I will never forget where I was when I heard the sad news. I was standing in the brewery at Naked City Brewing when I heard the terrible report. A day that will live in infamy. Well, not really.
The word hit the streets this morning and was met with dismay, disbelief, and even anger. Most craft beer lovers, and especially those in Oregon and Washington, considered it sad news to hear that Anheuser-Busch acquired 10 Barrel Brewing. The Bend-based company released a video announcing the purchase agreement, which I share below and encourage you to watch. Hear their side of the story.
Plenty of people are spitting venom at 10 Barrel Brewing right now, and it’s tempting to jump on that bandwagon, but I won’t. I don’t mean to justify anything. I’m not condoning anything. Certainly, I’m bothered by it all as much as anyone, but I think a level-headed discussion is valuable.
1. Anheuser-Busch and the other big beer companies have been losing market share for years now. In recent years, overall beer sales in America have declined. As beer sales declined, the craft beer segment grew, and continues to grow. They shrink, we grow. Big Beer has been losing market share, not only to craft beer, but to imported beer, liquor, wine, cider, and other adult beverages. Buying craft breweries like 10 Barrel Brewing, where and when they can, is just one aspect of what I imagine to be a very serious, multifaceted strategy to maintain and grow profits.
2. The best part of the beer business is the beer; the worst part of the beer business is the business. It might be easy to call them whores or sell-outs, but remember that this is business. As beer drinkers, we too often form an emotional attachment to breweries. We somehow feel like it is our brewery. It’s not. Beer. Business.
3. They don’t owe us anything. 10 Barrel Brewing is not in the business of making us feel satisfied, or complete, or emotionally fulfilled. This is not Don Quixote Brewing Company. They are not obligated to be the David versus the AB Goliath. For all I know, this is exactly why 10 Barrel Brewing started in the first place. This might be the realization of their ultimate dream. If it is, good for them. Mission accomplished.
4. Don’t hate them, yet. The legendary Portland publican Don Younger once said, “It’s not about the beer, it’s about the beer.” I read that to mean, nothing else matters–if the beer is good, then it is good beer. 10 Barrel Brewing claims that they will continue to operate autonomously with the goal of making and selling more great beer. I’m going take them at their word. Well, for now. I’m moving forward with cautious pessimism.
5. Most craft beer drinkers don’t care. If you read the Washington Beer Blog, you are part of a small minority within the larger realm of craft beer drinkers. You’re hardcore. You are really into it. Most craft beer drinkers these days are much less concerned with this kind of stuff. The reason craft beer sales have skyrocketed is because craft beer is attracting a new and ever-growing audience. It’s not just about us beer geeks anymore. If it was just about us geeks, there would be no growth and Big Beer Company would not feel threatened.
6. Get used to it. Many of the craft breweries we love are not exactly new. Some have been around for 20 or even 30 years. That means the people who started and presumably still own these breweries might be looking for exit strategies. When Anheuser-Busch purchased Goose Island Brewing, part of me said, “Damn, that’s a shame.” Upon hearing the dollar amount, another part of me said, “JACKPOT, congratulations and thank you for 20-something years of great beer. Now go enjoy the fruits of your labor.”
7. IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER that there are still over 3,000 craft breweries in America that Anheuser-Busch does not own. The vast majority of those breweries are not for sale.
I am aware that you might feel like I’ve betrayed you, my fellow beer lover, by saying some of these things. I love craft beer as much as anyone and feel no need to defend myself. I am just trying to be a realist. My relationship with craft beer, just like yours, is emotional and personal. At the same time, I think it is good to accept the reality that the beer business is in fact a business. It is a beautiful, delicious, and growing business, but a business nonetheless.