Big Beer Gets Even Craftier

Craft

The long-expected acceleration of change in the craft beer world has picked up pace suddenly.

Last week, Petaluma, Calif.-based Lagunitas Brewing Co. sold a 50 percent stake to Heineken for an estimated $500 million, with Lagunitas founder Tony Magee answering critics who have called him a sell-out, something that often happens when a craft-beer stand makes a deal with Big Beer.

Not long before, MillerCoors’ Tenth and Blake division, home to the Blue Moon and Leinenkugel brands, bought two-year-old San Diego brewer Saint Archer, making it the first brewery in a city of more than 100 to be bought out by a major brewer.

To cap last week, AB-InBev, the leader in scooping up craft brewers, added Fennville, Mich.-based Virtue Cider to their list that includes Bend, Ore.-based 10 Barrel Brewing, Seattle-based Elysian Brewing, Chicago-based Goose Island and Long Island, NY-based Bluepoint.

There have been others, of course: Belgium-based Duvel Moortgat picked up NY’s Brewery Ommegang more than 10 years ago, added Kansas City’s Boulevard in 2013 and recently entered into a partnership with California-based Firestone Walker Brewing.

These deals signify any number of things: that Big Beer is finally taking the national and international implications of craft beer’s growth seriously; that craft brewers are willing now to sacrifice their place in that category (50 percent ownership by a major brewer takes them out of the guidelines set by the Brewers Association) in return for the promise of great growth; that major brewers are likely to be less interested in some of their fading heritage brands and will shift their focus to expanding the broad portfolios of these smaller, nimbler brewers; and that other deals are on deck.

After all in recent months, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Founders Brewing sold to Spain’s Mahou San Miguel, Colorado-based Oskar Blues bought Michigan’s Perrin Brewing, and Hood River, Ore.-based Full Sail’s employee-shareholders sold to a private-equity firm.

Questions remain: When, for example, will Constellation, Diageo and other major players get into the game, or do they already have deals in the making? What will be the impact when the craft beer world starts rejecting brewers who enter the houses of Big Beer? Most importantly, do most bar and restaurant operators as well as their customers actually care who owns a beer when it tastes the same? Craft fans no longer worry much about changes in brewing techniques when a craft brewer is sold, because there are now so many options; change your recipe and I’ll go elsewhere, they think. Which is the only thing, beyond profit, an operator ultimately needs to worry about.