Is That Craft Beer You're Drinking Really Craft? A Handy Guide
There’s a good chance that locally brewed beer you’re drinking is actually a part of a giant multinational corporation.
With Bud and Miller sales cooling, Big Beverage inked at least 15 deals to buy craft beer makers in recent years. Anheuser-Busch InBev has led the charge, scooping up 10 tiny brewers, including the most recent acquisition of North Carolina-based Wicked Weed in May.
“Craft beer was the best thing that’s happened to beer,” says AB InBev’s Felipe Szpigel, who serves as president of the company’s High End portfolio of craft styles. For craft takeovers AB InBev focuses on two key ingredients: founders that are passionate about a tie-up with Big Beer, and finding a mix of different ale styles so the company doesn’t bet too heavily on IPAs, Sours, or Saisons. Wicked Weed’s flagship, for example, is a West Coast IPA called Pernicious. Scottish-style ale Kilt Lifter is Arizona-based Four Peaks’ top seller.
Craft buyouts tend to lead to broader expansion—Goose Island and Blue Moon became national brands; Elysian and Ballast Point aren’t far behind. But when craft beer deals occur, fans often cry foul on social-media channels like Twitter. Beverage executives say they aren’t buying these brands to implement big changes to the product. “The only thing we can do for them is keep making the good beer,” says Szpigel when asked what can be done to assuage those concerns.
Who owns your local craft brewer
Top rival MillerCoors has acquired fewer craft brands because it tapped the craft movement with two early investments in Blue Moon and Leinenkugel’s. More recently, it has bought into St. Archer and Hop Valley. “The very first thing we do is taste the beer. It doesn’t matter how well branded the company is—it won’t work if we don’t believe in the quality of their brands,” says Scott Whitley, who steers the Tenth and Blake Beer craft portfolio at MillerCoors.
Both AB InBev and MillerCoors say they want founders to be front-and-center when it comes to marketing and innovation. At AB InBev, the craft founders meet periodically to share ideas. “They make the beer, they came up with the brands, our job is to support them and get the beer in more places than they could get on their own,” Whitley says.
Craft snobs have called foul on the trend.
“There is confusion and unfortunately a lack of transparency on the labels of the acquired brand,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, which advocates on behalf of small and independent brewers not owned or controlled by Big Beer. The BA recently started pushing for a special seal that would say “Independent Craft” to differentiate brands from those owned by AB InBev and other big brewers.
Bob Pease, president and CEO of the BA, says beer enthusiasts are entitled to know what companies are behind the craft brands that gobbling up a bigger share of shelf space across the U.S. “Beer lovers are interested in transparency when it comes to brewery ownership,” Pease says.
Big Beer’s craft founders hate the fight over what is or isn’t craft (mostly because they want to keep marketing their beers that way regardless of ownership). “You guys are literally in-fighting,” says Wicked Weed founder co-founder Walt Dickinson in response to the BA’s call for craft labeling. He says brewers need to band together and stop ceding market share to wine and liquor makers, rather than squabble over labeling.
Says Dickinson: “I mean at the end of the day, we’re all making beer.”
A version of this article appears in the July 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Drink Local, Buy Global.”