Last week American craft beer fans raged at the purchase of Oregon-based 10 Barrel Brewing Company by Belgian-Brazilian-US beer conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev. Quality beer quaffers lamented the sale, fearing that 10 Barrel’s quality would plummet due to the profit pressures presumably to be forced on the small brewer and hailing it as the death of the craft beer movement.
But is this really the case? Will 10 Barrel’s drinkers begin to notice a decline in the quality of its craft? Is the brewery no longer craft and the movement finished?
By the three-tier definition of craft brewer applied to the industry by the Brewers Association, 10 Barrel Brewing is no longer craft because it is no longer considered “Independent”, the definition’s second clause. At the same time, 10 Barrel continues to adhere to the first and third clauses of the trade association’s definition: the brewer remains “Small”, producing fewer than 6 million barrels of beer per year, and “Traditional”, continuing to produce “beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.”
Craft beer aficionados in the US place particularly emphasis on this third and decidedly fuzzy clause as the beers they enjoy are products quite different as to what they consider to be the flavourless swills of brands such as Budweiser that giant brewers like Anheuser-Busch have imposed on the American palette for decades. But perhaps before raising their glasses in protest of 10 Barrel’s treason they could find some context in beer history, context that for the most part renders their argument moot.
Some years ago, a German immigrant to the US who ran a brewing supply shop partnered with a local, independently-owned, small brewery. The naturalized US citizen returned to Europe to study the latest innovative brewing techniques at continental breweries. Returning to the US with his newfound knowledge, the traveling businessman began to produce a light lager, a product quite different from the dark ales preferred by the drinking classes of the era. The beer became a hit and the small brewery grew over time thanks to its product’s success.
The brewery? Anheuser-Busch. The beer? Budweiser.
That’s right. At one point in history, fans of the craft beer movement would have to have acknowledged that the very brew they hold as anathema to their cause was actually a craft beer.
The moral of the story is that 10 Barrel Brewing Company is exactly what its name asserts: a company. Companies grow. If they don’t, they either die or get stuck in capitalist purgatory. The founders of companies seek help with their growth, help that can come in the form of a sale. Instead of reviling the founders of 10 Barrel Brewing, its fans should laud the fact that, thanks to AB InBev’s distribution expertise, more people across the US and potentially the world will be able to enjoy the same flavours that they have been enjoying in the Pacific Northwest.
Where 10 Barrel fans argument holds true is the risk of quality compromise. To stick with our example, when Anheuser-Busch was bought by InBev in 2008, the quality ingredients used to make Budweiser for so long were switched out for those of a lesser caliber, diminishing the beer’s (already diminished?) taste and saving the conglomerate $55 million per year.
If the scourge of the bottom line were to begin to overwhelm 10 Barrel Brewing’s products, its fans will certainly flee. But this is not an inevitability. AB InBev added 10 Barrel to its large stable of beer brands because it knows that drinkers everywhere are trading crap for quality and that craft beer’s market share is supposed to jump to 15% by 2020, up from 7.8% last year and 4.2% in 2008.
The rapid growth of the craft movement and the gradual decline of a watery American beers made the 10 Barrel purchase a logical business move for the conglomerate. But for that move to flourish, AB InBev will have to keep its corporate creepers out of 10 Barrel’s production and let the breweries founders do what they love: creating quality craft beers.