Industry Grumblings

There’s been a couple of interesting stories come out in the last week or so that I wanted to just touch on briefly.  Something is afoot at the Circle K.

First, we have the announcement that ABInBev will no longer be buying craft breweries! Hooray right? Well to quote Lee Corso… “Not so fast my friend!”.  This just seems to be a knee-jerk reaction (remember that lovely Super Bowl commercial?) to the backlash, which was pretty heavy for 10 Barrel and Elysian and then went nuclear with Wicked Weed.  Welp, we tried the whole takeover thing and that didn’t work, so I guess it’s back to business as usual.  Vine Pair touches on it briefly in their article, and I pretty much agree with my friend over at A Pint for Dionysus with his succinct commentary that this is pretty much just going back to the old days of InBev strong-arming distributors.  That’s just what big companies do.  Reminds me of when I discovered the dirty truth about how Wal Mart operates.  You make a local soda brand (not Coke or Pepsi), but you don’t package it in 24 packs…. Wal-Mart calls up and Goddammit you’re making 24 packs! They don’t give you a choice.

Second, we have the announcement that Harpoon Brewing has purchased Clown Shoes. Jeff Alworth touches on this in his blog post (READ HERE) and focuses on how different Harpoon and Clown Shoes are and how they won’t compete with each other, really.  Two things surprise me in all this.  First, I didn’t realize that Harpoon was doing well enough to buy someone.  I’ve heard of Harpoon and had a handful of their beers but they aren’t huge.  They don’t make it out here to the West Coast, that I know of, and they don’t have the same range as a “national craft” like Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams.  The second thing is, I didn’t realize Clown Shoes was not an actual brewery.  Apparently, they contract brew other places, so latching on to a bigger place (that has available tank space) makes perfect sense.  The most interesting angle of this is craft buying craft.  It has a similar ring to it as New Belgium snapping up Magnolia Brewing in San Francisco, although that aquisition was more about saving an icon that was going out of business.  The Harpoon/Clown Shoes merger is more about matching strength and strength.  I’m imagining this is going to be a strategy to combat the multinationals. Form large Craft conglomerates? We’ll see.  The most common comment on the Beervana Blog was “this is going to keep happening more often”.

Next, we have an article from the Chicago Tribune portending Doom and Gloom for American Light Lager.  The really quick synopsis is that Coors Light sales are down 3.4% and Bud Light sales are down 5.7%.  The article claims attrition from craft beer (which is growing) as well as the same “wine and spirits” song and dance that the High End made, but I’m not so sure.  The market as a whole is down, and has been for several years, and who’s going to hurt the most? The #1 and #2 beers in sales respectively.  This seems to be following the market trend as a whole.  While I’d love to celebrate craft beer “slaying the Giant” I’m going to pump the brakes on that.  Seems to be more correlation than causation.

Lastly, we have the Goose Island fiasco.  On October 19, roughly a month before release date (Black Friday, Nov 24th).  Goose Island announced in a blog post (HERE) that the Reserve Barleywine, aged in 35 year old Bourbon barrels, was not being released because it “didn’t taste like what we wanted it to”.  Obviously, everyone quickly jumped on the bash wagon and started yelling about “another infection”.  Perhaps rightfully so.  I don’t know what brewer speak for “doesn’t taste good” really means.  Everybody wants to lay blame on ABInBev, but I think that might be a little naive.  Is this ABInBev’s fault… yes… but only tangentially.  Follow me here.  When AB bought Goose, they bought a barrel program, with the idea to grow that barrel program.  My only experience with Goose is post buyout, so I don’t know how it used to be.  Apparently Bourbon County used to rot on the shelf until someone suddenly made it popular. AB wanted to latch on to that popularity, not surprisingly.  One thing I’ve learned from tours at places like de Garde and New Belgium is barrels are fickle creatures.  They are, quite literally, their own beast.  You’re working with yeast and bacteria and sometimes shit just goes sideways, it happens.  So, AB allowed Goose to expand from (fictional numbers for demonstration) 100 barrels to 1000 barrels, those odds of getting a bad barrel increase 10 fold as well.  This same thing likely could have happened even if Goose was still independent, it might just not have happened as quickly, so perhaps we can say AB accelerated the problem, but not so much “caused” it.  I didn’t experience the 2015 infected BCBS, but one thing I’ll give them credit for this year is they caught it (whatever it is) before release day.  That’s not as bad as rolling out a product and then immediately scrambling to buy it all back.  Also, 2015 was in the base stout (as I understand), whereas this is a one off, really experimental type thing.  To me, that’s not as bad.  This beer was already a dice roll to begin with.  I’m willing to give Goose a pass, but I will be paying attention to how things go in the future.  Hopefully they get it under control.  2016 was my first year going to the Black Friday release for Bourbon County, and I am planning to do it again this year.  We’ll see how long that continues, but for now I’m drinking the Kool-Aid.

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