Corporate brewers’ craft cravings make beer loving complicated

Pints by Jason Foster

illustration by Myron Campbell

The number of craft breweries sold to corporate brewers in 2015 was staggering. The list includes a shocking number of respected, well-established craft breweries: Elysian, Ballast Point, Lagunitas, Meantime, Breakenridge, Firestone-Walker, Oskar Blues, Southern Tier and Full Sail all left the independent ranks last year.

You may not know all of those breweries, but trust me — each held a significant place in the craft brewing world. And all were sold, in whole or in part, to large corporate interests. Heck, AB-Inbev purchased three breweries in the last week of December alone.

This list doesn’t even include big name takeovers from previous years, as brewers such as Goose Island, Red Hook, Widmer Brothers, Kona and 10 Barrel left team indie.

Canada did not escape unscathed. In the fall, AB-Inbev announced it was purchasing Toronto’s Mill Street Brewing, one of our country’s largest and longest-standing craft breweries. Mill Street joins Creemore Springs, Granville Island, Okanagan Springs and Unibroue as Canadian craft breweries scooped up by Big Beer.

Most of the activity has been about AB-Inbev adding to its lead as the largest brewery on the planet, but other players — including Heineken and SAB-Miller — have also been in on the act. Buying craft breweries is clearly cool these days.

But what are craft beer fans supposed to think about all this corporatization? Personally, I think they have a right to very mixed feelings about it all.

One of the ways craft beer is defined is that it’s a reaction to the big boys’ bland macro-lagers and crummy corporate practices. Craft breweries sell honest beer and nothing else. That doesn’t fit very well at all with ownership by a large corporation best known for homogenizing the world of beer for the last 70 years.

But I want to take a step back and examine what these buyouts really mean for craft beer.

First, there’s no question a part of craft’s independent, little-guy spirit gets squished when a successful craft brewery is bought by the corporates. Part of what attracts craft beer fans is that it’s an independent product. Many people even seek out craft beers as a reaction against corporate ownership.

Yet it’s important to not take that attitude too far. Many other craft beer fans are just in it for the taste, not the name on the label. “As long as the beer is good, who cares who makes it?” they say. Fair enough.

Also, if buying craft companies causes the big boys to pick up their game, that might be a good thing for beer.

I really think this is a more complex issue than a simple pro- vs. anti-corporate stance. Craft beer has become a big business. In the U.S. it makes up 11 per cent of the market, according to the Brewers’ Association. Numbers in Canada are harder to find, but are likely smaller — closer to the four to five per cent range.

More importantly, some of the U.S. craft players have become very big. Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium — all independently owned — are among the largest breweries on the continent. Their corporate value is likely in the billions.

At that scale, the craft brewer is hard to distinguish from the corporate brewer. For that reason some people have argued the larger independent breweries are no longer craft.

I get the point but don’t agree.

I’ve long argued that craft beer is an ethos and an approach to producing and selling beer. It requires attention to quality, respect for tradition and selling the beer with honesty and integrity. That can happen in the tiniest of nano-breweries or in huge, multi-facility operations.

So if we accept that large independent breweries can be craft, can we exclude those now owned by the corporates? I don’t think so. Ownership is the wrong measure of a brewery’s craft credentials.

We need to go back to the beer. After its maker is bought out, does the quality remain the same? Do the people involved stand by craft beer principles? Or do the bean-counters and marketing gurus insert themselves? I’ve seen that go both ways in recent years. No one can deny that Unibroue continues to make uncompromising, world-class Belgian style beer, despite being owned by Sapporo. The same company, however, has wrecked Okanagan Springs.

Judging the character of a brewery is easier when it’s small and independent. But the craft revolution has matured so it’s not surprising to see gigantic breweries selling craft-style beer.

This is the nature of capitalism — even the smallest micro is trying to make a profit, after all.

In the future it’s only going to get harder to tell who’s for real and who’s a phony. That’s why we need solid anchor criteria to judge beer businesses by — like core principles and assurance the beer takes first priority.

That said, I feel a bit weird picking up beer owned by one of the big boys, no matter how good it is.

I imagine I’m not the only one.