The consolidation is already underway around craft beer, and it's going to start happening with increasing frequency. The phenomenon of corporate macrobrewers gobbling up indie operations is well documented (for example, Goose Island, Red Hook, Blue Point, 10 Barrel, and now Elysian have all been acquired in whole or in part by Anheuser-Busch), but there are plenty of bigger craft brewers buying up smaller ones -- Oskar Blues, Green Flash, and Boston Beer Co., among others, have all been making acquisitions. More are on the way. It's not out of greed, either; it's out of necessity. The acquired brewer needs money and expertise to keep making their beer; the acquirer needs the access to local markets and another revenue stream to keep growing. And as they grow, by necessity, independence as we know it will fade and an era will draw to a close.
The Eve of Battle
But here’s a question: “Three years from now, is anybody going to give a shit?”
That’s Lennert, thinking aloud about whether drinkers will continue to pay a premium for craft brewing’s tenets of independence and camaraderie. He was asking the question rhetorically, but I’ll answer it: forget about three years. I don’t think most American drinkers give a shit right now. Sometimes, I’m not even sure I do.
I’m not a coldhearted economist. I’m just a writer who drinks a lot of beer. I don’t want craft brewers to start undercutting each other in an ever-accelerating race to the bottom, but after reporting this piece for the last few months, I see no way around it. And I know this from watching myself. I’m one of those guys who wants new beer every time they walk into the bar, loyal to the type of beer, but not picky when it comes to the brewer. That’s because, despite what coolheaded apostles like Calagione and Lennert (not to mention the entire BA) believe, quality doesn’t matter as much as it should. Marketing does. Distribution does. Price does.
If I want a lager, and my favorite bar has Blue Point’s Toasted on tap (they usually do), I’m going to order it. I don’t care that Long Island’s one-time craft powerhouse sold out to “the world’s biggest brewing company,” as Calagione disdainfully refers to A-B. If it’s right in front of me, and it’s the only lager on the tap line, and it’s priced the same (or a dollar less, even) than something similar, I’ll drink that fucker. I’ve seen me do it. Because I don’t care. Well, I do care, but not enough to make a stand every single time I see a supposed imposter. And I love beer.
In the end, the industry’s individuality and cohesion just doesn’t matter as much to many (I’d argue most) consumers as it does to some brewers. And as that becomes more apparent, more brewers -- heavily armed with increased production and aggressive marketing bought with the help of outside cash -- will make a play for the shelves and taps that are right in front of the mainstream consumer.
When that happens, craft beer will go to war with itself. I just hope the winners are the good guys -- the ones who have stronger bonds to the founding principles of quality and independence than drinkers like me do. But at this point it’s impossible to know. All I know is that there’s a civil war coming, and war is hell. Crack a beer and say your prayers.