Perhaps the most divisive topic in the craft beer universe these days is independence. We have seen the sell-offs of such popular breweries as Goose Island, Ballast Point, Lagunitas, Wicked Weed, and more. When these sales happen, people tend to be outraged that their favorite brewery sold its soul to the “enemy”, usually ABI or MillerCoors, or Constellation in the case of Ballast Point. What a lot of people seem to think is that because Brewery X is now owned by Anheuser-Busch, the beer is going to turn to flavorless crap and quality will take a nosedive. In actuality, Big Beer has amazing quality and consistency, because it has to be exactly right every time, brewed on a scale so massive it’s mind-boggling. How do we know when non-independent beer is actually going downhill or we just don’t like it because we know they sold out?
One way to figure out if you actually like a beer is to do a blind taste test. This is a lot easier to do with a buddy to make sure you don’t cheat, but you can do it simply by covering labels or putting the beers in paper bags, so nobody can see which beer is which. Shuffle all the beers around, write a number on the bag, and don’t peek inside until everybody has tasted all the beers. Then you can do the big reveal and see how unbiased you are (or not).
What is the point of all this? Well, breweries that sold to Big Beer are still capable of producing tasty beer. Recently I went to Lagunitas in Petaluma, California. I, like many craft beer drinkers, drank a lot of Lagunitas back in the day. Then they sold 50% to Heineken and I didn’t know what to think. Then they sold the other 50% to Heineken, and I assumed it was over and Lagunitas was no longer an option for me. The truth is, Lagunitas still makes good beer, and they certainly haven’t lost their funky, out-there, alt vibe. On my trip to Lagunitas (which took some convincing to get me to agree to, since HenHouse Brewing Company is awesome and right across the street), I discovered the then-new Super Cluster double IPA. It was a hot day, but the 8% wasn’t too much to deal with. I love the hoppy stuff, and it fit the bill perfectly. Sitting there on the patio, sweating and sipping a good beer, I realized that my preconception of Lagunitas “selling out” wasn’t worth much. The beer was great, the atmosphere had not one ounce of “corporate” to it, and everybody there seemed to be having a good time. Nobody seemed to worry about where their dollar was going, but instead just whether or not the beer was good.
To be fair, some people boycott sell-out breweries because of the business practices of the parent company, not necessarily because the craft brewer got paid. Anheuser-Busch has long been accused of predatory practices and bullying the smaller competitors out of the market. Using your bigger size and marketing department to kill off smaller competitors who can’t afford to slash prices isn’t cool, it’s borderline anti-competitive. I do not support that way of doing business. I will happily pay a couple bucks more for a local craft six-pack than for a case of Bud. (On that note, many of these no-longer-craft breweries price points are not dropping under the ownership of international conglomerates. Elysian beers are as pricey as ever, and six-packs of Ballast Point Sculpin are around $14 where I live. It’s a decent IPA, but seriously?).
Everybody’s favorite corporate sell-out talking point has to be Chicago’s Goose Island, under the ownership of Anheuser-Busch. For as much as people like to point this out, try finding a bottle of any variant of Bourbon County Brand Stout the day after it was released. Not going to happen. If people were really that upset about it, it wouldn’t sell as well as it does (also, it’s a really tasty beer). If it turned to crap after Goose Island was purchased in 2011, the beer wouldn’t still be selling. Every brewery is going to have beers that go out of style or lose popularity, like Honker’s Ale seems to be doing for Goose Island, but if people were so upset about Goose Island as a whole, they wouldn’t be marking days on the calendar to go line up to get their limit of each variant of BCBS. Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. If you were the person who put their blood, sweat, and tears into creating a brewery that eventually becomes so successful ABI wants to pay you top dollar for it, what would you say? If Constellation offers you a billion dollars for your creation tomorrow, how do you answer? What about 50 million? Just because we consumers have the power to say “no, I won’t spend my money on Ballast Point” doesn’t mean we should judge a decision that we really don’t know much about. Honestly, it would be pretty hard for me to turn down an offer like that, especially if it provides me the opportunity to grow my business in an unimaginable way while still producing the product I created, and being able to share it with more people than ever before. Would I do it? I really, really don’t know.
At the end of the day, if you refuse to buy from Goose Island, Lagunitas, Ballast Point, and other “sellouts”, then good for you. Stick to your ideals, but just know that you are going to miss out on some really good beers along the way. Nobody is going to hold it against you, so if I decide to grab a pint of Lagunitas once in a while, don’t judge me in return. It doesn’t always have to be local, independent craft beer to taste good. Do a blind taste test, and maybe you will discover that your former favorite brewery does still make decent beer.