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5 Harbingers of Craft Beer's Impending Civil War

Published On 09/29/2015 Published On 09/29/2015

Craft beer is changing. You know this. But what you probably didn't know -- what nobody could have known a few months ago -- is just how fast it would change. With a recent parade of recent acquisitions & partnerships -- including Dogfish Head's just-announced decision to sell a slice of itself -- now is the perfect time to assess the newly arranged battlefield of what we months ago called craft beer's impending civil war.

So, how fast is craft beer morphing from a clap-you-on-the-back, all-for-one American cottage industry into a cutthroat global business where the big get bigger while the small take cover? "This is the fifth deal this month, said Benj Steinman of the Dogfish Head news (his magazine, Beer Marketer's Insights, broke the story this morning.) "It's just un-freaking-believable." Here's what it looks like.

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Anheuser-Busch InBev acquires Golden Road

When: Mid-September
Directly before GABF, Southern California's Golden Road Brewery announced it would be acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev. The terms of the deal, which lands the small four-year-old brewer in the company of Goose Island, Elysian, and other one-time independent brewers that've since fallen in with the multinational, remain undisclosed. At the time, Julia Herz of the Brewers Association told Thrillist she found it "fascinating to watch large global brewers evolve and change with the success they've seen from craft breweries."

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Lagunitas sells 50% to Heineken NV

When:  Early September
Lagunitas had been on a tear for the past few years on its own, transforming from a mid-sized Southern California brewer into a nearly national player. By selling half its company to Heineken, the brand is poised to expand globally. The Dutch corporation has announced plans to distribute Lagunitas in Europe, where craft beer is still gathering popularity in a market saturated by paler pilsners and lagers.

No word on the price Heineken paid for that half-stake, but Tripp Mickle, writing for Market Watch, pointed out that "Recent craft-brewery acquisitions have priced craft brewers at more than $1,000 a barrel, which would value Lagunitas at more than $800 million." Yeesh.


MillerCoors LLC acquires controlling stake of Saint Archer When: Early September
Amidst rumors of a merger between ABI and its own parent company (SABMiller), MillerCoors announced that it would acquire a controlling stake in Saint Archer, a three-year-old San Diego brewery via its premium holdings portfolio Tenth & Blake.

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Firestone Walker partners with Duvel Moortgat USA

When: Mid-July
Named GABF's 2015 "Brewer of the Year," Firestone Walker recently announced its partnership with Duvel Moortgat USA, a multinational that's surprisingly well-regarded in craft circles for two reasons: Ommegang and Boulevard. The Belgian conglomerate owns both breweries outright (Market Watch reported it paid around $100-120 million for the Kansas City brewery in 2012, and has owned the Cooperstown outfit since 2003) but has remained totally aloof from its brewing, marketing, and labeling efforts.

Die-hard fans of Firestone Walker's award-winning Union Jack IPA are hopeful that this partnership (the terms of which were not disclosed, as both are private companies) will feature a similar dynamic.
 

Conclusion

Dogfish Head's 15% sale to a private equity firm probably won't change anything for anyone. At least not right away. In his statement, Calagione claimed LNK has accepted that the move isn't a step towards an IPO, and that he will always be able to "choose smart growth over fast growth." Gatza agrees. "In this case, Sam's not giving up control of the company, so I [don't] think it will have a broad impact on the industry."

Maybe so -- hopefully so, if you're a Dogfish Head fan. But taken together with the recent flurry of acquisitions noted above, the news represents a fundamental market truth that we've been calling for a while: Craft beer is growing up.

With each new handshake -- be it with a macro, or another craft brewer, or private investors -- the industry's oft-mythologized camaraderie and independence becomes more of a myth. Craft beer is a business, man, and it's starting to act like one.

So is the civil war coming to craft beer? “It does seem like battle lines are being drawn, even more so than a few months ago," speculated Steinman. "Whether it’s an all out war..." He scoffed doubtfully. "Eh, not yet.”

Give it a few more months.

Dave Infante is a senior writer for Thrillist. He won't say he told you so, but... he told you so. Follow @dinfontay on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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