Behold the concept of the sell-out.
With that dreaded label come the connotations of a loss of cool, a profits-over-everything business approach and a watered-down mainstream appeal. That’s the same whether we’re talking about music, Mexican food or beer.
The craft beer industry has seen a glut of sell-outs graciously accepting lavish offers from brewing giants (most notably from AB-InBev), and the predictable backlash from beer geeks and keyboard cowboys from every corner of the Internet (OK, mostly BeerAdvocate forums and Twitter).
The arguments seem to devolve into two camps:
- Big beer is the devil and makes shitty beer — therefore, any brewery that is bought by big beer is now also the devil and also makes shitty beer.
- Beer is a business — therefore it’s only natural that craft brewers should be able to cash in on their success and make as much money as possible.
Both arguments suck.
Big beer isn’t the devil, at least no more than any other major American corporation. The good thing about mass capitalism is the highly consistent products that go along with it. You may not like the way Bud Light Lime tastes, but that stuff is going to taste like Spring Break (and everything that goes along with that) in a bottle every time. The big boys hire some of the brightest brewing minds in the world, and that expertise isn’t going to make your least-favorite sell-out’s beer taste worse just to fuck with the consumer.
As nice as it would be to point to AB-InBev and scream “Devil,” it’s just not valid. Are they bad? Sure. Are they evil incarnate? Nope.
The problem with the second argument, the one that tends to justify selling out by reminding everyone that beer is a business, is that we never bought into beer as a business in the first place. Craft beer drinkers are romantics. Hell, I wrote a whole book based on the notion that craft brewers did things differently than the rest of the business world (It feels foolish to look back at this now, but when the project began in 2009 it still rang true. And in my own defense, none of the breweries I featured extensively have sold out—unless you count Firestone-Walker’s partnership with Duvel, which I don’t).
Los Angelenos didn’t fall in love with Golden Road because it made the best beer in the country (it’s not even the best beer in Southern California), we loved it because it was a quality brewery that we could call our own. Golden Road put Los Angeles in a can, and we loved them for it, then they sold to AB-InBev and that love went away. It’s still a great place to grab a beer in Burbank, but the charm is gone.
So, what’s the problem then?
The problem is subtle, and we are the problem. As consumers, we’re on the verge of making it impossible for smaller breweries to compete in the evolving marketplace that is your local craft beer aisle.
I’ve been a craft beer observer for some time now, and I think I’m fairly qualified to address this topic.
On the other hand, I’m not as qualified as Mitch Steele.
Steele is Stone Brewing Co.’s brewmaster and has been since 2006, but that comes after 14 years at Anheuser-Busch. If anybody in craft beer has some insight into what big beer is up to, it’s Mitch Steele.
Unfortunately, they haven’t kept him in the loop either.
“I’m wondering myself,” Steele said in a recent interview for the first WCBB podcast. “It’s interesting, because when I was there in the 90s, when August Busch III was running the company, the stated goal for Anheuser-Busch was to have 50 percent of the American beer market. We got there, I don’t remember when, but we got there very briefly and since then it’s been declining.”
Steele was around during the days of 100% Share of Mind, when Anheuser-Busch’s goal was to completely dominate the market and mindshare of American beer drinkers. It was the kind of bland ubiquity that helped spawn and fuel the rise of craft beer, but it also hinted at how the brewing giant would approach a loss of market share in the future.
During Steele’s tenure in A-B’s specialty brewing department, they tried to emulate better beer — and failed.
“I think one of the things we learned as a company is we never stealth-brewed anything,” Steele said. “Everything had Anheuser-Busch on the label and we didn’t have (Doing Business As) breweries and that sort of thing. And it didn’t work.
“At that time, craft beer was a much smaller part of the market, but the people who drank it were incredibly passionate about it and they did not want a beer brewed by Anheuser-Busch if they could get it brewed by a smaller company that tastes as good as better. I think we learned as a company that craft beer was going to be something that A-B was not a major player in.”
Craft drinkers are still passionate, but craft beer is essentially mainstream at this point. Where virtually every craft beer drinker (most likely a gross generalization, but let’s roll with it) in the early days was a beer geek and was up on news and trends in the industry, the average modern consumer knows significantly less.
The three most salient questions for the contemporary drinker are: What’s the beer taste like, who makes it, and what’s it cost?
To be fair, those are totally legitimate questions. And if A-B/InBev can make Goose IPA six-packs for a few bucks cheaper than Goose Island could prior to the buyout, then why should we care?
“That scares me to death,” Steele said. “The idea that they can get a craft beer IPA recipe and brew a reasonable facsimile of that in a big brewery and charge $2 less a six-pack—that, to me, is a very real issue.
“I think there’s a couple things going on. Number one, I think craft beer consumers are changing and it’s becoming more mainstream. The beer drinkers may not be at the same level of education about craft beer that they used to be… so when they see the cheaper beer they’re going to buy it and a lot of small brewers cannot compete with that.”
That last bit is the kicker. Small brewers cannot compete with that.
So, back to those first two arguments. They both suck, but they’re both right too. Big beer is a business, and it’s doing what businesses always try to do — make money. And while a small handful of craft breweries have been able to succeed in the marketplace thanks to selling out to big beer, companies like AB/InBev are making it harder for smaller local breweries to compete in terms of price and product availability. That, in turn, can seem evil.
It’s why there’s a sour taste in the mouths of so many beer drinkers, and it’s not because sours are a rising trend.
I’m not suggesting that you start a boycott of any brewery brazen enough to take a payout. Just don’t forget about that romantic side of you that was drawn to craft beer in the first place. Beer’s soul isn’t lost yet.