Dick Cantwell calls them "hate tourists," the beer geeks who started turning up at Elysian Brewing Company's original brewpub in Seattle as soon as the sale was announced. "Our service staff took it on the chin," says the 58-year-old brewer, who co-founded the brewery in 1995, two decades before selling it to the world's largest beer company, Anheuser-Busch InBev. "People were buying beers, and literally dumping them on the floor," he says. Then they’d stalk out the door and into the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood in search of a real craft beer from a real craft brewery. You know: a locally owned one that hadn't "sold out" yet.
It's a common sentiment throughout the industry, as well as with the hopped-up cognoscenti that function as de facto mouthpieces of the "better beer" movement. After all, the craft movement might have started out as a straightforward quest for really damn good beer, but over the years corporate mistrust and disdain for mainstream tastes have become so tightly woven into its identity that they often seem like defining characteristics.
But like it or not, the great craft beer sellout is on. The craft beer landscape is radically different than it was when Cantwell began brewing. It's changed almost as substantially between this year and last, when we first warned you that a massive shift was underway. Since then, the number of American craft breweries has swollen to 4,600, even as craft beer's growth is flattening out. Year-over-year volume was up just 8% in July 2016, and will likely remain under double digits for the year -- only the third time in the past decade that that's happened. That's still better than overall beer consumption in the US, which has been slowly giving up market share to wine and spirits since the '80s.
For those reasons, and a few more, craft brewers across the country have been lining their war chests with institutional capital, or aligning themselves under the banner of Big Beer, looking for quick cash to expand, amp up distribution, or just retire on. In the past 24 months, "strategic partners" (i.e., bigger beer companies) bought Ballast Point, Elysian, 10 Barrel, Hop Valley, Terrapin, Revolver, Devils Backbone, and Saint Archer outright. Lagunitas sold 50% to Heineken; Founders sold 30% to Mahou San Miguel; Firestone Walker joined Ommegang and Boulevard under Duvel Moortgat's tent. Hell, as this article went to print, Brooklyn Brewery announced it had sold 24.5% of its company to Kirin, the Japanese corporation.
And, oh, the private equity deals! Oskar Blues, Full Sail, and others have all sold themselves, in part or in whole, to investment groups eager to get in on beer's only growing category.
In other words, shit be happening, compadres. So, we spent the last month interviewing craft brewers, macro buyers, die-hard drinkers, and industry analysts to see how, and if, this shift will affect how we craft beer lovers -- you, me, us -- will drink. Should acquired breweries like Elysian still count as "craft," now that it's cast lots with the moneymen? As lovers of craft beer, must we now spurn those breweries? If the quality level stays high and more people gain access to better beer, should we care? Does it even matter?