In a growth market, brewers on all sides are able to keep quality high and eke out profits, but as competition tightens, cost-cutting tactics like substituting cheaper ingredients, discontinuing time- and labor-intensive beers, and centralizing production can keep returns high for investors or corporate owners, even as retail prices drop. As Greg Koch, the outspoken and fiercely independent co-founder of Stone Brewing, remarks: "The commodity world [...] naturally, over time, reduces choice and quality, and those forces are strong, man."
Each acquisition, in other words, is drawing rambunctious craft beer further into the more narrowly defined world it set out to expand. No one -- not brewers, analysts, distributors, or drinkers -- knows quite where to draw the line. At what point does ownership status cease to be just a question of semantics? At what point does it become a threat to quality beer? And, if expansion is the key to survival, is there a way for craft beer to grow while retaining its independence?