Craft Beer Fast Becoming Corporate Beer

The buying and selling of companies is nothing new, but to the craft beer industry it’s a scary and much feared concept. When America’s largest brewery, Anheuser Busch was sold to the Belgian corporation InBev a few years ago, it showed that no one was safe from corporate dollars, not even the biggest of the “big boys.” Until recently craft beer has been very much under the radar of larger investment firms, taking up less than 5% of the total market share. But since the craft beer boom began a few years ago, the pace of craft beer growth has caused many of these brewers to grow up a little too fast.

In order to sustain this rapid growth, larger craft brewers have started to conglomerate. The Craft Brewers Alliance is a publicly traded parent company, which consists of Redhook, Widmer, Goose Island, and the newly acquired Kona Brewing Company. Other breweries like Long Trail have bought smaller companies outright, such as Otter Creek and Wolavers. Unique and trailblazing breweries such as Anchor and Magic Hat, known for their independent identity, have been bought out by investment firms.

Does this mean the end of craft beer as we know it? Actually, yes.

To some it seemed inevitable that these very successful beer companies, founded on hard work and ingenuity, would eventually have to sell out. They simply grew too much, too fast. Boston Beer Company, makers of Sam Adams is set to break the 2 million barrel mark this year, no longer qualifying it as a “craft brewery” in the law’s eyes. I think it’s obvious that we will see many of the brands that we have grown to love become bland and homogeneous as the corporate bean counters take the helm.

Is there any hope at all? I think so, and I think it lies in a very old idea. Its roots lie in pre-prohibition America. In those days there were over 1400 breweries across the US. This was mostly due to the fact that beer couldn’t be transported over long distances, or easily kept at refrigerated temperatures. Therefore many regional breweries were needed in order to supply each part of the US with fresh beer. Much like the traditional brewing traditions in Europe, each city in America had several of its own, unique, and privately owned breweries.

The recent “nano-brewery” movement in the US has started to revive this tradition. These very small companies, often only producing one to three barrels at a time, are popping up almost everywhere. The ability to start with minimal capital, combined with a growing national appreciation for “local made” products has made this a very appealing business model. Companies like Hess Brewing in San Diego and White Birch in New Hampshire are examples of very small companies making product for only their immediate area.

I think this is the future of craft beer. Growing and becoming nationally distributed will always end the same way, with our much beloved breweries being gobbled up by the suits and dumbed down to meet shareholder expectations. The future of flavor lies with the small independent brewers, who realize that their own local economy is enough to sustain them.