Ben's Beer Blog

A place for all things beer.

Do “bought out” breweries really start making lesser beer?


IMG_5032Four 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 Torontoand 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.


Author: Ben

23 thoughts on “Do “bought out” breweries really start making lesser beer?

  1. If anything this infusion of cash will actually make the beer better. I’ve noticed many inconsistencies lately with Mill Street beers, many to do with packaging issues. But I also just had an excellent experience at their brew pub. The beer was great, food pretty amazing and the service was top notch. I’m looking forward to being able to order a Mill Street beer at more mainstream establishments too (like the Rogers Centre). It’ll help open up the world of craft beer to so many more people than before.

  2. Reblogged this on Schoolhouse Craft Beer and commented:
    If anything this infusion of cash will actually make the beer better. I’ve noticed many inconsistencies lately with Mill Street beers, many to do with packaging issues. But I also just had an excellent experience at their brew pub. The beer was great, food pretty amazing and the service was top notch. I’m looking forward to being able to order a Mill Street beer at more mainstream establishments too (like the Rogers Centre). It’ll help open up the world of craft beer to so many more people than before.

  3. I have it on good authority from a friend who has done contract work with Molson/Creemore that the product now goes through pasteurization which I would guess has affected the taste. I have no definitive memory of the taste pre and post 2008 but it is at least ‘different’.

  4. I agree with you. The only beer I can think that actually suffered was Rickard’s Red but it wasn’t really a micro at the beginning either, just brewed at one facility for Molson’s. Same issue, when it became widely distributed there were moderate changes to the flavour…. and my age. Drinking at a dive bar where you are sweaty and feet sticking to the floor made that beer awesome. It tasted way different in the beer bar down the street where they had local microbrews.

    • You don’t have a lot of credibility, considering Rickard’s has nothing to do with the actual topic discussed here. As you stated, the beer was devoped in a Molson brewery, by a Molson brewer.

      Try ‘getting sweaty’ and having your feet stick to the floor, I’m sure the beer will taste just as you remembered it.

  5. My concern is exactly what you mentioned – that, under the new framework, the brewery will start to peddle ‘more accessible’ beers and discontinue their ‘less accessible’ and, IMO, more interesting, beers. But, then again, how out there is Tankhouse? And it’s my current Mill St fave. So maybe I have nothing to worry about.

  6. I remember Upper Canada Dark tasting better before it was shipped off to Guelph to start life anew, like a malty blend of sea monkeys.

  7. You have to be trolling for comments Ben. Empirical evidence on how something tastes is not widely available unless we all run PCR and Spectrometry tests on the various beers, before and after purchase. So its all down to taste and opinions.

    However, I say based on the following preponderance of the evidence, the beer will decline in taste in a wide majority of drinkers opinions.

    Creemore, Uppercanada and even Sleemans all had more trumpeted brands when independent. Part of the “decline’ is the lack of continued flavour improvements and a stasis these beers go into when they are bought. The world moves on, and the macro beers remain the same. Which is partly why so many people will recount that they used to like ‘Tankhouse’ more a few years ago when it tasted ‘better’. Did the recipe change? Slightly, sure, but also the world changed while they started to stand still and mass produce that beer.

    An even better question is this – can you name any beers that have IMPROVED once bought out? Or can you name a big brewer beer that is of the same quality / flavour profile of a local, fresh craft beer?

    Likely not many. So how can a corporation that makes its money advertising and runs it brewery by accounting principals, that has shelled out tens or hundreds of millions hope to recoup those funds if not by doing what they do well, making beer cheaply? They can’t. That is not the animal they are. That is why most of us got into craft brewing, because we are different animals and we like doing whatever it takes to get the flavour we want.

    • “can you name a big brewer beer that is of the same quality / flavour profile of a local, fresh craft beer?”

      I would argue that depends on your definition of quality. I would say that any Molson / Labatt / Sleeman whatever is of equal or not higher quality in regards to consistency, availability, repeatability and shelf life than any local micro brew. The flavour profile may not be in the same league, but then again look at the style of beer they are producing. I find it a little disturbing that people can harp on the quality of a macro brewed beer without any idea of what it takes to produce a product (a living product, at that) around the world and get a consistent taste throughout.

      When you talk about a beer “stagnating” and not improving / changing with the times it makes little sense. Of course a major brand of beer is going to remain the same. When you brew on a large scale there is no room for error. Recipes may evolve slowly over many years, but the end result should stay the same. I would argue Tankhouse remains the same good beer it alwayshas been, but craft beer drinkers are fickle. We are always looking for the new thing, there is very little brand loyalty.

      Of course this is all based on opinion, so you can take from it what you will.

  8. The beer might be the “same” or most “consistent and that’s fine. I am someone who likes to give the “little guy” an opportunity to impress me with what they have up their sleeve.

  9. Who honestly cares what Mill St tastes like now, or what it will taste like in the future? The flavours of Mill St beer is hardly an exciting topic. What should be a discussion is how spending your dollars on Mill St, is now putting money towards the same conglomerate that operates The Beer Store, which by the way, is the single largest factor that is holding back an open beer market from happening in Ontario. If people would stop buying beer from breweries that have sold out, it would inch us just a little bit closer to some change here. Maybe if enough people caught on about where their money goes (Beer Store dollars going towards politicians to keep things the way they are), we could instead be discussing the Bell’s Two Hearted that we purchased from a privately owned craft beer store here in Ontario… some day. 🙂

    • Re: discussing where your money goes, the Beer Store holding us back, and political contributions, I’ve been doing that for about four years. I’m using a recent event to have a broader conversation about whether or not the taste of beer changes once someone “sells out.” I’m not trying to suddenly suggest that being conscious of where your money goes is no longer important.

  10. Hard to have objective evidence. Certainly there’s been enough expert tasting “gotchas”/exposes to show how fallible things can be.

    That all being said:

    I think to Unibroue and really have not noticed a huge difference pre and post. The Granville Island stuff I’ve had in Ontario seems unlike the stuff I had in Vancouver, but that was years ago, my palate is more fine tuned, and it was also straight from the source.

    At the same time, I’ve seen good beer (IMO) go total shit by weird corporate moves: Newcastle.

    So why would Craft brews be exempt.

    My main concern is being fooled into thinking in supporting the little guys (eg Hops & Bolts).

    Love the website and writings. Thanks for your work on this.

  11. I don’t think Creemore Lager is changed at all since inception. It’s always had a malty and typically European lager fermentation signature. I was up at the brewery not long after it opened and have tried it regularly since.

    According to the beer’s description at The Beer Store, it isn’t pasteurized: Maybe the one available outside Ontario is, that I can’t say. Incidentally, some craft brews are pasteurized…

    I don’t think the taste of Sleeman’s beers has changed at all, or Unibroue, or Goose Island (draft anyway, haven’t tried the bottles or cans in Canada), Okanagan Spring, etc. As others have mentioned, there is really no incentive to. Also, craft beers can change even while remaining craft beers: I still like Tankhouse but it seems different than when first released, lighter, I think it went through some evolution even under the previous ownership.

    The one area I wonder about is product innovation: will a brewery under large-scale corporate ownership, formerly independent, tend to be as innovative as small brewers can be? Perhaps in general no, but it’s hard to say. The market is changing quickly too, and e.g. GI in Chicago seems to be as active if not more so with product releases as before, eg. its bourbon barrel-aged range of Imperial Stout is enlarging.

    My view is, these developments simply encourage what everyone at the outset of the beer revolution said they wanted, better and more available beer. Those who prefer buying from smaller-scale producers than large still have a large choice of other brands. In this sense (only) it should give encouragement to existing independents.


  12. Is it possible that as distribution channels are “rationalized”, beer travels a greater distance between the (centralized) brewery and the customer? Maybe this causes the changes people report.

  13. I’m assuming Ben has never worked in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry. Want to know the “financial decisions” that inevitably lead to a drop in quality? Here is how it works at *every* CPG company (and ABInBev is certainly no exception):

    Operations departments are given goals to meet with respect to product costs: for instance “x% cost-down per year.” Some efficiencies can be made around the production methods, but eventually it is impossible to reach these goals without affecting the recipe of the product.

    When the product recipe changes, the new product is put in front of a group of people to taste. As long as there are no violent objections (or if the violent objections are kept below some “acceptable” percentage), then the new recipe goes into production. Over time this always affects the quality of the product.

    If there’s a big push-back from the market, then operations may throw a few more pennies into the recipe to bring the quality up slightly, but most of the time this doesn’t happen. Some of the savings from the cost-down might be thrown into marketing to make up for any shortfalls. In the end, even with some extra marketing costs, the product is still more profitable.

    Long-term, you are guaranteed that Mill St. will not be the same as it is today. Will it be “good enough”? Maybe, but you’re fooling yourself if you think it’s not going to drop in quality over time.

    As for the “eroding the quality of a brand like Mill Street”, ABInBev doesn’t give a crap about the Mill Street brand in the long-run. If it falls into mediocrity then they’ll just take the profits they made off of it and go buy the next hot microbrewery startup. This is how CPG works: ask literally anybody who’s worked in operations or brand management at any major CPG company and they’ll tell you the same story.

  14. My issue is that I don’t want to give AB InBev, Molson Coors, SABMiller, or any of those guys a single cent. With this purchase, buying Mill Street beer will, in effect, be helping Labatt’s bottom line and I don’t wish to do that. Call me silly but that’s how I feel about all of this.

  15. Does the fact that Girl Guide cookies taste like shit since Dare took over from Christie’s factor into this discussion?

  16. I looked up this topic because I just opened a bottle of Mill St. organic lager and thought it doesn’t taste as good as it used to, in fact, it almost tastes bad now, like a cheap beer. It was never like this pre-buyout.

  17. I realize this is an old thread, but I wanted to comment anyway. One thing that can change a beer’s taste is a change in water. Someone mentioned Upper Canada changing when it moved to Guelph. It isn’t a craft beer, but I used to drink Molson Dry on occasion. I noticed a difference when they stopped brewing it in Barrie and started brewing it in Etobicoke. I am not sure how much of a difference this makes, but it must have some effect on a beer’s flavour. While I wasn’t exactly thrilled with Labatt taking over Mill Street, I don’t automatically think that a beer has to be bad just because it’s brewed by a large multinational brewery. In some ways, having access to capital from a larger brewery might actually result in some new and better products — and access to a larger market, which can increase availability and decrease the likelihood of a beer you enjoy being discontinued.

  18. I really don’t care because those compagnies were already producing bad beers before being purchased, this will not get better afterwards (mill street, archibald, creemore etc.) probably the reason why the owners sold their shit as soon as the opportunity came.

    There is no proof if beer will be better or not to answer your question, one should just avoid any beers from multinationals and also do not expect any decent product from those.

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