It’s been forever and a day since we posted here on Aleheads. For all intents and purposes, this blog is defunct…a relic of a time when craft beer was just on the cusp of entering the zeitgeist. When we started the site, it was the dawn of a new era for beer geeks. We were abuzz that beer laws were changing for the better, that the number of breweries in the US was exploding exponentially, that hop-forward IPAs had become the most popular beer style in America seemingly overnight.
Today, we take all of that for granted. Every grocery store and gas station carries a plethora of craft beers. Every American city of moderate size has at least one decent brewery and most people take immense pride in their local ale factories. The need for “educational” (cue laugh track) sites like ours has disappeared. At a time where the American populace fully embraces craft beer, Aleheads is a dinosaur.
However, if there’s one facet of the brewing industry that we still feel compelled to talk about here, it’s the continuous, inexorable encroachment of “Big Beer” into the world of craft. Loyal readers know how Aleheads feels about massive, multi-national corporations like Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors, Heineken and Constellation Brands buying up beloved, small craft breweries. Over the years, as craft continued to chip away at the market share of the macro-breweries, the first assault by Big Beer was to fight local legislation to try to make it harder for small breweries to create and sell their wares. When that failed, the big boys flexed their marketing muscles in an effort to paint an “Us Vs. Them/Slobs Vs. Snobs” dichotomy between real ‘Murican macro drinkers and fussy, hipster Aleheads. And when that approach proved useless, the inevitable happened: the purveyors of fizzy lager started buying craft breweries.
From the earliest days of Aleheads, we’ve “reported” on these sales. One of our first controversies was a decision to boycott Terrapin when MillerCoors bought a stake in the brewery. At the time, it was just a small share that still allowed Terrapin to keep their coveted “craft” status as determined by the Craft Brewing Alliance. However, just a few years later (as we predicted), MillerCoors bought the entire brewery and now owns Terrapin outright. Other well-regarded breweries have followed suit. Ballast Point sold out to Constellation (makers of the abysmal Corona brand). Founders sold 50% of their brewery to a Spanish macro outfit (Mahou San Miguel). Lagunitas sold 50% to Heineken. And Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Belgian-owned, Brazilian-helmed behemoth that dwarfs every other brewing outfit, has gobbled up former craft favorites like Goose Island, Blue Point, Breckenridge, Golden Road, 10 Barrel, Elysian and Four Peaks.
As a craft beer fan who champions independent breweries, these sales have been disheartening to say the least. And today brought some of the most devastating news since these sales began. First, we learned that Wicked Weed, one of the finest breweries in the country, has sold out entirely to AB InBev. Shortly thereafter, the news broke that Lagunitas had sold their remaining 50% stake to Heineken. Two of the best in the business, owned by two of the worst. The backlash from the rest of the craft industry, particularly towards Wicked Weed, has been predictably intense.
The founders of these breweries have said all the right things as they always do when these deals are struck. They talk about how “nothing will change”. They talk about the impressive resources these partnerships will bring to bear. How they’ll be able to ramp up production by leveraging the massive marketing, bottling and distributing clout of their new owners. All of this is no doubt true. What’s equally true is that two breweries that represented the best in craft beer are now owned by enormous corporations that don’t play fair. Reports of AB InBev being a negative, disruptive force in the craft world abound. In a letter written after the sale of Wicked Weed, HopCat, the hugely popular, Grand Rapids-based beer bar noted that they would no longer carry Wicked Weed after they were bought by a company that “in our opinion…is actively trying to suppress and harm small craft breweries it doesn’t own.”
Indeed, Google the words “Anheuser Busch Pay to Play” and marvel at the litany of lawsuits being levied against AB InBev. The company is a repeat offender (allegedly) in bribing liquor stores, bars and event venues to showcase their products at the expense of other, smaller breweries. They buy refrigerated units, draft systems, and TVs for retailers in exchange for pushing their products ahead of those of their craft competitors. Not only is this grossly unethical behavior, it’s entirely illegal and the company has been fined multiple times for violating the law. If the craft beer industry is a high school, AB InBev is the enormous bully pummeling his peers for daring to be smarter than him.
By “selling out” to AB InBev, a company like Wicked Weed now aligns itself with a corporation that is detrimental to the craft beer industry as a whole. Their beer might not change and the founders may still run the show, but they’re now a cog in a machine that actively damages the very industry they were formerly a part of. The same is certainly true of Lagunitas, although in their case, Heineken isn’t quite the offender that AB InBev has been (at least in the US). It’s cruel news for Aleheads like myself. I LOVED those breweries and the beer they made. I hate that I can’t buy their beer anymore, but I simply can’t support any company that aligns itself with one that actively tries to hurt the craft beer industry. And make no mistake, if you buy a Wicked Weed or Lagunitas beer tomorrow, you’re lining the coffers of AB InBev and Heineken respectively. In essence, you’re funding companies that will then use that money to try to restrict the growth of craft beer to benefit their own portfolios.
Of course, it’s a free country (for now), and I assume many of us would have made the same decisions that the founders of Wicked Weed and Lagunitas did. If someone drives a dumptruck of money to your house, says you get to keep the money, continue brewing the same beer you always did, AND they’ll clear all your competitors out of the way for you…well, that’s kind of hard to say no to.
But I honestly thought if any brewery COULD say no, it would be Wicked Weed. The founders of the brewery had the immense financial backing of their best friend’s parents so they weren’t beholden to anxious outside investors (one of the main driving forces for Terrapin when they sold out). In fact, they were so well-capitalized early on that some locals thought they were part of a slick, national chain when they first arrived. They were the darlings of Asheville, NC…one of the most supportive and thriving craft beer centers in the US. And they were just joined in the region by three massive craft brewing outfits (New Belgium, Sierra Nevada and Oskar Blues) that have grown organically WITHOUT selling out to Big Beer. Wicked Weed had mentors and role models in their own backyard that they could emulate if they wanted to make big money while still maintaining full control of their company. That they sold out anyway is just shameful.
Lagunitas is just as maddening…a topic we touched on when they first sold a huge stake in their company back in 2015. Their founder, Tony Magee, was one of the most outspoken opponents of Big Beer back in the day. But like everyone else, he got dollar signs in his eyes and couldn’t say no. The writing was on the wall as soon as he sold that stake. We KNEW that eventually Heineken would buy Magee’s baby outright…50% was never going to cut it.
It’s sad. It’s always sad when a great craft brewery sells out, but the sale of these two bellwethers really stings. I was just telling a friend the other day that I thought Wicked Weed would always remain independent because of their incredible local support and the internal financial backing they had. I was wrong. Years ago, the Aleheads championed Lagunitas as a brewery that was growing the “right way” and we loved the iconoclastic Magee and his hilarious sniping at Big Beer. We were wrong then too.
If there’s a constant in the craft beer world these days (other than that the Aleheads are always wrong), it’s that the siren song of Big Beer is a powerful one. Every day, we will read about another brewery caught up in that net. Another brewery that simply couldn’t say no to the promises of big money…damn the consequences.
The silver lining is that there are literally thousands of breweries in the US today. Wicked Weed was and is an amazing brewery…but there are many just as good. Lagunitas is and was an incredible outfit…but there are plenty out there that do what they do just as well. I’m sad and more than a little outraged at this latest news (you’d think I’d be used to it by now), but I’ll find new ale factories to love just as I always have. Great breweries selling to the big boys is inevitable…but so is the arrival of new, and better, ones. If you’re like me, you’ll drink that last Pernicious or Hop Stoopid in your fridge tonight, shed a tear, and move on.
Fare-thee-well, Wicked Weed and Lagunitas. You got your money and you ruined your good names. I hope it was worth it.