Good Beer Hunting

Fervent Few

Fervent Few — The Acquisition Mission

The last couple of weeks have been pretty bonkers in terms of brewery acquisitions. Lagunitas (which is to say: Heineken) bought into Michigan’s Short's Brewing Company, Kirin—via Brooklyn Brewery—invested in 21st Amendment and Funkwerks and, while we were discussing all this, Sapporo bought Anchor Brewing. (Meanwhile, even more mergers and acquisitions went down after this piece was filed. Sheesh.) There’s never been a better time to get the Fervent Few’s take on brewery takeovers. 

Johnny Swinehart: “After the sale, there usually is a loss of character. When I visit Breckenridge Brewery’s taproom, it doesn’t feel local anymore. When I visited the new 10 Barrel facility in Denver, all I could think was this is what a brewery would look like if they had unlimited money and no real connection to the place they opened. It’s beautiful, the food is good, there’s lots of space, but it doesn’t feel like it’s a local place. The beer has always been good at all these locations, but what’s missing is a personal connection. In other words, it feels corporate.”

Travis Wannlund: “Only if their practices change. Are they mass producing their IPA to push out shelf space of smaller breweries for a distribution play? Are they scaling their recipes and becoming more bland? Did their brand image completely change (see "Corporate beer $ucks")? These are questions I'll ask. 

I personally like to support creativity, vision, and local when I can. That doesn't mean I'll crusade against bigger beers or draw a hard line where it becomes an Us vs Them argument. I think that is ultimately destructive and frankly 'small' doesn't equal 'quality.' But when a brewery gets bought out, it will be getting a much heavier level of scrutiny from me when it comes time to purchase my next round.”

Nate Wannlund: “For me, ownership matters. Big time. Not in the anti-AB way so to speak, but I like meeting and talking to the owners. Finding out their 'why' and passion behind their beer. That stuff gets me fired up! I also like ownership that has total control of their creative process—to me, this makes more authentic beer. I have found it easier to meet and develop rapport with owners of small breweries. However, I have also had the opportunity to drink with Doug Odell and Ken Grossman and I left those conversations with a deeper appreciation for what those breweries are. Two of my favorites! Breweries either make beer as a product or beer as an expression. The latter is more exciting for me.”

Jaron Wright: “I do my best to support local breweries that I like over ABI/Miller/etc. I have a connection to them that can't really be replicated once they are purchased. Why? Because the acquired breweries now have the resources to reach people that they wouldn't beforehand. They don't need me as much as the brewery down the street to continue the be in business. 

I'm not really trying to boycott acquired beer, if all there is at the local shop is some Lagunitas or Goose, I don’t really mind buying every once in awhile and drinking, but if I have the option, I put my money elsewhere cuz someone else (more likely someone who isn’t concerned with ownership) is buying enough from them. I'll likely buy more of the acquired brand's one-offs. The pet projects that are hopefully seeing the light of day now that they don’t have to make their flagship on site.

For the most part, big businesses don’t largely give me big pause automatically. They just do the same things that smaller businesses do (you can’t convince me Sierra doesn't have tons of meetings about how they can take over more shelf space) on a larger scale. 

Although I will note that ABI and its hand in Texas regulation is definitely a fair reason to point to for taking a strong stance against ABI.”

Joshua Carnell: “Ownership matters, but in a totally different sense then I think it is normally thought of. I respect Goose Island for all the great beers they brew, and everything/one that has come out of it. I think that Wicked Weed is still brewing some amazing beers no matter what you see in Twitter threads. But I also look at them differently then I would a Marz Brewing or Noon Whistle. It is the David vs. Goliath sort of mentality. We can respect Goliath for being all around very impressive, but I also find myself rooting for David. I spend my money on the ones who are 'making it on their own,' fully realizing that the people inside Goose and the like are busting their butt just as much if not more. Ownership seems so very embedded in the touchy feely side of me.”

Caldwell Bishop: “I like to drink local beers and support them when I can, especially if I've been to their facility and it was a pleasant experience. But ownership matters more to me with regards to what they do for their community and, in the event they're a big multinational, if they engage in CSR and what that is.

Something like ABI acquiring a brewery doesn't bother me much (yet). Maybe this will change as I continue trying to learn more about the craft beer world, but at least as of writing this, I believe that boycotting ABI won't actually change anything other than preventing me from drinking beers I may like. Most of my social circle doesn't really care about ownership, just if they like the product or not, so to refuse to drink beer brought to a party because of its ownership would make me look immature rather than principled to most people I socialize with.”

Mat: “I’m going to take this in a slightly different direction.

For me, if anything has come out of this 'Do you know who brews your beer?' discussion, it's been my absolute disappointment in the continued spotlight that we shine on a vocal and likely minor segment of the craft beer community.

* The people that still comment on every Wicked Weed post just to yell ‘SELLOUT.’

* The folks that continue to beat up Ballast Point two years after the sale.

* The hypocrites that buy up every ounce of Founders KBS and then complain about the 30% sale to a Spanish brewing conglomerate.

* The willingly ignorant who tout a 24.9% sale as ‘good business,’ but who view selling a 25% stake as a ‘step too far.’

Unfortunately, craft beer appears to be following the same tired trail that sports fans, political junkies, and musicophiles have blazed for decades.

This is right. That’s wrong. Don’t you dare say that a grey area exists. Take a side. Have conviction. Pick up a weapon or have one used against you.

It’s predictable and tiresome.

I’m not saying ownership doesn’t matter. As the son of two small business owners, I know that’s not true. But, watching the overall conversation be ultimately reduced to aggrieved grunts or hearty back-slapping makes me love this industry a little less every time I open Twitter or read the latest beer-y think piece.”

Mrtwig: “For me, knowing about ownership matters. From there, I’m old enough and wise enough to make my own decisions. If consumers don’t care who owns the brewery, then that’s their call. If consumers feel that independence is a very important thing to them, then that’s important.

And to think that ownership doesn’t change the flavor? That’s foolish. We know that flavor is more than tasting the beer. It’s the ambiance, the glass, the foamy head, and it’s the story. It affects how we think of a beer. Small businesses are a positive part of economies. If that is important to a consumer, it’s going to affect their experience of tasting a beer.

I once got badly shafted by Air France, long story. Swore to myself I’d never fly with them again. So if I was on a flight of Carrot Airlines or whatever a year later and find out that they’re actually owned by Air France. I’d be a bit pissed off, and rightly so? I’m allowed make a principled decision?

Every purchase you make is casting a vote about what world you decide to live in.

I can have an apple pie from Marks & Spencer and it may taste a bit more appley or sweet than the one made by the 80-year-old down the road. But the 80-year-old makes it with apples from her garden and she spends the money in the local shop.

And then I can make my own decision if I’m happy with how the money I handed over is used.”

Scott Zubrzycki: “The most important factor is the beer! I have to enjoy the beer regardless of ownership.

Is the beer brewed to style, sold before it goes bad, and does it have consistent quality?

The second factor is accessibility. How hard is it to get the beer? Is it only available in a local region or is it in most stores?

Only after I've found a beer that I enjoy and can buy with reasonable effort, do I then consider ownership.

Ownership is never a primary consideration for me.”

Mike Sardina: “I agree that there is a lot of room for grey area within this discussion. Ownership is one aspect on a sliding scale of so many factors that come into play for me when it comes to my viewpoint and opinion on a beer, a brewer, or a brewery.  This was never more evident than during my time in San Diego.

For better or worse, as the acting President of the San Diego Brewers Guild, I'd get nearly constant request for recommendations for the best beers, or breweries, or beer spots in San Diego—from general consumers, from other members of the industry, or from the press.  It was very difficult to answer questions in that capacity sometimes.

Two key examples that come to mind would be Ballast Point and Saint Archer. At the time I was there, both these breweries were brewing some of the highest quality and most compelling beers in the county (to my tastes, personally). It's hard to be an advocate for the best beer in San Diego when these breweries were categorically excluded from organizations such as the Guild, and often categorically overlooked based solely upon ownership alone.

If a brewery is independently owned, that never translates to a direct correlation to having quality beer, good people, and the most compelling places to visit—especially in a county with so many different options.

These 'new' craft-acquiring-craft deals (if you want to call them that) add another level of grey area.  For example, Nelson* from Alpine. People were virulent towards that beer if it was in any perceived as being associated with Green Flash. Not saying that the beer wasn't different brewed at Green Flash, but I absolutely think that the ownership issue impacted perceptions of the beer.”

Zack Rothman: “I have never stopped drinking a brewery's beers after a sale. A lot of people see local as inherently good and big beer as inherently bad, but it's not that black and white to me. I believe there's a time and a place for all types of beer. While I still drink local to support local breweries, I don't do so blindly or exclusively. Sometimes I want coffee from a local shop and sometimes I want it from Starbucks. I'm happy for breweries that are able to increase their production and share their beer with more people. As long as the quality of the product remains consistent, ownership isn't as important to me. I buy the product I want from the company I want based on the context of when, where, and with who that product will be enjoyed. That's my choice, and I respect anyone's decision to do otherwise. I love all beer!”

A lot of craft beer enthusiasts want to know who’s really making their beer, but there’s one company that causes the most controversy: Anheuser-Busch InBev. It's one of the biggest companies in the world, and it's acquired 10 craft breweries in the last six years. Many say the company is using these breweries as pawns in a game to dominate the beer industry as a whole. Below are the members of our community with the most to say about the biggest player in the game.

Nycbeerrunner: “Ownership and strategy absolutely matter to me. Regarding ownership, I do not drink AB InBev beers unless it's absolute last resort (IE: no wine or sprints and I'm in a professional situation), and in the past year I've made the decision to clear out (by drinking, mind you) all of my remaining BCBS and variants, with no plans to purchase any further any time soon. After that hard and fast rule, strategy matters to me. For instance, I have no issues with an Duvel Moortgat investments and will continue to drink their beer as I have not seen any anti-competitive practices taking place to this point.”

Threefrenchs: “I have absolutely stopped drinking/buying beers after a brewery has been bought out. I'm not a fan of AB InBev as a company: tactics, marketing, and products.

Regardless of the brewery and who's buying them, there has to be an end game to make it work. Whether that's to help distribution, maximize a brewery's capabilities, and/or reformulate a loved beer into one that is more economical to brew. There is always a reason. That being said, if the same high quality beer is still being produced and there hasn't been a wholesale change in the brand, I will still drink them until they prove otherwise. I have no problem with a brewery selling at some point. Business is business, but don't expect me to follow along. They still need to earn my business.”

Rondale Williams: “Initially, I am turned off by the purchase of craft breweries by corporations like AB InBev, and I’ll admit initially this feeling is visceral at first. Mostly because the craft beer community cultivates a revolutionary attitude once you enter it. However, over time this feeling does dissipate and I’ll go back to buying Lagunitas, Goose Island, etc if there is no other option at a bar or restaurant I’m at (mind you, I don’t like spirits or wine). I’ll also drink Bud Light or Heineken at a BBQ if it is the only thing available because 1) I didn’t spend my money on it, so it isn’t my money going to the producer, and 2) I don’t want to sound like a beer snob and turn off everyone around me.

I must admit though, that I don’t taste a major difference in Lagunitas IPA since it has sold shares to Heineken. I simply don’t drink it as often because it has that big beer stink, and I’ve been influenced by the craft beer 'revolutionary' attitude. So, clearly, I’m biased. I also want to know more about the intricacies of the relationship between macro brewers and formerly independent brewers. If I hear some positive things that don’t sound like PR talk, then maybe I’ll change my mind.

If I see creativity and a mission coming from brands like Golden Road, Wicked Weed, etc., then my mind will change.”

Tait Forman: “I find it hard to reconcile a non-privately owned brewery that isn't local to me. I have as much of an emotional connection to Goose Island as I do to Dogfish or Sierra Nevada. I respect those who have an issue with their ownership, but in many ways Goose Island resonates because of experiences I have had with their beers that I do not associate with the individuals who own it. Conversely, I have turned my back against Golden Road since their sale to AB, mostly because I feel in some way that they betrayed me and the Los Angeles beer market. Who knows if other consumers feel similarly, although I guess not given GR's growth, and I would assume Meg would strongly argue that's not the case. But for now that's my reality and it impacts my perception of their beer.”

Freddy Clark: “A large corporation will always act differently then a small company, simply because they can and making money is the goal even if they feel the product is more than just a widget they use to do so. Let's say we replace beer with tech products. Do Apple and Samsung act differently than one another? They will buy up resources or components to save money. They will use anything possible to gain an advantage. Doesn't make them evil, just larger with the ability to do so. Would a fair playing field be nice? Sure, but business has been business for centuries.  Ain't going to change because it's beer.”

It’s becoming more common for foreign companies to buy American breweries. Usually these purchases are acknowledged, talked about for a while, and then largely ignored. Why do we treat these investments and buyouts differently? 

Nate Wannlund: “I look at it fairly similarly to the AB and venture capital buyout—it's clearly a business play to gain access to a larger distribution channel on the revenue side and purchasing power on the cost side. So I don't fault brands, especially legacy brands, that choose to go this route. Makes sense. I don't see a big difference between any brand who chooses to raise capital by selling ownership—they are all the same to me. Having said that, my (completely anecdotal) observations are that once the brewer is comfortable they tend to be less creative. When you have more to lose you tend to focus harder and come up with your best efforts. In my experience.”

Jaron Wright: “Living in San Francisco, there's no way to stop drinking Steam, Lager or Liberty. It's in our DNA around here to love these beers.” 

Kimberly Clements: “I think that there are so many investors out there in the beer space that we truly don't know anything about. ABI gets picked on because they are big and we know who they are, and some of their tactics are well-documented. However, as an advisor to the industry, we get calls all of the time from people who are looking to invest in the craft beer space. Some companies are foreign. Some companies are trying to park money around. Some companies may have some unconventional or disruptive business practices already. No one truly knows where all of the money behind some of the breweries comes from. So, I think that we can all get really bent out of shape when a brewery 'sells out' to private equity, but unless every craft brewery in the entire country is truly transparent with where their money/investments comes from, the web will continue to be tangled. And, whenever there is outside investment, there is also outside influence. Independence fails.”

Once again we’ll close out with Michael Kiser, his thoughts on ownership don’t concern themselves with the owners but with the relationships forged with people inside the brewery. Do their actions still make it worth holding one of their brews? 

Michael Kiser: “I think about ownership in a variety of ways that influence my decisions, but it rarely becomes a hard 'no' in any instance. I've been working in the beer industry for more than 10 years, so 'know your brewer' extends pretty far for me, including unlikely places like Budweiser, Miller, Constellation, and Coors. I like mentally high-fiving Lisa Zimmer when I grab a High Life. Or Pete Coors when I pick up a Banquet. (He has some personal politics I don't appreciate, but he's a quality person who runs a good company.) And when Nate Micklos ran the Pacifico brand, a guy I thought was smart and creative and we'd meet for beers and talk about the industry, my consumption of Pacifico went from zero to hero pretty quickly.

And that same mentality works at the tiniest of levels locally, too. I love supporting people like John Laffler at Off Color, the guys at Miskatonic, the young team at Hopewell, BJ at Forbidden Root, and a host of others. Sometimes it's the founding group of people, sometimes it's a specific person on the brewing or sales team that creates that connection. I'd include Goose Island in that group as well since locally they still work more like a small producer in our brewing community. And then our clients, like Central State, East Brother, and Stony Creek, which are like family for us as we support each other's small businesses. So across the board it's very personal for me. These are people I spend time with and think about often. I find that I rarely drink anyone's beers that I don't know personally—not out of any negative feelings, but because I'm overwhelmed, in the best way, with options that are personally connected for me.

So acquisitions will certainly get my attention, and some have created distance between me and the people I knew there—especially if they left post-sale. But I remain open to new faces and personalities, too. I've seen some great people get hired at breweries after a sale, and even though it ultimately changed the brewery, a lot of it has been for the better, or just equally interesting.

The breweries I ultimately write off aren't due to any political stances on ownership. Rather, it's still personal. Do I think the person is engaged, progressive, and honest in what they're trying to accomplish? If not, my buying habits tend to show the disconnect. And in a very few cases, I've sworn off a brewery because of their negative contributions to the industry. Never with any sense that it'll make a difference for them, but I would just have a shitty feeling holding that beer in my hands. And who wants that from their beer?”

Hosted by Jim Plachy