A Little Perspective On The Anheuser-Bush Purchase Of Elysian Brewing


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.

Does 'Corporate Beer' Still Suck?

Does ‘Corporate Beer’ Still Suck?

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.

9 thoughts on “A Little Perspective On The Anheuser-Bush Purchase Of Elysian Brewing

  1. There are over 200 breweries in Washington, I don’t need or want to drink anything owned or brewed by AB……period.

  2. Besides the strong arm tactics you described, I take issue with the staff not being informed ahead of the merger. Not as bad as 10 Barrel hiring their PDX pub’s head brewer without informing them that the following day the brewery would be sold to AB.

  3. I prefer not to pad the pockets of the AB-InBev crew because of the tactics they use. I mean to hear someone who put so much into growing the craft beer industry who ran campaigns about who owns your beer now sell out to them is just plain sad. This just gives me another reason to reach for another brand instead.

  4. I might have agreed a year or so ago and I agree that I don’t generally like giving my hard-earned beer money to AB/InBev. However, over the last few years I’ve really gotten to know many of the people who work directly in the local craft beer industry – breaking their backs every day to bring us the beer.

    They do it because they love it – but they also realize it’s still a business and sometimes business isn’t pretty. Choices have to be made sometimes ‘at the top’ – but I can’t hold everyone else below the top responsible for those decisions. Believe me, there are many people at Elysian who are still there and working hard every day, but they aren’t happy about this either.

  5. Well, I like to support craft beer…not corporate beer. That’s what i am comfortable with and how I choose to spend my money. I have no fear nor do I have any anger over this. It’s just extremely disappointing! I like to follow the Brewers Association guidelines for figuring out what is or isn’t a craft beer or brewery and I will continue to only support those breweries who meet those requirements.

    Beyond that I find it very unfair to think that there is no real difference with Elysian now that they are owned by a macro brewer. They obviously now have access to huge, cheap capital dollars and distribution. They also have access to money for advertising and promoting their product that real craft breweries would never be able to afford. All the macros are feeling the pain of craft beers growth and will continue to try and expand their crafty beer portfolios. That just tells me that I am doing the right thing and supporting the right breweries. I hope that in the future craft breweries will choose sell their company to their employees or the citizens of their city before they even consider ruining the brand that they undoubtedly worked very hard to build.

    In the end, I think that the owners of Elysian made the best business decision for themselves and that’s okay. It was just the worst decision for people like myself who will never buy another one of their products because it is no longer craft beer. I used to really enjoy their beer.

  6. “Choices have to be made sometimes ‘at the top’ – but I can’t hold everyone else below the top responsible for those decisions. Believe me, there are many people at Elysian who are still there and working hard every day, but they aren’t happy about this either.”

    I see what you’re saying here. I understand. Don’t blame the little guys for what the big guys have decided. They still love and care for this product.

    However, you could say the same about any megacorporation. There are always little guys, and a lot of them care about what they are doing. This doesn’t change the fact that executives are making millions based on their hard work. It’s the same for Elysian. When they sold to AB, they became another “local brand” of homogeny. They start advertising during the superbowl and banket decisions start being made by Belgian executives. Why wait around for that to start happening, and in the meantime provide AB with a continuous source of income in which to do it all, when there are hundreds of other options that don’t directly fund this sort of thing?

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