It’s been an interesting January for the craft brewing industry. As we look back on the first weeks of 2015, there have been trademark battles, grim reports on some of the industry’s biggest players (read: Samuel Adams) and news of previously craft breweries having their “craft” designation stripped.
In some ways, today’s big news of Anheuser-Busch’s acquisition of veteran Seattle-based Elysian Brewing should come as no surprise. It’s all the rage these days, after all – catching the eye of the Big Beer suitor, wooing him in to sample a few of your award-winning beers and then, POW, trading the keys to your brewing facility, brewpubs and recipe book for a one-way ticket to corporate soirees in St. Louis and a future existence as a line item on an annual earnings report.
All in the name of growth – that glimmering hope to reach new shores, to occupy more tap real estate, to acquire more Untappd check-ins.
Rumors of the deal had apparently been circulating in Seattle this week, but Anheuser-Busch confirmed the purchase agreement via a press release issued today.
Says Joe Bisacca, Elysian CEO and co-founder: “With the support of Anheuser-Busch, we will build on past successes and share our beers with more beer lovers moving forward.”
Says Dick Cantwell, Elysian co-founder and Head Brewer: “By joining with Anheuser-Busch we’ll be able to take the next steps to bring that energy and commitment to a larger audience.”
Now I’ve long grappled with the concept of “selling out,” a term oft used when something small, niche, loved is elevated to become something big, ubiquitous, obsessed over. Or so it seems. Fans of any industry typically only ever see one side. They are consumers – voracious ones at that. Why like a thing when you can love it?
So, when their beloved band/beer/thing takes that step that, for all we know, they’ve been aspiring toward all along anyway – being acquired, being elevated, “making it” – we get pissy. How dare my favorite indie band graduate from fast food and sleeping in the van and start making a real living off their craft and get recognition for their talent by joining a major label? How dare my favorite craft beer graduate from a relentless brewing schedule to make enough beer – and enough money – to keep the whole operation afloat and join forces with a behemoth conglomerate that’s capable of offsetting overhead, expand distribution and maybe even provide job security to the brewery staff?
It’s a catch-22. Maybe.
My gut reaction to the Elysian/A-B announcement was disappointment. I’ve been to Elysian’s beer hall and original location on East Pike Street in Seattle’s Capitol Hill. I chatted with the bartenders, drank plenty of beers, had a blast. Once distribution reached Central PA (without A-B’s assistance, mind you), I purchased Immortal IPA and Spacedust whenever it’s offered. Both are great beers. Though the brewers never would have known it, I had a relationship with Elysian. Now, A-B’s involvement feels like a third wheel, an uninvited guest. A usurper.
Given the fate of Portland’s 10 Barrel Brewing and Chicago’s Goose Island – both of which were recently stripped of their “craft beer” designation due to being entirely owned by A-B – it can only be assumed Elysian will be dealt the same sentence. And many in the craft beer community will lament that. The same Lagunitas lawsuit haters will turn on Elysian. One-hundred-and-forty-character boycott threats will come by the digital truckload.
But what consumers seldom think about is probably one of the most important factors at play here. These breweries that we pledge allegiance to are businesses. They have bottom lines, sales goals, investments to be recouped. So, as fans, shouldn’t we applaud Elysian’s big news? Shouldn’t we congratulate the ownership on standing out in what has become an enormous sea of competition? Does A-B’s interests equate to validation of the quality of Elysian’s product?
A catch-22 indeed.
One thing is for certain, however. That tagline on Loser IPA may need some updating…