Yesterday, the big news broke about Anheuser-Busch’s purchase of Elysian Brewing. Reactions ranged all over. Some people congratulated Elysian. Many people got angry. Others just didn’t know what to make of it.
I myself decided to have a little ‘fun’ with Elysian by posting their original label design for “Loser IPA”, which carries the words: “Corporate Beer Still Sucks” (see below). I couldn’t help but find it a bit ironic, for what I think are pretty obvious reasons, and I guess I wasn’t alone in that. I posted it in jest on both Facebook and Twitter, and was frankly surprised at the reach it had/how many people responded to the image. It was even picked up by and used in a brief article that appeared on Eater Seattle.
So, today, I’d like to clarify a few things regarding my thoughts on this merger:
Dick Cantwell, Joe Bisacca, David Buhler and everyone else at Elysian have worked very hard over the years to make Elysian Brewing a successful, nationally (and even internationally) recognized brewery that puts out some damn fine beers. They have done an amazing job of building their brand and nobody can say they haven’t earned the reputation they have in today’s craft beer World.
Yesterday, when news of the AB merger first broke, many people were quick to chastise Elysian over the buyout, some even pledging to never drink their beers again. Personally, I think that’s too hard a line to take. At the same time, however, I can understand where such attitudes might come from. After all, historically, being taken over by Anheuser-Busch (AB) has resulted in lower quality beers for several brands. After AB took over Red Hook Brewing, for example (and, in 2004, increased their ownership percentage from 29.8 percent to nearly 34 percent), they made big changes and there was a noticeable drop in the quality of the beer.
Another more recent example of where AB is already making changes that could conceivably affect quality is Chicago’s Goose Island Brewing Company, which was purchased by AB back in 2012. (The following quote was taken from an article that appeared on businessweek.com in October, 2012.):
“Three months after the deal, AB InBev started brewing Goose Island signature 312 Imperial Pale Ale—named after a Chicago area code—in Baldwinsville, N.Y., where the area code is 315. Graham Haverfield, beer director at the Wine Library in Springfield Township, N.J., says he’s received an IPA made in Portsmouth, N.H.; a harvest ale made in upstate New York; and Belgian-style beers from Goose Island’s Chicago brewery.
“I have a problem with a craft beer like Goose Island being treated like a mass-produced brand,” Haverfield says. “It’s a slippery slope.””
This is the fear that most people who responded angrily to Elysian’s purchase news seem to have – that AB will start making changes that will affect the quality of Elysian’s beers. I can understand such fears, but what I don’t understand is how people act on those fears before any such possibly detrimental changes are made. Has the brewing of Goose Island’s 312 Imperial Pale Ale in New York rather than Chicago resulted in any noticeable effect on quality? I honestly don’t know.
Another fear some have (which is related to the Goose Island example above) could have to do with job loss – not necessarily for themselves, but for others they know in the local beer industry. If AB decides to move production of Elysian’s beers to St. Louis or New York, for example, that could result in many job losses for Elysian’s local brewing staff. Now, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon, partly due to Elysian’s fairly recent production brewery expansion down in Georgetown, but I still understand where the fear of this possibility comes from.
One final reason I wanted to touch on that’s caused concern or anger for many people is AB’s known use of ‘strong-arm’ tactics to make sure their own products are better positioned in the market than their smaller craft competitors. Back in 2012, after AB watched their market share drop fairly significantly for three straight years (while, at the same time, craft breweries continued to gain market share), they started pressuring distributors to not carry their competition (i.e. craft beers from small, independent breweries) or risk losing the rights to distribute certain other brands. It’s these types of tactics that are probably the biggest cause for concern when these types of purchases take place.
At the same time, however, people often forget that breweries are, in fact, businesses, and businesses exist to make a profit. Elysian’s founders, Dick, Joe and Dave, have worked hard for several years to build a well-known brand, and I won’t begrudge anyone for taking a little profit or for doing what it takes to continue to expand their brand after putting in so many years of hard work. Continuing to grow any business is challenging and sometimes the only way through that market share ceiling is through corporate capital.
Granted, I’m not thrilled with AB’s ‘strong arm’ tactics, which they still use in certain markets to better position their own brands to the detriment of smaller, local breweries, but I hope they’re beginning to realize that such actions are perceived quite negatively in the craft beer community at large. I believe this has led to AB treading more lightly after some of their more recent takeovers – making fewer (if any) changes to personnel, brewing location, etc. Let’s just hope it stays that way.
If you’re one of those people who was disgusted by this news and perhaps even pledged to never drink Elysian beers or visit their local brewpubs again, you might want to re-evaluate that reaction. Realize that such action, in the short term, only serves to hurt those people you have come to know and like here in Seattle who work for Elysian.
According to Dick Cantwell (Taken from a brief interview that was published yesterday on Seattle Beer News):
We’ve made 350 different beers or something like that since we’ve opened. We’ll continue doing new beers all the time, the crew will be the same, the 3 of us (owners Dick Cantwell, Joe Bisacca and David Buhler) are sticking around and continue running the departments we already run. I’ve heard back from a few people that we have existing plans to do collaboration brews with, and they’re still on board with them. So, those people at least aren’t turning away from us.
So, as you can see, at least for now, this purchase has done nothing to change the beers themselves, nor the staff that create and sell or serve them to you. The brewers, cellar workers, location managers, bartenders, etc. are still the same people they were yesterday. This purchase has not changed who they are, nor their commitment to creating and serving great beer. Now, should AB decide to make changes in the future that could alter this, that’s out of these people’s control. So, I won’t tell you to not be upset about this news if that’s what you feel. Just make sure that your response/reaction to the news is appropriate and doesn’t hurt the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Cheers to Elysian Brewing Company. Keep doing what you do so well.
Drink responsibly and stay safe out there.