The democratization of the beer industry over the last few decades has been great for beer drinkers everywhere. As home brewing became easier and microbreweries began cropping up all across the country, beer lovers have been able to get more and better beer.
There is a group of people not happy about this: the big beer companies. As they’ve seen market share slip, they have begun turning their sights on some of the more successful microbreweries and buying them up.
The latest target of big beer is Lagunitas. One of the larger craft brewers in America, Lagunitas is one of my favorites. When I visited Northern California earlier this year with my wife, it was one of the breweries we visited. From IPAs to porters to some experimental beers, Lagunitas brews some tasty beverages. In 2015, Heineken bought a 50 percent stake in the California brewery, and earlier this month they gobbled up the other 50 percent, meaning Lagunitas has officially sold out to big beer.
The Mentality That Goes Into a Sellout
If you primarily want to make money, then you can understand the allure. You’ve created a successful business, and someone wants to pay you handsomely to acquire that business. If that success is something you want, then why wouldn’t you say yes when someone offers you some-odd million dollars for your product? That’s especially prevalent in a place like Northern California, where tech companies are bought and sold like candy.
But when you think about it, microbreweries grew out of a rejection of big beer. People began brewing different beer because they couldn’t get it from Bud, Miller, Heineken, and the other major beer companies. Beer drinkers wanted freedom from the bland basics the big boys were offering.
That rebel spirit is still a major part of the microbrew community. You see it in the names, the marketing, the spirit of independent brewers. When that independent spirit gets sucked up by a big beer company, it hurts to watch.
Heineken isn’t the only company buying up craft brewers. In recent years AB InBev, the maker of the Bud brands, has purchased or invested in a long list of smaller breweries including Goose Island, Karbach, Breckinridge, and many others. As big beer experiences sales stagnations and declines, the companies are consolidating and poaching from the growing craft beer industry in order to satisfy Wall Street and their investors.
What big beer should be doing is realizing that America’s beer tastes have changed, and embracing that with changes in their own organizations. But innovating is harder than just buying, so instead they’re purchasing breweries that, you know, make good beer.
Sometimes Buyouts Don’t Dilute the Beer
Just because you get bought by a big beer company doesn’t necessarily mean you stop producing good beer, though. Karbach Brewing from here in Texas makes a lot of tasty beers. Their Hopadillo IPA is good, easily available, and fairly inexpensive. Ballast Point, owned by Constellation Brands, has Sculpin IPA, The Commodore American Stout, and the Piper Down Scottish Ale, that are all quite tasty and worth ordering.
But for every Ballast Point there is a Goose Island. The once good micro-brewery that was an early mover and shaker in the craft brewing industry when it was established in the 1980s, was sold to Anheuser-Busch in 2011, and isn’t quite the same anymore. They do have one beer I really enjoy: Matilda, a Belgian-style pale ale, but their flagship IPA doesn’t have the same pop it did before they were bought out. You can get it just about everywhere now, but quantity often inhibits quality.
Whether they still brew good beer or not, the hit to a company’s culture when they’re acquired by a big beer conglomerate is a huge factor. The independent spirit that many of these breweries have begins to disappear when they become part of a Fortune 500 quarterly earnings call. Before Elysian Brewing Company from Washington State was purchased by AB InBev, they were famous for the tag line “Corporate Beer Sucks.” Then they became corporate beer. That has to be quite the shock to the system.
When I visited Lagunitas earlier this year, I still saw that independent, rebel spirit. They celebrate 4-20, believe that “Beer Speaks, People Mumble,” and don’t dress like they’re headed to a corporate board meeting. As they get fully absorbed into the Heineken corporate brand, I hope they don’t lose that spirit or lose quality for the sake of quantity. I hope they don’t become a corporate brewery.
I also hope that as big beer comes knocking on the doorsteps of other popular craft breweries, the owners take a hard look at why they started brewing their own beer. Was it to make millions of dollars by selling out to the highest bidder, or was it to brew good beer and share it with people who enjoy it?