As Big Beer buys up the little guys, craft brewers try to #TakeCraftBack

Published December 1 2017
Updated December 2 2017

It’s a stunt, never going to happen.

Every man, woman and child in the country would have to kick in $659 and change to come up with the $213 billion it would take to buy Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer. Nonetheless, the Brewers Association, a trade group that promotes small and independent American brewers, has launched a campaign to do just that. It’s to raise awareness that craft beer, and ergo craft beer enthusiasts, are secretly under siege.

The #TakeCraftBack campaign, which has raised more than $3 million since mid-October, is drawing attention to the complicated ebb and flow of the beer world.

People are drinking less mass-market beer, period. Beer consumption dropped 20 percent in the last 35 years, according to Wells Fargo analysts. Millennials get blamed again: Their embrace of wine and cocktails is linked to a nearly 2 percent downturn in Big Beer sales just this year.

Craft beer, on the other hand, has enjoyed a major explosion. Take Tampa Bay alone, which has emerged as a "beercation" destination with more than 60 craft breweries. Craft has experienced double-digit growth for a number of years and is anticipated to grow by a more modest 6 percent this year.

Big Beer embattled. Craft beer looking rosy. It’s a classic case of "if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em."

Since 2011, AB InBev has quietly acquired 10 small and independent breweries, but they won’t tell you that on their packaging. Molson Coors has purchased four, Heineken recently bought Lagunitas, and Constellation Brands has bought Florida’s own Funky Buddha as well as Ballast Point. Starting with Goose Island and right up until May’s purchase of Wicked Weed, AB InBev and Big Beer (that’s companies that produce more than 6 million barrels of beer in the United States) have been buying up successful, often cult-fave little guys.

With every purchase, Big Beer is creating an illusion of choice, said Julia Herz, program director and publisher of After many acquisitions, staffing changes have altered the nature, production and even recipes at formerly independent breweries. This shift also gives the formerly independent brewers competitive advantages in the marketplace, things that may make it hard for truly independent brewers to compete effectively: increased buying power, dramatically expanded marketing budgets and far-reaching distribution, which is key.

While Herz said the #TakeCraftBack campaign is tongue-in-cheek, the message is no joke.

"We’re saying we’re tired of seeing formerly independent brewers being purchased," she said. "If you care about your beer beyond choice and convenience, and you want to support small business, this is an effort you should get to know."

The response to the faux buyout campaign has been mixed, said Gerard Walen, author of Florida Breweries. Some say the brewers association is wasting people’s time and money (11,419 have donated $3.6 million so far). Others insist this is a clever way to highlight a growing problem.

The craft brewer term for beers the big guys bought is "crafty beers." In the spirit of Stephen Colbert’s "truthiness," outing these crafty beers allows consumers to make informed decisions, Walen said.

"The average consumer doesn’t really know that Shock Top is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev or that Blue Moon is owned by Molson Coors," he said.

Not all acquisitions are created equally, says Veronica Danko, who owns the Independent in Seminole Heights, one of the area’s first craft beer bars, and co-owns the Jug & Bottle Dept., also in Seminole Heights. She points to last year’s sale of Belgium’s Brouwerij Bosteels, maker of Tripel Karmeliet and Kwak, to AB InBev. Traditions honed over 225 years were maintained, seventh-generation family members left in charge — most beer aficionados say the beers are unchanged.

And then there’s the much-discussed case of Tampa’s Cigar City. Joey Redner’s unlikely smash hit launched in 2009 with a batch of Maduro Brown Ale in a facility on an industrial stretch of Tampa’s Spruce Street and eventually became such a cult icon that its annual Hunahpu’s Day Festival would routinely draw 5,000 people.

In 2016, Cigar City sold a controlling interest in its brewery for an estimated $60 million to Oskar Blues in Colorado, which in turn was purchased by a private equity firm that now also owns controlling interests in Squatters, Perrin and Oskar Blues.

Redner kept running Cigar City and became a member of the joint board, and on Wednesday the portfolio of breweries changed its name to CANarchy with the aim of creating a platform for small craft brewers to network, to share economies of scale and to grow independently together.

Bottom line, said Danko, despite the sale, Cigar City has maintained its stellar reputation among craft beer enthusiasts. And while she is a supporter of small non-corporate, non-chain businesses, she understands the imperatives that drive craft brewers like Lagunitas founder Tony Magee, who has written that he couldn’t get where he wanted to go without an infusion of cash from Heineken.

These are choices craft brewers routinely face: Whether to open a tasting room or to distribute locally, nationally or internationally; how to brand and market the products; how to finance the brewery expansion; how to sell and place the products; not to mention quality control issues and cost control issues. Investments and buyouts can help.

The onus is on beer drinkers to keep track of which craft beers have been purchased by huge conglomerates, said David Doble, head brewer of Tampa Bay Brewing Co.

But if someone likes how a beer tastes, why should they care who’s funding it?

"They have to care about what they drink, and it’s not all about how beers taste," he said. "The guys that actually fought on the Pacific front in World War II, you wouldn’t see them driving around in Japanese-made cars. For brewers this is about making business profitable, but at what price?"

Customers take ownership of craft breweries, said Todd Usry, president of Colorado’s Breckenridge Brewery, which last year was sold to AB InBev. They can’t all accept when a little guy goes big.

"There were people who were hurt and didn’t understand," he said. "We said, if you need to step away from the brand, do that, but come back, because we’re brewing the same beer we have for 29 years."

Yes, the same beers. But the flagship vanilla porter is now brewed at the 1-million-square-foot AB InBev brewery in Fort Collins, Colo. It says Fort Collins on the label, but not that the beer is brewed at an Anheuser-Busch facility. That move, Usry said, freed up space to brew at Breckenridge’s Littleton, Colo., brewery. Breckenridge intends to launch 15 to 18 new beers in 2018, something Usry said is not a mandate from AB InBev.

Anheuser-Busch has tried to be transparent, brew when possible in original facilities and keep brewery staffs, said Felipe Szpigel, president of the High End, a business unit of Anheuser-Busch that oversees craft and European import brands.

"In the end, it’s about better quality, better communities, better environment, and we all need to work together to elevate the industry to make it grow again," he said. "For example, to compete with wine and liquor — our most pressing competition — we can develop new occasions and make beer more compelling for women."

"Crafty beers" haven’t cut into his business thus far, said Doble. But he said they’re bound to.

"When we started this craft beer revolution, it was about bringing heart and soul back to beer," he said. "It was never really about, ‘How big can I get and how much money can I make?’ Today, it’s being watered down and it’s hard to tell who cares and who does not."

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.