Four days ago, following the news that local AB InBev subsidiary, Labatt, had purchased Mill Street Brewery, I wrote something about the news for Toronto Life.
While it was my intent to take more of a “positive” approach to the news than you might expect most craft beer fans would, the article did actually outline my own feelings about the takeover fairly accurately. And if you haven’t read the article yet, I can summarize my response for you fairly succinctly with one word; namely, “Meh.”
And while the reasons I’m “meh” on the news are myriad (and detailed in the article. Seriously, just go fucking read it), I received quite a few negative responses to my take, and, as you can imagine, Mill Street has taken some abuse about the news, too. Because it’s the internet, the responses vary widely from reasoned and logical arguments about where beer-drinkers consumer dollars will now end up, to the reactionary and downright silly, e.g. that one guy who immediately tweeted a now-deleted video of himself pouring a Cobblestone Stout down his drain. What a waste of a nice beer.
Anyway, much of the negative response I’ve seen and received in response to my positive-ish take has been pretty uniform in that it all tends to come around to one salient point: After they become another subsidiary of the world’s largest beer company, Mill Street’s beer will no longer taste as good as it does now.
And yes, that does seem like a fair assumption to make: the profit-focused evil empire of beer known as AB InBev is surely so hell-bent on ensuring efficiency that they will find ways to make beer with lesser, cheaper ingredients and will scale it up so that the complexity and uniqueness of any craft beer must surely be jeopardized. Right?
Well, I don’t really think so.
Because while we all assume that’s the case, is there any actual evidence?
In Canada, the “evidence” that’s always trotted out is the marked and lamentable decline of Creemore Springs after it was purchased by Molson. Read any Canadian news outlets’ take on large breweries buying small ones and you’ll surely see it there dwelling in the comments: Some once-faithful Creemore drinker who now swears that the beer “just doesn’t taste the same” and will never drink it again. But I ask you, gentle reader, have you ever heard any version of this argument that doesn’t include the qualifier “in my opinion” or some variant thereof?
I mean, I obviously like a good big-bad-macro-brewery conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but have any of you actually got any real proof that, once a craft brewery is purchased by a large beer company, that small company’s brands being to suffer?
To me, it just doesn’t make sense. While AB InBev–or Molson, or Coors, or SAB Miller, or whoever–are arguably known for making shitty beer, they are most certainly not in the business of making shitty financial decisions, and to me eroding the quality of a brand like Mill Street would be just that.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. I asked author Stephen Beaumont what he thought about the much-hypotheisized decline in craft beer once a big company starts paying the bills. Beaumont is the author of ten books about beer, including his most recent, The Beer & Food Companion. He has spent roughly the last 25 years drinking beer as part of his profession and has probably has more insight than me, you, and virtually everyone dwelling in the comments sections of beer articles.
“I cannot say that I have noticed a great decline in the quality of existing brands post-big brewery purchase,” he says. The use of a brand name to peddle “more accessible” styles through the introduction of new labels, yes, but not an overall decline in quality. That just makes sense – why would a brewery spend tens of millions to buy a company and then ruin its products?”
For good measure, I also talked to Toronto writer, Jordan St. John who is the author of three books about beer, including The Lost Breweries of Toronto, and who has just announced a forthcoming co-authored guide to Ontario’s craft beer. St. John has also spent considerable time drinking beer with a discerning eye/mouth; however, him you actually might find dwelling in the comments sections of beer articles–just for shits and giggles.
“Honestly, I haven’t [seen evidence that quality suffers]. What exactly would be the upside of doing that?” he says. “I mean, I think you could probably argue that Goose Island IPA is not as good in the Canadian industry standard bottles and that the American version is probably better for that reason, but… I don’t think it’s intentional, exactly. I think it’s a side effect of trying to scale that up and I think they’re probably working on it.”
I’m also going to go ahead and assume that the same will be the case for Mill Street. There may be some hiccups while they figure things out with their new corporate overlords, but presumably the beer will stay pretty much the same.
Why would Labatt invest heavily in a Toronto craft beer brand only to further erode the value of that brand? It doesn’t make sense, and the evidence simply isn’t there.
But I’m not so narrow-minded as to propose it’s entirely out of the realm of possibility, and so I will again put this question to you, readers: have any of you actually got any real proof that, once a craft brewery is purchased by a large beer company, that small company’s brands being to suffer?
If any of you can come up with some convincing evidence that big brewers have ruined the quality of a still-in-production “craft” brewery, I’ll happily buy you a case of Mill Street Organic. Make sure you do it soon so you get a good case of beer before Labatt ruins it forever! Or, you know, doesn’t.