There was a big piece of beer news that happened over the last month that I didn’t miss, but I didn’t want to jump to a bunch of conclusions or say something reactionary. There were two big acquisitions by ABInbev in November: one was Karbach Brewing Co., a production brewery in Houston, Texas, and the other was Northern Brewer, a chain of home-brew supply shops. The bigger news is not the sale of Karbach. AB didn’t have a craft brand in the South, and from what I’ve heard and read, Karbach was made up of a bunch of sellouts from the beginning (the owners used to own beer distribution companies).
No, the bigger news is the purchase of Northern Brewer. Everything I’ve read, casually makes fun of the beer nerds at the home-brew shop while they struggle with the why? Why would AB want to buy a chain of home-brew shops? Is it going to secretly get all the craft-beer drinkers to switch to Bud Light? Not in a million years. Is it to track trends in the industry? Ha, home brewers follow trends, that’s why there’s always a section of pre-bought clone recipes in home-brew stores. Is it to get lowdown on all the cool new hops? Yeah, cause home-brew shops are where hop growers do most of their R&D. Is it to secretly steal recipes and techniques from home brewers? AB really wants to know about the sub-pump in a giant tank of ice water in your fridge as a cold liquor tank. Is this a big PR move to gently stroke the ego of the benevolent beer nerd? The answer to all of these is “No.”
From a very basic business standpoint, it’s not a bad idea: cumulatively, home brewers brew around 2 million barrels a year, that puts them in the top 10 craft breweries in the country, and they all need ingredients and equipment, something AB knows very well. When you consider that AB is a $250 billion company, there’s still not a ton of money in Northern Brewer, so the other questions are more plausible, at least at first.
But, sorry beer nerds, you aren’t driving innovation or change. The best kept beer secrets are not kept in the vault of a home brewer’s mom’s basement. And sorry, home brewers, you are not deciding what the cool new hops are, that’s all up to the hop farmers and researchers.
So why? As much as I’m making fun of the home brewer (little shout out to Animas Alers here), AB does want something that belongs to you: your culture.
I talked about this in another article, about how the reason why AB would buy a craft brewery has nothing to do with production, or with innovation, or with marketing: AB has enough money to buy all of those things a million times over. But what AB can’t buy is authenticity, so it buys someone else’s.
It’s not going to make a ton of money off home-brewing supplies, but it’s tapping into a network of craft-beer communities. It will own a chain of places where people who spend a lot of money and time and thought on beer congregate and converse. With this purchase, I think AB realizes that craft beer isn’t just a product that it can make, such as Shock Top or Blue Moon, but craft beer is a culture, and by purchasing craft breweries that build chains of brew pubs, or by buying home-brew shops, AB can sell you your own culture. I know I sound like a negative Nancy, but I really think that this is going to turn into a sort of Hot Topification of beer: You’re going to be able to buy your Elysian Brewing Co. T-shirt that says “Corporate Beer Still Sucks” from the home-brew shop that’s owned by the largest beer corporation in the world. Might as well put Dick Cantwell’s face on a red T-shirt: Viva la Revolucion.
Robert Alan Wendeborn is a former cellar operator at Ska Brewing and current lead cellar operator at Tin Roof Brewing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.