First Draughts: When Big Beer wants authenticity, they have to buy it

by DGO Web Administrator

In December, Four Peaks Brewing Co. in Tempe, Arizona, sold to AB-InBev. I’ve never had its beer, but I’ve heard lots of good things, and several friends in our local industry hail from Four Peaks lineage. If the whole craft beer movement is about taste and variety for the consumer, then all these acquisitions are great. Drinkers get to drink great beer from all over the country for the same price as their local beer.

I love the fact that I can walk into a bar or liquor store and get beer from all over the world, and most of the time it’s fresh and good. I can get a Mirror Pond Pale Ale, an Easy Street Wheat, a 90 Minute IPA or Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout anytime I want and that’s beautiful. That’s one of the many victories of craft beer: flavor homogeneity is over. Bad beer is dead. Long live good beer.

From a business standpoint, this is also awesome. Lagunitas’ merger with Heineken was rumored to be worth $750 million; Ballast Point was worth (holds pinky to corner of mouth): 1 billion dollars. Even the small purchases, 10 Barrel Brewing in Bend, Oregon, was $50 million and Elysian was $60 million. If you break that down, the price is between $2,000 to $5,000 per barrel of annual production. None of this is chump change, so way to go money. Way to go capitalism.

Even with craft acquisitions, AB InBev is still losing approximately 20,000 barrels in sales a year. That’s like a Santa Fe Brewing Co. closing every year. It is bleeding. So it has to buy a regional craft brewery every year just to keep its volume of beer sales even. It makes business sense for it to be trying to buy up as many craft breweries as it can.

As a beer drinker, a person who enjoys money and as a person who sorta understands how the business works (you can’t grow without money, and AB InBev has a lot of it), I get it and I’m OK with that. This isn’t art, this isn’t a nonprofit, this isn’t charity. It’s a business, and businesses make money. The thing that bothers me is when beer becomes a brand. Tap handles become a portfolio. It really wouldn’t be hard for the big beer companies to make better beer. It wouldn’t be hard for them to make the best beer. They know the process better than anyone, and they have the resources to build the Death Star of beer if they wanted. But they don’t. They aren’t spending money trying to make better beer. They’re not buying craft breweries to add nicer beer to their portfolio. They’re not buying production capacity.

So what is it they’re buying when they buy a craft brewery, if it’s not production, if it’s not recipes, if it’s not trade secrets and patents? What is actually being bought is the image of the craft brewery. They tried emulating the craft beer image with LandShark, Blue Moon and Shocktop. It doesn’t work. Drinkers can smell that crapht beer a mile away. The big beer companies can replicate many things in a craft brewery. What they can’t make or imitate or manufacture is authenticity. They have to buy it, and apparently, it’s for sale.

Robert Alan Wendeborn puts the bubbles in the beer at Ska Brewing Co. His first book of poetry, The Blank Target, was published this past spring by The Lettered Streets Press and is available at Maria’s Bookshop. [email protected]

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