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WWBG: Does Big Beer Buying Up Craft Breweries Leave a Sour Taste in Your Mouth?

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Editor’s Note: This biweekly column is sponsored by Dominion Wine and Beer (107 Rowell Court, Falls Church). It is written by Garrett Cruce, a Cicerone Program Certified Beer Server.

Just what is the difference between a craft brewery and “big beer”? The Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association for American craft breweries, defines a craft brewery as a small brewery (6 million or fewer barrels brewed per year), an independent brewery (less than 25 percent can be owned or controlled by a non-craft company in the industry) and a traditional one (this one is more complicated these days).

The key factors that differentiate a craft brewery from a company like Anheuser-Busch InBev are the production limit and the ownership stake. If a craft brewery is assumed into a company as large as ABI, is it still craft to you?

In 2011, ABI bought a 58 percent stake in the Chicago brewery that makes Goose Island beers, including the coveted Bourbon County Barrel-Aged Stout. The division of ABI that absorbed Goose Island is know as The High End.

They also oversee their imports like Stella Artois, Becks and Bass; and their pseudo craft labels like Shock Top wheat ales and Landshark Lager. After spending a couple years increasing Goose Island’s production, maintaining a boutique stout brand that has people lining up for it, and blurring the lines of what craft beer is, they began a cross country shopping spree.

In February 2014, Long Island’s Blue Point Brewing Company was the next to join ABI. Later that year, in a purchase that I remember garnering negative attention on social media, ABI picked up Oregon’s 10 Barrel Brewing Co. 10 Barrel’s local presence with brew pubs in both Oregon and Idaho endeared them to craft beer lovers in the Pacific Northwest.

Going from the homegrown experience that had been 10 Barrel to the ABI-owned piece of the High End portfolio appears to have had little lasting negative effect on the brewery or its beers.

In 2015, ABI stepped up its acquisitions by taking control of Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Co., California’s Golden Road Brewing Company, Denver’s Breckenridge Brewing Co. and Arizona’s Four Peaks Brewing Co. It was a whirlwind year! If all that wasn’t enough to cause consternation, they actually started the year with a mocking commercial during the Super Bowl in which ABI (in the guise of Budweiser) pokes fun at beer geeks and the beers they drink (pumpkin peach ale!).

A bit of irony followed when Elysian — famous for partnering with Sub Pop records to make the independent-spirited Loser IPA and making the derided pumpkin peach ale — joined the High End division of ABI.

2016 saw only the acquisition of Virginia’s Devils Backbone Brewing Company. That felt like a surprise, but I was assured by a spokesperson at the time that the company would be no different under ABI. Indeed, their quality appears to have remained the same. In fact, their collaboration 12-pack proves to be one of their stronger offerings as they continue to work with nano and micro breweries in Virginia.

However, it was this move by ABI that gave me the clearest view of what their end game might be. Attending game one of the Stanley Cup quarterfinals at the Verizon Center, I went off in search of a craft beer. Between the vendors with buckets, the fancy carts and the built-in counters I saw only ABI brands — mostly Bud and Shock Top.

Eventually, I stumbled upon a cart that also had Devils Backbone. That was when the lightbulb went off. If you have precious little shelf space or tap space, how much easier is it to deal with the company you’re already working with for your biggest beer sales? If ABI has a craft brewery in a major market — look at a map and the companies above — they can get their “local” “craft” beer offering on the menu instead of an actually smaller brewery that could benefit from the exposure.

Now, ABI has bought Wicked Weed Brewing along with their sour beer meccas Funk Works and Funkatorium in Asheville, N.C. There has been a lot of pixels and ink spilled about this move. Wicked Weed’s annual Funky Beer Festival, a collaborative brewing event that benefits a charity, has been cancelled because of swift retaliation by still-craft breweries who are disgruntled.

The jury is out on whether Wicked Weed will continue to suffer for their decision to follow the money or whether their fan base will only grow with access to more distribution channels. I will be particularly interested to see if they can retain the creativity that they enjoyed when they were independent.

How do you feel about the breweries that have joined ABI’s High End brands? Have you noticed a change in quality for those breweries that were independent, but aren’t anymore?

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