“How many people care?” she looked at me, wondering. “How many people care who owns my beer?”
I was drinking with Meg Gill, just a month after she had sold her four-year-old Los Angeles-based brewery, Golden Road, to Anheuser-Busch InBev. If anyone cared about that fact, they probably weren’t in the room with us. We were in downtown Manhattan at The Growler Bites & Brews. It was all but empty on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon, the vast majority of typical customers—Wall Streeters and the like—surely still at work. Even if we were still here by the time 5 o’clock hit, though, it was unlikely any happy-hour heroes would be the type of beer drinkers to notice Meg and angrily call her a “sellout.”
Over the last decade, the beer industry has changed radically, for both breweries and for drinkers. That’s because it’s becoming harder and harder to differentiate craft from non-craft. At the heart of this tension is the meaning of the actual term craft beer. According to the court of law, it has no legal definition—despite what the Brewers Association believes it to stand for. Ten years ago, if you said you liked “craft beer,” that essentially meant you liked “good beer.” If you went to a bar and asked if they had craft beer, you were pretty much asking, “Do you have anything—literally anything—that isn’t a rice- and corn-packed pilsner produced in St. Louis, Milwaukee, or Golden, Colorado?
So is the Coors-engineered Blue Moon “craft beer”? Well, the unfiltered, orange peel-laden witbier was designed by a man with a Ph.D. in brewing from the University of Brussels. What about Goose Island—is that “craft beer”? In 2010 you would have automatically answered yes; but in 2011, it was acquired by InBev too. And yet they still make bourbon-barrel–aged stouts and wine-barrel–aged saisons that are in the upper echelon of any in the country, still sold in the snobbiest bars and beer shops in town.
Conversely, is that crummy little Kickstarted local microbrewery that struggles to make a palatable pale ale “craft”? If it is and Goose Island isn’t, then why is the term even worth arguing about?
So, my question remains: Who really does care?
Beer media claims people do. Apparently, some folks worry these craft-beer buyouts will make it even harder for small breweries to get widespread distribution or shelf space. They fear InBev’s “bullying” tactics may soon wreak havoc on the entire industry; that a cognitive dissonance occurs when brewing giants are seeking to undercut and disparage craft beer (e.g., Super Bowl ads mocking craft beer) at the same time that they support the growth of the ones they control. At this point, the original decision facing drinkers—flavorful versus watered-down—has given way to a more basic consumer dilemma: Do you like to support small businesses, or mega-corporations using Big Business tactics?
But if beer geeks, I’m told, only want to support “local” and “small” and “independently owned,” then why will thousands of bona-fide beer geeks line up this Black Friday just for a chance to purchase Goose Island’s limited yearly release Bourbon County Brand Stout?
Simple. Because that once-independent brewery still makes brilliant beer, which is all I really care about.
Goose Island was one of my favorite breweries in America before it was acquired, and it still is. The brewers make even more adventurous beer than they used to—owing to InBev’s purchasing power in helping them acquire more barrels and pricier adjuncts—and their quality beers are now even more widespread.
Thanks to these mergers and acquisitions, nowadays most any sports venue, arena, airport, theater, or shitty bar that used to exclusively sell so-called “macro” products also usually has a draught line or two of InBev’s craft acquisitions, like Blue Point, Elysian, or the aforementioned Goose Island. Soon enough, that might extend to Golden Road and Heineken’s just-acquired Lagunitas Brewing Co.
And as a drinker, I think that’s a good thing.
“Conversely, is that crummy little Kickstarted local microbrewery that struggles to make a palatable pale ale “craft”? If it is and Goose Island isn’t, then why is the term even worth arguing about?”
In fact, I see the beer industry following the liquor industry’s path. No one much cares who owns America’s top bourbon distillers. Any clue who owns Jim Beam? It’s the Japanese mega-distillery Suntory. Not only does it own and produce countless Japanese whiskeys, but it also owns the world-class Scotch-maker Laphroaig (as well as Maker’s Mark and Bowmore). It hasn’t stopped these brands from continuing to produce quality whiskeys or innovate. This year, in fact, Jim Beam released some of their best products ever, a series of limited batches of their beloved Booker’s bourbon.
For the craft-beer industry—still only at 11% of the market—to continue growing, this liquor industry model seems inevitable. Some beer geeks will just have to get over the kumbaya-ness, the “who cares about- capitalism, man” stance that fueled the early decades of the craft beer craft-beer revolution.
As for Golden Road, I’d imagine it’s hard for the vast majority of Americans to muster any give-a-shit. If you like good beer but aren’t a beer geek, you’ll be happier to start seeing more tasty Golden Road beers appearing in your town—even if you don’t exactly realize why they are suddenly so prevalent. And if you’re a beer geek you probably won’t care, either. Not because Golden Road doesn’t make good beer, but because there are surely countless other great local breweries already in your market (like Other Half, Grimm, Finback, and Threes Brewing, in my case).
I told Meg all that, and perhaps she seemed a little more relieved. But I’m guessing the so-called “undisclosed amounts” of many millions of dollars she is soon to get from InBev helps her sleep better at night than those infinitesimally few beer geeks on message boards claiming they’ll never drink her “sellout” beer again.
The waitress came by with another round of what Meg and I had been drinking all afternoon. It was from Barrier, a terrific little craft brewery out on Long Island that is still, for the time being, independently owned.
Perhaps, fittingly, the beer was called Money.
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman.