trim margins.
But one has to assume that the big brewers recognize that tampering too much with any of these areas risks devaluing the company they just purchased. The value in Goose Island, Elysian, Pyramid, Magic Hat, Anchor Steam, Kona, Blue Point Brewery, 10 Barrel Brewing, etc. is in these companies’ credibility as a craft brand. Mess too much with their marketing, their employees, or their beer quality and AB InBev risks losing that indie cred and, as a result, the return on their investment–which I think we can all agree is likely among that company’s top priorities.
So will it happen here in Ontario? In my opinion, almost certainly. It can’t be long before a local brand establishes itself to an extent that the big guys come sniffing around.
And mostly, I think, it will mean that a local craft brewer will get a big pay day in recognition of their hard work, the beer we like will be made with resources that likely ensure the quality is more consistent, and there is going to be more of that good beer available to a wider audience.
Call me a sell out if you must, but as a person who first and foremost likes great beer, this sounds OK to me.