As you may have read on the internet recently 10 Barrel Brewing of Bend, Boise and soon to be Portland, sold their brewing company to AB InBev. The gut reaction of many consumers to this kind of thing is somewhere between indifference and vitriol. Some are angry about it being conglomerated, some are worried about quality decrease, and I think many others are under the impression that AB and other breweries buying up craft brewers is a very recent thing. I think it’s important to understand just how many “indie” breweries out there have “major label” ties and that time may be healing wounds after the initial blow back, along with inevitable new growth in a market less tapped into the sources of criticism.
The Goose Island sale was probably the most anger driven in recent years. It was sold outright to AB InBev in 2011, but nobody on social media seemed to really cry foul until they had to wait in long lines for Bourbon County Brand Stout in new distribution territory at the end of 2013! The irony here is they signed a deal back in 2006 that would have west coast distribution through the Craft Brewers Alliance (made up of Redhook, Kona and Widmer and invested in by Anheuser Busch.) and nobody majorly blew up. The Chicago Tribune wasn’t surprised when they sold in 2011 , so why were so many consumers? It certainly didn’t seem to matter to CA consumers when my former place of work held an inaugural Bourbon County night earlier this year. It was one of the busiest events we’d ever hosted.
Just last year Boulevard Brewing of Kansas City announced it would be selling a majority share to Duvel Moortgat. The initial online reaction was mixed, but ultimately I think the fact that Duvel Moortgat’s biggest exports (Duvel, Maredsous, La Chouffe, etc) are associated with “craft beer” and didn’t produce the hate you see with an AB InBev purchase. A year later you haven’t seen anyone spitefully drain-pouring Saison-Brett, mostly because it’s delicious.
Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY has had major label ties since day one, but that never really gets talked about. By the time us West Coasters had regular access to their beer they had already been fully absorbed into Duvel Moortgat in 2003. And just to further play devil’s advocate, in the last year they’ve had a run of co-branded beers with tv series Game of Thrones and I haven’t heard much rumbling about that other than people clamboring for bottles before the next episode.
Chances are if you’re reading this, you already know this information and just maybe, you forgave it. Maybe you already know Magic Hat and Pyramid are under someone else’s roof. And you also know that Shock Top and Stella Artois are AB InBev products and Blue Moon is an SAB Miller product despite the claim that it’s “Craft Beer” right on the label . A cursory #craftbeer check at sites like Instagram demonstrates that many consumers haven’t bothered to read very far. Even now I’m sometimes surprised when I realize the product I’m drinking came from somewhere I didn’t think it should (remember when Firestone Walker owned/brewed Nectar Ales or the Mission St Trader Joe’s beers?). I’m sure there are countless more investments and ownerships that are under the radar and it’s only a matter of time before the next big “scandal” hits the internet. The fact is, it’s a small group of people who vitriolically carry the flag talking about these takeovers. Perhaps they feel the rug was pulled out from underneath their idea that every brewery was started by a “scrappy young artist gone brewer”. You only need to glance at the wine industry to realize money often begets success in these areas. The rest of the consumers not “in-the-know” are going to have access to a new product in their distribution territory that is delicious and they’re not reading labels or doing research anyway! And let’s be honest, if a consumer drinks a Bud Light the money is going to AB and that’s probably all they’re going to drink anyway. If they see a brand new beer called “10 Barrel Swill” and like it, they might just look into it and discover some awesome sour beers brewed by independent brewers they didn’t know about.
The rub of all this information is not excusing the sale of breweries to AB InBev or other larger operations. Though I think everyone is entitled to make their dollar, at the end of the day I do my best to read labels and do my research and often look elsewhere when it comes to spending money that’s just going straight to a major corporation. Drinking local is extremely important, but I refuse to fall on the sword for a terribly brewed beer. However that’s another discussion entirely. What I’m really trying to drive home here is that you might need to do more research than you think to be certain you’re drinking local and independent. On top of that a lot of independently owned breweries still have private investors and are strictly motivated by profit, or at least it would seem sometimes. We need to pull the blinders off and realize that nothing is sacred. And if all else fails, let’s take some advice from Charlie Papazian and “relax and have a homebrew”. At least we can still brew our own.