Secret backroom deals, near complete control of an entire section of the economy, distraught midsize business owners — just another day in big beer news.
Mountain Crest SRL LLC, a budget beer producer in Monroe, Wisconsin, filed a federal lawsuit on Aug. 2 alleging that AB InBev (the world’s largest brewer) and Molson Coors (formerly the world’s second-largest brewer) had a 15-year secret agreement with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Canada. The agreement kept Mountain Crest products largely off the shelf, leading Mountain Crest to sue under the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvements Act of 1982.
Details of the secret agreement were first released in 2014 after a whistleblower told the Toronto Star that the two mega-brewers had formulated a plan to dominate The Beer Store outlets. The original story is intriguing and worth a read in itself, but TL;DR, AB InBev and Molson Coors made it harder for companies to get shelf space at the stores they controlled. That’s a big portion, too, as noted by the Wisconsin State Journal. AB InBev owns 43 percent of the Canadian beer market, and Molson Coors owns 34 percent.
Mountain Crest wants the companies to pay lost revenues (the brewery does much of its business in Canada) and $200,000 in punitive damages.
The fact that beer consumers even need a whistleblower to ensure fair competition and choice of beer gives some insight into the state of the industry. Conflict between big brewery owners and smaller (but still pretty big) brewery owners is everywhere. It’s become commonplace to hear about a new grievous slight by big beer every week. It’s become so commonplace that it’s almost become exhausting to keep up with.
Even people on the reddit beer page — a haven for some of the most vociferous big- beer haters and craft-beer supporters — are getting tired of the endless conflict. “Really wish we had a whole different subreddit for discussing these topics. Drink Beer, Enjoy Beer,” user YoScott writes. User 1114445 added, “What I find funny is some of these breweries are becoming so big and the owners are so right I don’t understand why people want to protect them so bad now.”
Who are people supposed to even be outraged with anymore?
Personally, I believe the afflicted need to be protected and the comfortable need to be afflicted. The above AB InBev and Molson Coors issue is a clear example of why.
But it’s not always so simple diving into the beer outrage machine. Just look at the 24.5-percent buyout of Brooklyn Brewery by Kirin (just enough to keep Brooklyn Brewery listed as a craft brewer by the Brewers Association), and then Brooklyn Brewery’s takeover of 24.5 percent of 21st Amendment and Funkwerks. That got another Brooklyn brewery, Sixpoint, riled up.
Are these breweries still small? Who needs to be protected here? Secret agreements are all part of the deal now, and doing things breweries promised they never would — like Lagunitas selling 100 percent of the business to Heineken — is commonplace. Business deals like this and sketchy business takeovers like the one by AB InBev and Molson Coors just prove that, for most of the well-known breweries, beer is big business, not a passion project.
Which all goes back to reddit user 1114445. Some of the breweries still labeled as craft have become so big that they’re doing the things that used to get them up in arms. And they’re doing it because beer is a business — it just happens to be a business that people love finding things to be outraged about.