Craft Beer Wins War, May Lose Peace

Big Name Buyouts are Victories, But are Greeted with Grief

Within hours of each other this week, the East Coast craft beer community then the West Coast, were rocked with huge news. First, Asheville’s award-winning Wicked Weed brewery sold itself into the stable of Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer. Then California’s much respected Lagunitas sold the remaining stake still owned by its founders to Heineken, the Dutch brewing giant.

Reaction was swift. Independent North Carolina retailers ripped a beloved home-state brew from their shelves, Lagunitas’ owner was blasted as a rank hypocrite, and most dramatically, The Rare Barrel, a California high-end brewery, poured out onto the street a collaborative beer done with Wicked Weed and essentially declared the brewery dead to them.

Is this the only way to look at these developments, as a loss for craft beer and a betrayal of core values? Perhaps. But there is also a meta-case to be made that craft beer’s victory over mass-produced swill is so complete that each one of these deals is a surrender agreement from the traditional corporate brewing powers.

Think of it this way, Wicked Weed and Lagunitas are not going to start brewing Bud Light and Tecate. The big corporations desperately want to associate themselves with big, interesting, flavorful beers. That is where the growth is, that is where the energy pulses, and that is where you will book profits.

The problem is the craft community is deeply ambivalent about profits, hence this is not taken as a positive attribute. Time and again on social media during the past couple days Wicked Weed and Lagunitas were hit with the epithet “greedy” and described as profit obsessed by their so recent craft fam. This reveals a glaring blind spot among much of the craft world. They miss or forget that greed made craft.

Were it not for greedy beer drinkers demanding more than the Meh Good Enough products of corporate brewing, none of the craft explosion happens. The push for more, better, deeper, richer fueled healthy, sometimes unhealthy, direct and focused competition among craft brewers. The kicker is that crafties think they’ve won customers on quality, culture, and the curious “buy local” mantra which suggests Medieval guildsmen of the shire, not a 21st century manufacturing process built on expertise and interest from all over the globe. Instead they won on value. There is simply no comparison between a craft product and the mainline stuff EnormoBeer has been pumping out for decades, yet the price is not significantly different. (Price is another money word crafties fret about, more on that in a bit.)

As often happens in long wars, craft brewers have romanticized their steady, costly march over EnormoBeer. Their saga tells us it is not their nimble technical advantages or manpower skill, but their plucky heart and commitment to Giving Back to the Community which has won precious market share and rained quatloons down upon them. Again, this is not a rare thing in war. The fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword led the Union to victory, not a huge advantage in railroads, factories, ships, and manpower.

For a less combative comparison you can see the cultural component at work if you imagine Wicked Weed or Lagunitas to be beloved college bands who jump from indie labels to one of the big corporate titans. Sellout. I thought it was about the music, man. Good luck working for MCA. Pop-star now? Same vibe, same hurt. Real hurt.

Hurt so bad it is fair to wonder if craft brewers will double-down on the cultural component to further distinguish themselves from the turncoats. More yoga, more dogs with bandannas on the tap room porch, more open mic singer-songwriter nights, and…yet more yoga? After all, it is a long-held article of faith among craft true believers that they cannot possibly compete on price. That tenet spawned grave predictions from some crafties this week that EnormoBeer would use their growing array of in-house craft simulacrums to drive prices down to impossible levels and thereby wipe out the True Craft threat forever. Cue evil laugh.

But again this overlooks both the depth and breadth of craft’s victory. Consumers are a solid decade now, coast-to-coast, city to farm, into expecting fresh, yummy craft beer. The ones not so educated now never will be or will be dead soon. I’m 52, old enough to remember the first wave of craft of in the late 1980s. There are not many folks my age when I head to the bottle shop. Craft has not only won the day, it has won the future.

And, oh, those trips to the bottle shop are less and less frequent now because my local Publix has upped its craft game to at least semi-pro level. The other day I purchased local seasonal IPA that had been canned three days before. This was unheard of even five years ago. Chatting up pull-up guys in the cooler reveals this is the new normal in stores they work. When mainline retailers know your once niche products it can only be because you have planted your brand’s flag in the brains of thousands of consumers. Accordingly, the risk of being snuffed out in a merciless price war, even with the ever-perfidious forces of the Distributors supporting EnormoBeer, seems exceedingly low.

I’d like to think American craft beer is entering its Articles of Confederation phase, if such a lofty comparison can be made to hoppy booze water. The shooting has stopped, the Empire has retreated, now comes the messy bit of getting on with each other. There will be bumps and bruises, continued shake outs and consolidation, then maybe something like a Constitutional peace emerges. Commerce with EnormoBeer becomes normal, not a test of character or a sign of counter-revolutionary tendencies. No purges or counter-purges, which would echo the French Revolution and its mad cycle of fear and terror in the name of purity and unanimity. There’s too much to lose for that to happen.

But to be safe, if you should see a guillotine in your local taproom, tell ’em you’ve always been at war with Goose Island.##

Taylor currently fights idiocy and drinks beer from Metro ATL.