Much like a strong earthquake, aftershocks are sure to follow. Between the news of AB-InBev’s strategic acquisitions of breweries and their other public facing activities lately, there is always some doom and gloom chatter as to “who’s next and “is this the end of craft beer?”
If you take the word “beer” out of the equation, growing, progressing and possibly selling is all a very natural part of business. Some companies aspire to grow just to cash out; some companies purposely like to stay small and humble. With that said, there is a seemingly unique bond between craft breweries, craft brewers and their customers. From covering this niche genre for nearly 10 years, I have heard countless enthusiasts namedrop tasting room employees, brewers and owners as if they were blood relatives. Each time a beloved craft brewery sells, the battle cries get louder, and it seems as if it is taken more personal each time.
Since both AB-InBev and MillerCoors began plucking shiny young breweries alongside medium sized regional favorites, there has been lots of speculation as to who will be purchased next. Anyone following along for the past few years is able to gauge who might need to cash out due to hard times, and it’s usually obvious who is starting up looking for the quick flip.
So today, instead of predicting the bad weather, which is very easy for many of us to get caught up in, I’d like to outline a handful of breweries that I’d bet will never sell out. By selling out, I mean straight up being sold to AB-InBev/Megabrew, Heineken or Carlsberg. Many people like to put the cart before the horse and cry foul when a craft brewery deals with a private equity firm or takes a private investment. The end of that road doesn’t have to be the arms of an international macro-brewing corporation. I’m not up for explaining how private equity works in detail, but the quick version is, a firm invests in your company for X amount of years, with the strong hope that they will get their money back and make some. The assumption is always made that said private equity firm will invest in a craft brewery and absolutely sell off the craft brewery to a evil gigantic industry brewery corporation, but we have yet to see this play out in real life.
The breweries mentioned all brew beer and sell it. Shocking, I know, so keep in mind, at the end of the day, they are a business, it’s just that they have very apparent principles that are showcased in their beer, their tasting room, in interviews, on social media and every other possible way. After reading this, please feel free to chime in on who we missed or who you think we are dead wrong about (which we aren’t).
Allagash Brewing – It has never crossed my mind that Allagash Brewing would wake up one day after being in business for 22 years and say “fuck it, let’s sell.” They have been slowly marching to the beat of their own drum at every point of their life. Right after the first bubble popped, they were making Belgian-style ales with hefty price tags. They’ve been making small batch sour ales that are barely obtainable outside the state of Maine. The number one style of beer to sell is IPA. Have you ever heard of an Allagash IPA? Nope, you have not. Does this sound like a brewery concerned about lots of money to you? After sitting down with founder Rob Tod, I am completely certain that as long as he is alive, Allagash Brewing Company will not sell out.
Maui Brewing Co. – There is a real life David and Goliath story that has been happening in the state of Hawaii for the past 12 years. While Garrett Marrero and his wife Melanie have been building a beautiful brewery and brand known as Maui Brewing Co., they have been fighting against the AB-InBev funded Craft Brewing Alliance’s Kona Brewing. Anyone who has been to Hawaii knows that a huge part of the state’s industry revolves around Hawaiian-made goods that create warm, lasting memories for those who visit. Kona Brewing, while once used to be a Hawaiian-made beer a long time ago, has since moved a majority of it’s production to the mainland, where it’s far more economical to produce, distribute and market. Do you think Kona put “Brewed in Oregon or New Hampshire” on their bottles? Just recently, Kona/CBA has been forced to alter their labeling, but the damage has been done and it’s still sadly not enough. So basically, Maui Brewing has been up against a large corporation making faux Hawaiian goods, which are often confused by the casual beer drinker. The likelihood of Garrett and Co. forgiving all and joining the dark side is zero. Will Maui Brewing sell out to their nemesis? Hell to the no.
New Glarus Brewing – Wrap your mind around these top level facts for a minute: New Glarus Brewing is the 16th best selling craft beer company in the nation and 25th beer company in the nation, according to the Brewers Association Top 50 craft brewers list, and they don’t ship outside of the state of Wisconsin. That’s a lot of beer and a lot of money without all of the headache and hassle of other regional craft breweries with similar output and sales. No worries of their beer being mistreated 1,500 miles away, no worries of dirty off-premise sales tactics in Boston, none of it. New Glarus is another veteran brewery that hasn’t been swayed to brew to trend or market demand, they make interesting beers, but their core lineup consists of “dad” and “college beer.” New Glarus Brewing will not be selling in our grandchildren’s lifetime.
Russian River Brewing – Nothing has been more fun to watch than Russian River continue to rise in cult-like popularity while playing by their own rules, with no compromise. A question I’ve asked, as has many others is “Why don’t they just make more Pliny?” or “Why don’t they just get a big ass loan, get a humongous production facility, and make enough Pliny for the entire country?” The answer is really quite simple: It’s because they don’t want to. Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo have very clear principles and a very transparent business model. They make perfect IPAs and Belgian-style ales, they sell a great deal of it out of their small brewpub, and they carefully hand-select who gets their small allotment of kegged and bottled products. Look no further than their Facebook and Instagram pages, you will never not see this beautiful couple not smiling ear to ear. And why shouldn’t they? They are most likely millionaires, living in the most picture-perfect area of the country, making the best beer in the entire world. There is absolutely no way in hell this company would consider selling out. Ever.
Sierra Nevada Brewing – Many people think of Sierra Nevada Brewing as one of the “big guys.” That’s because they have been around forever, and have worked hard to get their iconic green-labeled Pale Ale on every shelf and tap tower in the world. Still, Sierra Nevada Brewing is as humble as they were from the beginning, ran by the Grossman family. I’m not here to share the long, nearly 40-year story of Sierra Nevada; I’m here to say that within 40 years, the beer market has seen its ups and downs. In that time, there was plenty of time for Sierra Nevada to shop a sale, and likewise, I am sure the big guys approach them with an offer at least every five years, with plenty of commas and zeros. They never took the company public either, which is something Boston Beer did many years ago. It’s simply not happening, and not because someone like AB-InBev doesn’t want such a solid brand.
Stone Brewing – Easily one of the most controversial on this list, but if you have been following Stone closely like I have, you will agree. Since day one, Stone’s biggest theme has been a rally cry against big beer. They’ve gone up against industrial cheap light lager for years, they’ve taken part in documentaries educating against big beer. It’s more than just marketing, it is how Stone co-founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner truly feel. In 2016, they were met with business challenges that involved acting more like a savvy corporation than a dot com startup, but the message from Stone remains the same. I will still bet all of my money they will never sell out as long as the current owners are still there and alive.
Three Floyds Brewing – You don’t get more anti-establishment than Three Floyds Brewing. If you peel back their flashy metal marketing and branding for a moment, you have one of the most popular brewery brands in the world, and they happen to make exceptional beer. Over the past 10 years, there is no reason why 3 Floyds management team couldn’t have walked into any bank and gotten a blank check to scale up to meet demand. But, they didn’t. They brew their iconic Imperial Coffee Stout Dark Lord once a year, which could easily be brewed and capitalized on all year, they could have an entire facility dedicated to brewing the game changing Zombie Dust, but they didn’t. Anything that a small to medium sized brewery typically does to grow their company and take it to the next level, 3 Floyds didn’t do it. Looking back on it now, it was smart. When shit hits the fan in terms of bubble popping and market uncertainty, 3 Floyds will still be producing their high quality beer at a level they are most comfortable, with great profit and continued great local demand. Never in a million years would these guys sell out to the man.
There are many other smaller breweries not mentioned by name that are on the front line, fighting the battle against AB-InBev and their attempt to blur the lines of macro and independently owned beer. The first brewery that comes to mind is Beachwood Brewing and Blendery. It’s not that they would ever in a million years sell out, it’s just that they are too small to be considered a player in the sale game as of this writing. There are also some medium sized breweries that I just am not 100% certain about, that may very well never sell out, but I kept off the list. I say that as there are some craft breweries that have the best of intentions but see no light at the end of the tunnel. This is due to a mix of poor planning, stiff competition and uncertain industry climate.