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My Beer Sold Out (Or When Small Brewers Go Big Time)

It’s an increasingly familiar story…small craft brewery draws fans, expands, and then…gets scooped up by “Big Beer”.

Recently, corporate labels includingMillerCoorsandAnheuser-Buschhave acquired independent breweries, including Bend’s 10 Barrel Brewing and Eugene’s Hop Valley.

AsKLCC’sBrian Bull reports, response is as complex and varied as an Imperial IPA.

A clear summer night finds a crowd at the Steel Pail Growler Station in Eugene. Chicago brewery Goose Islandis here for its “migration week”, an event that lets people sample beer and meet staffers, including…

“PatrickReisch, and I’m the leadcellarmanat Goose Island.” 

Reischhas been with the company seven years.  So he experienced Goose Island’s $39-million acquisition byAnheuser-Buschin 2011.

“I think we were probably one of the first if not the first of the craft breweries getting bought out and everything.  A lot of people, they were upset at first, and then after the dust settled a bit, realized pretty much we’re just stillgonnabe making the same beer that we’d always been making.” 

Anheuser-Buschtook over production of Goose Island’s large volume brands outside of Chicago. This includes Honkers Ale, 312, and IPA.  The trick being taking a beer formerly made in 50-barrel batches, and ratcheting that up to 1,000-barrel batches. 

Patron Alyssa Powell says both the acquisition andupscalingof Goose Island’s beers are working.

Powell: “I am drinking the IPA. (Bull: And how’s it faring by you?) Oh,it’s great! It’s kind of a positive because they get more access to different distributors, they can have more visibility in retail space, and just get their product out there to more customers.”  

A few tables away, Tyler McNeil tackles a flight of Goose Island brews.

“I’ve enjoyed most of it.  I mean some if it’s hit and miss.  But as long as they’re keeping unique and doing their own thing…as long as the major label they signed with let them keep doing that, I don’t see a big problem with it at all.” 

The Chicago Tribune recently rated six Goose Island beers mass-produced byAnheuser-Busch.  It rated four as either “top tier” or “not bad”.  The last two fell short of previous incarnations. 

McNeil doesn’t knock Goose Island, but admits some bitterness at Seattle-based Elysian, whichAnheuser-Buschacquired in January.

"Not only did the price go up, but the texture, taste…it just tastes normal.  It wasn’t very unique.  I like unique.” 

Colby Phillips owns Eugene’s Tap and Growler, which boasts 45 beer taps, many local.  He remembers the brouhaha whenMillerCoorsbought Hop Valley this year.  Yet, Phillips says sometimes news of an indie brewer getting bought pleases patrons. 

“There’s a few that comes in and feel like, ‘Hey, you know…if that’s what they were intending to do, then they were able to achieve their goals, and not usually a bad thing.” 

Most, says Phillips, are neutral or indifferent. 

NWBeerGuide.jpg
Credit Flickr.com's Northwest Beer Guide
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“They’re like, ’I care but it’s not something that is first and foremost in my life right now.  Even in my beer drinking life.  Why, I’m just not going to buy 10 Barrel, I will buy thisOakshirebeer that’s locally owned.  And drink that, enjoy it.”  

And then there are the vocal few who vow neverto buy that beer again.  They say they won’t support any brewery under a corporate umbrella, that sacrifices small-batchartisanshipfor big-batch blandness.

At Hop Valley Brewing, a bartender in tie-dye poursIPAs, while customers relax in booths and patio tables.  Hop Valley co-founder Chuck Hare says their acquisition byMillerCoorswasn’t a ready decision.

“We were contacted by several other companies prior to conversations with Miller-Coors," says Hare. "Immediately it was off the table, and that was something none of us were interested in doing it at all.  As we began to move into other states and grow, we started tokindarealize “Hey, this isn’t as easy as we think it is.  Here in Oregon, the further you get away from home it’s difficult to sell beer, it’s very difficult to do distribution deals.” 

Hare says it’s easier getting business calls returned since signing on withMillerCoors…andHop Valley’s distribution, production, and credibility are all up.  He says he’s just finished up contracts for hops through 2023, and his company is seeing some of their best sales to date…up nearly 30 percent from this time last year.

Hops on a pleasant August afternoon.
Credit Brian Bull
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Hops on a pleasant August afternoon.

“People concerned about giving their money to a big brewery…I get it and I understand it," says Hare.

"But I sometimes eatLochmeadice cream and sometimes I eatHaagenDazs.  I hope people do drink our beer. I want everybody to drink it.  But there’s a ton of great beer not only here in Oregon and not only here in the Northwest, but in the U.S.” 

It’s also worth noting that big beer isn’t out to snatch up allmicrobreweries, either.  Most acquisitions are geographically plotted to let "Big Beer" cast the widest regional net for drinkers…with national craft beer sales up nearly 13 percent, it’s a game corporate labels want to get in on.  

The U.S. Justice Department has put regulations onAnheuser-Buschthat’ll restrict further acquisitions after its $107-billion merger withSABMiller.  

Not that other companies haven’t been busy.  

“Most of the large players in the U.S. beer market have made acquisitions," says Bart Watson, Chief Economist for the Brewers Association

Watson adds there are 4,656 small and independent craft breweries in the U.S.  So while media coverage of acquisitions has rattled the brewing world…

 “….the vast majority of small breweries remain independent.  So while we have seen a trend in acquisitions, it’s worth remembering that 99-percent of breweries have not been acquired.  So there’s still probably lots of local independent breweries in your local market.” 

And many indie breweries plan to stay that way.  Eugene’s Ninkasi brewing company and Oakshire have pledged to keep locally owned, for example.  Both turned 10 this year. 

Still, it hurts many craft beer buffs to see their prized brew sell out.  Even the piniest IPA may not take the edge off of that loss.

(FADE UP HANK WILLIAM’S “THERE’S A TEAR IN MY BEER…” FOR  MUSIC TAIL)

ForKLCCNews, I’m Brian Bull.  

Patrick Reisch, Lead Cellarman for Goose Island.
Brian Bull /
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Patrick Reisch, Lead Cellarman for Goose Island.

Alyssa Powell (right) with Andrew Powell (center) and Brandon Jane (left) at Goose Island "Migration Week" event.
Brian Bull /
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Alyssa Powell (right) with Andrew Powell (center) and Brandon Jane (left) at Goose Island "Migration Week" event.

Tyler McNeiil (center) with friends Josiah Austin (left) and Brent Davis (right) at Goose Island "Migration Week" event.
Brian Bull /
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Tyler McNeiil (center) with friends Josiah Austin (left) and Brent Davis (right) at Goose Island "Migration Week" event.

Patrons gather at Eugene's Steel Pail Growler Station for Goose Island's "Migration Week" event.
Brian Bull /
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Patrons gather at Eugene's Steel Pail Growler Station for Goose Island's "Migration Week" event.

Eugene's Hop Valley and Seattle's Elysian are two indie brands acquired in 2016.
Brian Bull /
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Eugene's Hop Valley and Seattle's Elysian are two indie brands acquired in 2016.

Bartender at Hop Valley Brewing.
Brian Bull /
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Bartender at Hop Valley Brewing.

Hop Valley co-founder, Chuck Hare.
Brian Bull /
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Hop Valley co-founder, Chuck Hare.

Colby Phillips, Owner of the Tap and Growler in Eugene.
Brian Bull /
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Colby Phillips, Owner of the Tap and Growler in Eugene.

Some brewers say access to staples such as hops have improved since being acquired. Hop Valley tells KLCC it's just finalized hops contracts for 2023.
Brian Bull /
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Some brewers say access to staples such as hops have improved since being acquired. Hop Valley tells KLCC it's just finalized hops contracts for 2023.

For indie craft beer diehards, is the pint glass half full or half empty when an indie label gets bought out by "Big Beer"?
Adrienne Gordon. /
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For indie craft beer diehards, is the pint glass half full or half empty when an indie label gets bought out by "Big Beer"?

Despite the media coverage of acquisitions, a source with the Brewers Association says 99% of the nation's small craft breweries are still independent. So variety remains strong.
Brian Bull /
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Despite the media coverage of acquisitions, a source with the Brewers Association says 99% of the nation's small craft breweries are still independent. So variety remains strong.

Copyright 2016 KLCC

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. He is a 20-year reporter who has worked at NPR, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including three Edward R. Murrow Awards and the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award in 2012.