I’m not trying to be Chicken Little and shout that the craft beer sky is falling, but it’s just one acquisition after another these days. And they’re not over, my flavorful-beer-loving friends. I think we can expect this trend to continue for a lot of different reasons. From aging founders looking for that payoff to help them in retirement, to jaded business-owners who see their competition being snagged for large sums of money, to people starting breweries just hoping to be bought out, I think we can see the trend continue, and at a faster rate than before. I’ve shared the articles with you, my craft beer brothers and sisters. Craft Beer is undergoing a major upheaval, and it’s coming from those brewers which craft beer has always struggled against: The Macros.
The first harbinger of the winds of change was Goose Island. When this deal went down, I’d really only heard of their Bourbon County Stout. In fact, I’d actually had it, and really thought it was something special. What the bourbon barrels did to this stout was amazing, and I’d never had anything like it. Some time later, they purchased 10 Barrel Brewing out of Bend, OR, which I’ve still never tried (and won’t), followed a couple months later by Elysian Brewing out of Seattle, WA. The Elysian deal hit me harder, as I’d actually been to one of their pubs in Seattle, and really liked their pumpkin beers. In fact, until that point, the Elysian Pub experience was one of the more enjoyable craft beer experiences I’d had. How these brewers could sell out to what had been the enemy prior to this was unthinkable. Elysian’s motto had been “Corporate beer sucks!” How do you lose track of this, I wondered. It just didn’t make sense. You quit your (potentially more lucrative) day job (which possibly had benefits and some sort of retirement package), and start doing something you’re passionate about. Clearly you’re not in it for the money. I mean, obviously you have to pay the bills. Obviously, you have to live. But when many of these breweries started, craft beer was not the booming market that it is today.
And I guess that’s what has really changed over the years. Many of these breweries did not start out when craft beer was in its infancy. I mean, we’re talking the 80’s at that point, which was really a lot longer ago than I care to admit, apparently. When companies like Sierra Nevada Brewing started out, they were not meeting a need, they were showing people they had needs that were not being met. They were truly evangelizing what full-flavored beers could actually be. Things are significantly different now. While not in the same league as macro beers, craft beer is the only market segment which is growing. The fact of the matter is that these days, there IS money to be made in craft beer. Some companies are starting out hoping to make it big, and be the next success story in craft beer. But what does that even look like today?
See, the fact is that everyone is hoping to be the next Stone or Sierra Nevada. Possibly, they even want to be the next Boston Beer Co. That ship has sailed, I think. Just as there was never going to be another Annheuser-Busch, companies growing up in craft beer today have thousands of competitors. As craft beer is proving to be more than just a fad, more and more breweries are entering the segment, and crowding it. What do you have to do in order to make a splash in the craft beer world these days? Do you make a fine example of an IPA? White noise, especially on the left coast. Do you make a crazy 18% abv barrel aged imperial pilsener? You will likely be shunned by the beer purists who say your innovative concoction spits upon the tradition of fine Czech brewing. You can’t color outside the lines too much, because you will be shunned, but you
can’t just conform to the BJCP style guidelines or you won’t be distinctive enough to make that splash you need to guarantee your successful entry into the market. When was the last time you found yourself saying “Wow, that was just a consummate English Bitter?” Shoot, when was the last time you found a brewery offering a to-style English Bitter? Or a mild? The craft beer landscape is crowded, and it’s getting more difficult to figure out what the next “big thing” is going to be in the market. What will set truly fine brewers apart in 5 years?
And that’s where we find ourselves today. There is money to be made in craft beer, but it’s increasingly looking like the MOST money is to be had by selling out to a big brewer. As jaded as it sounds, I guess we’ll see what brewery owners are REALLY in this business for in the coming years. Because *I*, for one, think that craft beer isn’t going anywhere. When craft beer started, it was all about the ingredients and the quality. Was Bud cheap? You bet it was. But was it quality? No. There is just nothing to compare to an all-barley beer when it comes to flavor. Yes, you can use rice syrup to up the alcohol without adding body, but what if I WANT body, flavor, and complexity? I think the distinction between complex/flavorful and shallow/sweet is still worth making. And as for craft breweries who sold out to the enemy (and to be clear, to me that’s AB InBev), I’m not buying your beers anymore. You sold out to a company who uses their distributor network to squeeze out small brewers and files lawsuits just to torpedo small brewers. I don’t and won’t support companies that pull that crap, end of story. I don’t think craft beer, with its original definition (which had more to do with quality than size or ownership), is going anywhere. But I certainly think it’s going to look different in the coming years. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes. If you get tired of the money shenanigans, feel free to swing by and I’ll pour you a pint of something that was truly brewed the hard way: by hand, in my backyard.