Is Old-Fashioned Craft Romance Dying?

Broken heartAh, romance! It’s at the heart of some of the greatest songs, poems, movies and books throughout the ages. Human beings the world over can relate to the excitement and freshness of new love. We love hearing, reading or watching the good guy struggle against all odds to win his lady love.

For some time now, a lot of us have had an on-going romance with craft beer. There’s something magical about that maiden visit to a famous craft brewery, that glorious first sip of a fresh Pliny the Elder or Zombie Dust at its source. Or, like a long-time marriage, there’s the comfortable familiarity of settling into your booth at the brewpub down the street and ordering that beer you still enjoy after all these years.

Brewers at Alvarado Street Brewery in Monterey, CA and their 10-barrel system

Brewers at Alvarado Street Brewery in Monterey, CA and their 10-barrel system

But, lately, our romance has taken some serious hits. All those mergers, acquisitions and buy-outs have a lot of craft beer lovers going on some pretty hard-core rants. Take Dan Becker, for example, co-founder of The Full Pint, an online site about craft beer. In his September 14 post, Dan said he’ll still drink Lagunitas, but will no longer promote the brewery or do product reviews. Ditto for Saint Archer, newly acquired by MillerCoors.

But the news that really set the beer world atwitter all over social media on Wednesday was the announcement of a possible AB-InBev acquisition of SABMiller. The first I heard of it, at 7:00 a.m. here in California, was via a tweet from North Carolina beer writer Bryan Roth. Say what?

540-barrel fermenters at Full Sail, Hood River, OR

540-barrel fermenters at Full Sail, Hood River, OR

I immediately read the Bloomberg article in Bryan’s link and then found a Wall Street Journal article. Before lunchtime in California, Paul Gatza, Director of the Brewers Association, had published a great post about what such a merger might mean. He wrote, “I find I have more questions than answers.” Further down, he said, “In terms of impact on craft, my first thought is that most craft brewers operate in a different sphere—their communities and regions primarily.”

Gatza’s word, “sphere,” resonated with me. What’s been developing for some time in the U.S. beer scene seems more akin to a universe. We’re heading toward a record 4000 breweries that come in all shapes and sizes. That includes your neighborhood brewery that might produce 400 barrels a year and the gargantuan AB-InBev with a global annual production in the millions of barrels. Different spheres, indeed..

But what about Yuengling, Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada, the top three selling U.S. craft breweries in 2014? When a “craft brewer” is putting out a million barrels a year and has joined the billionaires club, he’s certainly not in the same sphere as the brewer who’s double batching six days a week and has his house mortgaged to the hilt.

Lagunitas Brewery, Petaluma, CA

Lagunitas Brewery, Petaluma, CA

I seriously doubt that thirty years ago Ken Grossman or Tony Magee or Greg Koch was losing sleep over his exit plan. The thing is, millionaires and billionaires are still humans and the fun does come to an end. Come on, craft lovers, cut ’em some slack. We weren’t jilted, just wounded and we’ll recover.

I love reading the books of these brewers’ hard-won successes, and I was inspired last weekend at the California Craft Brewers Summit in Sacramento as I listened to a number of California’s most famous brewers tell their tales. In his presentation, Tony Magee, who four days earlier had sold 50% of Lagunitas to Heineken, talked as though the news were old business, which it was for him. Yes, folks, our Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ is growing up, just like good ol’ Torpedo and his siblings over in Chico—and in North Carolina.

From time to time in this blog, I mention my husband who brewed at Coors for over two decades. I remember, on more than one occasion at Coors employee events, hearing Bill Coors tell how, as a young man, his father sent him to visit breweries in the East and Midwest, many of which no longer existed. The point of Mr. Coors story was that a business has to change with the times and consumer demands.

Some of the 10,000+ solar panels at Sierra Nevada, Chico, CA

Some of the 10,000+ solar panels at Sierra Nevada, Chico, CA

We live in a capitalistic society where growing a business is generally a desirable outcome. Does it hurt a little to see our heroes stepping back? Yes. Does the romance seem a little less magical than it did when we tasted our very first craft beer? Definitely. But nothing stays the same forever—especially in the craft beer world/sphere/universe.

I agree with Portland beer writer Jeff Alworth. The day after Lagunitas’ announcement, Alworth wrote, “Going forward, I’m planning to focus less on the specific products and breweries of the commercial sphere—they will come and go, inevitably—and more on the act of sharing a beer with someone I enjoy.”

Our craft romance isn’t dead; it’s just maturing into the next phase.

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