Almost half of American beer drinkers don’t care where their beer comes from, according to a study released by wealth management firm UBS in September 2017.
Yet the idea of sitting at a bar and requesting an anonymous “Beer, please!” seems wildly antiquated to many of us. That’s because 30 percent of those surveyed said that a brewery’s independent ownership is extremely important. In other words, those who are apathetic about ownership may be the majority, but passionate craft beer fans care about independence — and they care deeply.
“When we think about beer lovers and their interest in ownership, it has become apparent from the data that we’ve seen that it’s a growing importance,” says Julia Herz, the craft beer program director at the Brewers Association.
Corporate acquisitions and ownership may be of growing importance to craft beer drinkers, but all buyers are not treated equally. Take, for example, the public outcry that happens when Anheuser-Busch InBev acquires a brewery, versus the comparatively minimal fanfare that surrounds foreign or private equity investment in independent breweries. Sapporo or the financial company Fireman Capital Partners, or labels like Boston Beer Company or Green Flash, do not raise the ire of craft beer drinkers like AB InBev does.
In early May 2017, Anheuser-Busch InBev, the largest beer company in the world, purchased Wicked Weed, a beloved craft brewery in North Carolina. Brewers dropped out of Wicked Weed’s sour beer festival, and craft beer shops and bars in North Carolina, Texas, and Colorado stopped selling Wicked Weed and other AB InBev products.
“This is just the beginning of the backlash that’s coming for corporate brewers and the brands that they acquire,” BeerAdvocate founder Todd Alström told me at the time. “Beer consumers are becoming savvy as hell. They want authentic and high-quality beers from independent brewers. There’s really no turning back for these consumers.”
The backlash to Wicked Weed was immediate. Most of the people had cried foul before the end of the day, and distributors in Texas and Colorado had dropped AB InBev brands by the end of the week.
Compare that to the early reactions to the Mass Bay Brewing Company, which owns Harpoon Brewing, acquiring Clown Shoes Brewing on Oct. 30, 2017. The highest-rated comment on r/beer the next day was that it’s weird that a company that’s partially employee owned is “getting into the buyout game,” but that it “will likely not impact my purchasing decisions at all.”
The general volume of interest in the Reddit beer thread (where many of the most passionate beer drinkers gather) was lackluster to say the least. There were only two posts related to the sale, and one of the posts only had four comments with 76 percent upvotes. When AB InBev purchased Wicked Weed, more than 600 comments accumulated on a post of the press release. A separate thread popped up titled, “The reaction from other breweries to Wicked Weed’s sale is exactly what the craft beer community needs,” arguing that Anheuser Busch is the real “bad guy.”
The reason partly stems from the fact that not all buyouts and acquisitions are equal. Mass Bay Brewing Company is considered craft by the Brewers Association and is partly employee owned. It has a distribution network and large brewing capacity, but it’s far from a player in the global beer market. As Clown Shoes co-owner Gregg Berman said in a statement about the sale, Clown Shoes is “not going to lose our identity and no, we are not ‘selling out.’ Harpoon is an independent employee-owned craft brewery.”
When AB InBev buys a brewery, however, its identity does change. Goose Island was a regional craft brewery focused in Chicago and the Midwest when AB InBev purchased it in 2011. Now its beers are brewed in AB InBev-owned breweries across the country, not just Chicago. The distribution companies that AB InBev owns prioritize Goose Island and spend time and capital to ensure Goose Island is front and center whenever drinkers are considering their beer options.
This results in notoriously shady business practices. In the summer of 2017, an AB InBev distributor was fined in Massachusetts for illegally influencing bars and stores to stock AB InBev products near the front of the store. Breweries like Clown Shoes, Alpine Beer Company, which is owned by Green Flash, or any of the seven breweries and alcohol companies owned by Samuel Adams’ parent company, Boston Beer Company, have influence, but not that type of influence.
A 2017 Harris Poll found that 81 percent of people who self-identify as craft beer drinkers recognized “independent” and “independently owned” as the biggest buzzwords for beer that directly contributed to more sales. Exactly what is meant by independent is somewhat confusing, however. By current Brewers Association standards, a brewery must make under 6 million barrels, make primarily beer (not fermented malt beverage), and not be more than 24.9 percent owned by a major alcohol-producing company. By this definition, Boston Beer Company and Green Flash qualify as independent.
“Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of debate of what is a craft brewery,” Jon Cadoux, co-founder of Peak Organic Brewing Company, told me in September. The average consumer might not be aware how heated that debate has become, he says. But he is frequently asked to comment on independent ownership issues.
“I care (who owns the business) as a consumer, whether it’s beer or other categories,” Cadoux says. “It’s really important to me where it came from, who’s making it, and who’s getting the money. Given a similar price point and similar quality, they’d rather put money into the pockets of a locally owned independent company.”
Beer drinkers can rally around a villain that presents a clear and present danger with its hand in everything. There’s a certain level of outrage fatigue that keeps people from getting overly passionate about acquisitions like San Miguel taking a 30 percent stake in Founders Brewing Company.
Yet nothing reliably incites the wrath of beer lovers on the internet like an AB InBev purchase. You can count on a growing number of people to bring the noise about each purchase and minority stake. They’re the 320,000-plus members of Reddit’s r/beer channel who are ignited whenever a post about a macro beer is put in the channel. They’re the people behind the nearly 700,000 posts on Instagram using the hashtag “#craftnotcrap.” They’re the people standing in line from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m. on a Saturday to buy $20 four packs from their favorite brewery.
“We’re a great beer culture, and the No. 1 destination for beer on earth now,” Herz of the Brewers Association says. “When those companies (AB InBev, Molson-Coors, Constellation Brands, and Heineken) start to be the only options at retail, that is cause for concern for beer lovers.”
Beer drinkers have found an antagonist in AB InBev. It is the Walmart of beer. Just as consumers who decry the influence of Walmart still order things from Amazon, beer drinkers selectively choose which corporations are justifiable and which are beyond reproach. And the growing number of authenticity-seeking beer lovers will never be O.K. with drinking from Walmart’s tap.