4 May 2017

Thoughts on Selling Out

The future is generic? No way!
The last few days have seen the Craft Beer world in a bit of an uproar as Wicked Weed Brewing from North Carolina sold out to AB-InBev and it caused the usual lamentations and chest beating to occur. I want to be honest with you and tell you that until they sold, I had never heard of them. I am certain many of my friends were in the same boat and it isn't really a surprise as we tend to focus most of our attention on our local brewers and some of the more well known American or European counterparts.
Sweet logo, never heard of them until the other day.
This is not to dismiss what happened as not consequential, I have read about the amazing beer and rapid growth that perhaps led to this moment. I know many folks have already sworn never to buy their beer again and the brewers have, as is usual, come out with talks of strategic partnership and expanded distribution and capacity. I am not here to talk about them, or Goose Island or even our own beloved Mill Street selling to Labatt's not so long ago. No, what I want to talk about has kept creeping into my thoughts many times since this story first broke, that being what the future of our favourite craft brewers might be and how we will react to it.

  I want you to imagine for a moment that your favourite craft brewer has been approached by someone from Big Beer about a "partnership". They have been told they will receive a huge cash payment, but will remain in control of all aspects of their brewery, only now with greater distribution and money for expansion. How would you feel? In many cases, we have gotten to know these people personally, raised pints with them and felt proud as they grew and more people discovered them. How would you react to your friend getting a windfall after years of hard work building and sacrificing so much to grow their business? We may be shocked and sad but how can we deny someone the golden dream because we want them to remain small. The answers are, to me, not so black and white and despite my own personal feelings, I am unsure on how I would react.
An old favourite now no longer bought
  I struggled with Mill Street when they sold because they were among the first Craft Beers to help me shake off the demons of the past and focus on better made, more flavourful beer. The Vanilla Porter was my favourite beer of 2015 and remained so until I started to discover my changing palate could take me to so many other styles. Since "selling out", they have grown across Canada, with brewpubs opening East and West and each is "independent" and unique. But the spectre of corporate overlords can not be discounted and we see it in the beer. A corporation is duty bound, by law, to maximize shareholder profit and if we accept that to be true, have we seen a drop in the quality of beer from any of the local brewers who've cashed in? Some, like my friend who still loves Unibroue even after they sold out Sapporo, say no, it is possible to remain a relevant and good brewer even after signing for a fat cheque from new bosses. Others, too many to name, swear off anyone who takes a dollar from the "evil overlords", like Lagunitas in the States selling 50% to Heineken. 
  Where do you fall? I have my own troubles with getting too entrenched in either camp but my feelings certainly lead me to lean one way indeed.
  I am a massive supporter of the drink local ideal, supporting, visiting and promoting the craft beer scene here in Ontario is my mission and I have gotten to know so many wonderful people who work in and around the industry. From owners to brewers to social media and event staff, I have been lucky to get to know these passionate and dedicated lovers of great beer. So I wonder how I would feel if one morning I wake up and X Brewing company has now become part of the "diverse portfolio" of Molson Coors. It is bound to happen and for all we know that time is sooner rather than later. Will you abandon everything you love about your favourite local brewer because of their parent company, despite assurances that it will be business as usual? Or will you stick to some core principal and say good bye to years of loyalty because you feel betrayed. I think that is the emotional response many people haave nd it is the driving force behind that faction, the feeling of back door dealing, abandonment and just plain frustration. Drinking craft beer, for so many of us, is not just about the beer, it is about the community we have found surrounding it. Sending beer saint gifts across the province or country to share our local faves with far flung online friends is becoming more commonplace and helping connect us like never before.
My conscience is always keeping me on my toes when it comes to beer.
  I think for many of us who came to discover it later in life we cling to this feeling and revel in being part of it because so much of our lives have become programmed and corporate. Craft beer has led me to discover small restaurants and local shops I didn't know existed. I am starting to make an effort to make my voice heard with my dollars but then I also shop at Walmart and work for one of the biggest supermarket chains in the country. So I can attest to wanting to shop local but also wanting to save money and have a job that is reliable. The dichotomy of my beer purchases and some of the other points in my life does trouble me so, but that's a whole other thing to write about another day.
 The result of all this meandering is that I love what craft beer has brought to my life and I have a hard time giving the big three any of my hard earned beer budget money. So while it isn't a hard and fast rule, I bought a new Session IPA from Mill Street the other day, I do my best to keep my regular purchases crafty in nature. I will be honest and conclude that I would like to think I would give anyone a chance even if they sold a stake to a corporation, but it would be difficult to sustain my enthusiasm as the culture and even the beer would be sure to change. So choose your path wisely and with honest, open eyes. No matter what happens, this is a discussion sure to crop up many, many, many times in the future. I just really hope it's not about any of my favourites, I'm not ready for that one yet.

Raise your glass and your standards.
One beer at a time.



1 comment:

  1. Cheers to that! It's always hard retaining the emotional element of a purchase if you feel it's now become "corporate". I think there's no better feeling than buying things that make us live more consciously. If it's beer or if it's food or even toothpaste, things that have a story or a community or were made with care (or all the above) make even the most minor things about the journey and not he destination. There's nothing better with craft beer in my opinion than making you slow down, appreciate the little smells and flavours and sights. Cheers!