Craft Beer's Identity Crisis
These are indeed noisy times for craft beer.
Just log on to Twitter or any other major social media platform the day a small brewery announces that a major macro producer is acquiring it. One-hundred-forty-character-and-under shouts proclaim “Sellout!” “I’m never drinking their beer again!” “Craft is dead!” Opinions like these tend to dominate the feeds on those days, usually drowning out the softer declarations like, “It’s the same beer it was yesterday and I’ll still drink it,” and “Beer is beer.”
While the fringes of any movement always will harbor its most passionate voices, does the news of a brewing behemoth’s purchase of a small, artisanal producer—which is happening with greater regularity these days—show up on the average restaurant guest’s radar? And, if so, is it making beverage directors reconsider their beer selections?
The Bristol, a modern American eatery in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, has witnessed this dynamic play out for a number of years, as it’s located in the home city of Goose Island, whose acquisition by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2011 was an early harbinger of things to come.
Even though Goose Island entered the portfolio of the largest brewer in the world, The Bristol’s general manager and beverage director Charles Ford observes that the brewery still has a fairly strong local following, despite, as he says, “for lack of a better word, the snobs” who won’t drink it.
The Bristol eventually stopped carrying Goose Island brands, but not because of the AB InBev acquisition.
“It kind of really happened naturally. It wasn’t for one big reason; it was really a conglomeration of reasons,” Ford says. “The Chicago palate has gone more in-depth than just [Goose Island’s wheat beer] 312, and more in-depth than Green Line [pale ale], and all of those classic Goose Island offerings. There’s just so much more out there that people want.”
The restaurant has six taps that rotate constantly (as well as a far greater number of bottled options), and it focuses on the up-and-comers in Chicago and surrounding areas. And there are many of those.
“With the number of small guys in the city, there are too many to not be representing them,” says Ford. “The perception was [Goose Island is] doing OK. They don’t need us; they’ll be fine without us.”
The Bristol also has rising stars from nearby Wisconsin and Michigan, as well. “It’s a beautiful thing,” Ford adds. “It’s really something special to have that much this close.”
But even when The Bristol does carry a brand that was recently absorbed into a macro portfolio, there’s not any sort of major calamity.
“I haven’t heard anyone give any grief to the servers, asking ‘Why do you carry that?’” he notes.
Things were relatively quiet on the acquisition front for a few years after the Goose Island buy, but then, in 2014, M&A activity started to pick up and then accelerated through 2015 and 2016. In that time, AB InBev bought Blue Point, Ten Barrel, Elysian, Golden Road, Breckenridge, Four Peaks, and Devil’s Backbone (and across the pond, it acquired London-based Camden Town). Meanwhile, Heineken purchased a 50 percent stake in Lagunitas, MillerCoors bought Saint Archer, and—perhaps the biggest eyebrow raiser—Constellation Brands bought Ballast Point for $1 billion.
Though the new parent companies generally let the breweries operate autonomously and continue to make the same beer they’ve always been making, their membership in the craft brewing club, as defined by the segment’s trade group, the Brewers Association (ba), effectively ends. Independence is a key pillar of the BA’s “craft brewer” definition, and no more than 25 percent of a brewery may be owned by a non-craft entity.
That often complicates things on the beer menu. “On beer lists, when it says, ‘here are our beers from craft brewers,’ that’s where you see those things coming into play,” says Ford, noting that it’s not uncommon at some restaurants for hardcore craft drinkers to call out the management for labeling a brewer as “craft” when it no longer fits the (admittedly highly nebulous) definition.
Washington, D.C.’s Pizzeria Paradiso, known as much for its extensive beer list—14 frequently changing taps and some 200 bottles—as it is for its wood-fired pizzas, has witnessed the pendulum swing in both directions at its two locations in the District and one in Alexandria, Virginia, when a big brewer/small brewer deal occurs.
“It’s twofold,” says Josh Fernands, bar and beverage director for Pizzeria Paradiso. “I hear a lot of people ruffling their feathers and making grand proclamations, especially among those beer drinkers who come in for the craft beer experience. But also, any time a brewery is bought, you kind of see a free-press sort of moment.”
There’s a corresponding short-term uptick in sales for those just-acquired brands, Fernands reveals.
“Everyone’s talking about Ballast Point being bought out, and because it’s on everyone’s tongues, we see it doing a little better,” Fernands explains. “But long-term, you do see a little bit of a falloff with the brand—especially when it’s been a while like it’s been with Ballast Point.”
But overall, he says, there ends up being something of a disconnect between the verbal reaction to a brand being bought and actual sales activity around that brand.
“At the end of the day, those behaviors stay pretty steady and people are still supporting those brands,” Fernands says.
The surge in buyouts of the Ballast Points, Goose Islands, and Elysians of the world has prompted Pizzeria Paradiso to rethink an earlier beer-related decree.
“Back in the day, we made a proclamation that we wouldn’t carry any breweries that were from the big houses,” Fernands says. “But now, we’re actually weighing the idea of changing that up a little bit with all of the recent acquisitions.”
New York’s Jimmy’s No. 43, a gastropub that enjoys a loyal cult following among the city’s craft beer drinkers and that focuses almost exclusively on small producers, experienced mixed results when it tried to shake things up a little.
“We recently brought in Goose Island for an event—some of the special, barrel-aged stuff,” recalls owner Jimmy Carbone. “I had a lot of customers thrilled to have it, but a few of the die-hard people [were] saying they didn’t want me to serve it—there was some backlash.”
Interestingly, the acquisitions that seem to inspire the least backlash from the craft beer devout are the ones involving private equity firms. Fireman Capital Partners, for instance, recently bought a majority stake in Longmont, Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewery and acquired Tampa, Florida’s Cigar City. The Brewers Association also continues to include private-equity-owned breweries in its craft definition, noting that such operations still confront the same types of supply chain issues most small brewers face. A private equity firm doesn’t immediately enhance a brewery’s access to ingredients and packaging materials the way multinational macro-brewers would with their massive bulk discounts.
But regardless of the nature of the purchaser or investor, one undeniably positive effect of such deals is the cash infusion that enables the breweries to expand capacity and distribution, bringing their brands to a much wider consumer base.
“Now, the more casual drinker has better access, with additional funding for marketing and distribution,” Pizzeria Paradiso’s Fernands points out. “I think you see a lot of the die-hards lose interest, but what gets lost does get picked up by the middle.”