What 'Selling Out' Is Actually About

Anheuser-Busch InBev is in the midst of a PR push, the goal of which is to soften resistance to their craft brewery acquisition strategy. Sadly, credulous beer writers aren't asking any of the right questions, so I feel a need to respond.

The sacrificial lamb in this takedown is Aaron Goldfarb's recent piece for Serious Eats entitled, "What 'Selling Out' Allows a Craft Brewery to Do.” I'm picking this one because it covers most of the bases on this issue, which makes it convenient.

I apologize to Aaron in advance because he’s sorta conscious of the fact that he's being manipulated, but he simply doesn't know enough about the beer business to understand exactly how. I don’t mean to pick on him; there are plenty of other similarly problematic articles I could have chosen. Hell, when I was a freelancer, I would've gladly cooked up a story about how to construct a helicopter from discarded sex toys if someone had offered me twenty five cents a word to write it. But I’ve heard the misinformation in this piece repeated too many times to ignore, so here goes.

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I'll take the arguments one at a time:

1) Claim: Moving production of core brands from acquired breweries to ABI's plants improves their quality. Goldfarb says ABI's plants are being "retrofitted specifically to handle craft beer in ways that the craft breweries themselves simply couldn't afford back when they were independent operations. InBev's added a Super Sack system...hop backs...conical tanks, and more cellaring space.” Other items cited are a mash filter, centrifuge, and tasting room.

Problem: None of the items listed are unaffordable to independent craft brewers and none of them are related to quality. Many craft brewers have Super Sack systems: they cost about $25,000 and do nothing to improve quality, although buying specialty malts in Super Sacks does reduce their cost slightly. Likewise, many craft breweries have hopbacks; I paid about $3,000 for mine. Most breweries don't bother with them, however, because it's generally understood they don't do a better job of imparting hop flavor and aroma than whirlpool additions. And "conical tanks"? What brewery doesn't have conical tanks? Literally every single brewery can afford conical tanks. What about "more cellaring space"? You mean, like, renting a building? Likewise, mash filters, centrifuges, and tasting rooms are all relatively common at mid-sized independent breweries. This is just a list of random words meant to give the appearance that the argument has substance. ABI is spinning minor logistical adjustments as proof of their commitment to quality. Anyone who has worked in a brewery can see that this is bullshit.

Side note: Calling ABI "the best lager makers around" is like calling Kraft the best cheese makers around; allowing that statement from Blue Point’s president to go unquestioned is bizarre.

2) Claim: ABI is investing in the breweries themselves with the goal of improving quality, which they couldn't have done on their own. Goldfarb writes, "It gave 10 Barrel $10 million to buy six new 400-barrel tanks, for instance, and it's helping Blue Point open a new 40,000-square-foot facility housing brewing and packaging operations, a tasting room, and office space. Collectively, these improvements have led to the production of more consistent flagship beers for many of ABI's craft breweries."

Problem: Anyone who has ever worked on the business side of brewing would immediately see the problem with the first part of this claim: 400bbl tanks cost around $100,000 each, so six of them won't add up to $10 million. Failing to notice the huge discrepancy between the dollar amount listed and the cost of the alleged purchase is indicative of the overall lack of industry knowledge throughout this piece and many others like it. It may seem like a semantic issue, but it means the author isn't equipped to dig into ABI's claims with any authority. The second problem is a larger point and it's one that gets repeated both throughout this article and many others: the idea that the breweries who sold couldn't have expanded without macro-beer financing it. This is bullshit, too. Goldfarb cites Bluepoint's 40,000 sq ft expansion, but I can think of literally dozens of independent craft breweries that have expanded far more aggressively than Bluepoint (Modern Times included) without ABI's money. But the breweries who have sold and the beer writers who accept their excuses without question would have you ignore this obvious reality because it undercuts an excuse that tends to go over well with the public.

3) Claim: Macro-brewers have made hops available to the breweries they've purchased which would otherwise be unavailable to them.

Problem: Virtually all hops, and certainly all of those cited in this article, are available to any craft brewer willing to plan ahead and contract accordingly. Modern Times is a mid-sized, rapidly growing brewery that almost exclusively uses highly sought-after hops in very large quantities, and yet somehow, without the help of ABI's private farm, we have more than enough hops contracted to see us through the next 7 years of extremely aggressive expansion. We are hardly the only ones who can say that. Hop contracting takes some work, but no one needs the help of macro brewers to get what they need or want.

4) Claim: Macro-beer's money gives acquired breweries access to capital they could not have gotten otherwise, and this money is spent on experimentation. Goldfarb writes, "Before Golden Road was acquired, in September of 2015, Gill and her two partners were relying heavily on small-business loans from Bank of America Merrill Lynch. That meant money was always tight and had to be used strictly to help the brand grow; there were no resources for experimentation."

Problem: There are several, but the first is simply a failure of journalism. If Goldfarb has simply asked Gill who those partners are, the fact that one of them is a billionaire would have made clear that she is completely full of shit. Golden Road was the most lavishly funded start-up in craft beer history, something that is widely known throughout the industry. Then there's the claim that "there were no resources for experimentation” at Golden Road, with the implication being that the same is true for many breweries. This is also nonsense. How money is spent within a brewery, especially one with access to virtually unlimited funds like Golden Road, is a question of priorities, not capabilities. If a brewery does not invest in experimentation or barrel-aging or a sour program, it is because the people who chose how money is spent at that brewery are not interested in those things. Again, there are literally thousands of breweries with far fewer resources than Golden Road or Goose Island who do all of those things and more.

The vast majority of independent craft breweries successfully rely on bank financing for their expansions. Interest rates are at nearly historic lows, and banks are more eager than ever to work with bricks-and-mortar companies with solid cash-flows. If you want bank financing and your business is even moderately healthy, it is there for the taking. My experience with several rounds of major expansion is that the equipment financing expanding breweries need is usually the easiest type of financing to access, and that banks are generally understanding of how and why breweries spend money.

5) This one isn't a claim, it's a key piece of information that goes maddeningly uncommented upon. Goldfarb writes, "Gill says. 'The margins we needed to hit on our beers are now gone'—ABI doesn't necessarily care if each and every beer released makes a solid profit—and 'it's changed how we think about our portfolio in a major way...'"

Problem: This is the most predatory and ill-intentioned thing the macro brewers have done with their acquisitions, and Goldfarb allows Gill to cite it as evidence of their benevolence, which drives me nuts. The reality is that selling a product at or below cost is an anti-competitive business strategy that is intended to put smaller competitors out of business. If there's one thing independent craft brewers can't do that macro-brewers can do it is lose money. And this strategy is, by far, the most effective way for macro-brewers to reduce consumer choice and extinguish the craft beer movement they’re now trying to co-opt. Goldfarb remarks upon this later in reference to $56(!) Goose Island kegs, but fails to grasp that this strategy is THE reason for these acquisitions. Not quality, not making dreams come true, not sharing information. The goal is to destroy craft beer from within by operating acquired breweries as zombie brands that wreak havoc in the marketplace long after the life has been squeezed out of them.

6) Claim: Being acquired by a macro-brewery gives access “to the minds of fellow brewers,” allowing breweries to improve their practices.

Problem: Craft beer is the most open, collaborative industry I know. There is absolutely no shortage of access to information from “fellow brewers.” I have not once been told something was “proprietary information” by another craft brewer. If there is anyone in the beer industry who jealously protects their “trade secrets”, it is the macro-brewers, who are notorious for their harsh treatment of employees who fail to obsessively protect information from competitors. "The minds of fellow brewers" are there for anyone to access, no buy-out necessary.

7) Claim: Breweries can’t expand their geographic distribution without the “muscle” of macro brewers. Goldfarb claims Founders "would never have been able to obtain shelf space” in “foreign cities” had it not been partly acquired by a macro-brewer.

Problem: Independent craft breweries expand their geographic distribution literally every day. There has never been a time when distributors were more eager to take on new brands. This has, in fact, been one of the seismic shifts in craft beer over the last decade. In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, craft breweries often had to beg and plead distributors to take them on. Now, distributors are so eager for new brands, the Brewers Association has had to enact a rule preventing distributors from openly pitching to craft brewery owners at the annual trade show because it became overwhelming. Meanwhile, loads of craft brewers of all sizes are jumping at export opportunities, which are abundant. Hell, Modern Times, which is about one tenth the size of Founders, exports to 12 overseas markets, zero “muscle” required.

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Here’s the truth: selling to a macro-brewer is the fastest, simplest way to turn equity in a craft brewery into cash. That’s the only reason to sell to them. Anyone who claims otherwise is full of shit.

Cheers & thanks,
Jacob McKean
Modern Times Beer

Comments

Andrew

Fri, 09/09/2016 - 11:33

Thanks for the insight into the real nuts and bolts behind the business aspects of InBev's acquisitions. I was going to bring some cans of Sculpin to a beach party tomorrow, but Fortunate Islands makes a lot more sense these days. Cheers.

Todd

Sat, 09/10/2016 - 12:52

I find it extremely humorous that people think that brewing is not a business. In business, companies get bought and sold for any number of reasons. Heaven forbid though that anyone actually create a brand, grow a business and sell out in the brewing world though. I say good for the companies that have sold out to Inbev, they've created financial stability for themselves, their families and employees.

Fred

Sun, 09/11/2016 - 04:44

Sounds like quite the controversy. I still like your beers better. Won't hold it against you if you "sell out"// ▲ fredsguidetolife.com ▲

Eddie Glick

Mon, 09/12/2016 - 06:40

The "it's just business" line of thought is great for people who don't care where their food comes from, how many children held in virtual slavery made their shoes, or which forests are illegally logged for their cheap furniture. It's also incredibly naive and dangerous to our economy and society. What's going on in the beer industry is a microcosm of our local and global economies. It's pathetic that the most concern some folks can muster is a disinterested shrug even when it comes to something as basic as drinking a beer.

Great article, highly informed. Never sell out.

brandon

Mon, 09/12/2016 - 03:01

god I love you for this.

every single article I have read about another brewery selling out usually has the same scripted response from the (former) owner, or brew master. its the same recycled shit that is saved on someone's computer at Anheuser-Busch InBev and sent to the brewery to 'issue' a statement of them selling out. I have never bought that garbage for a second.

F the sell outs. even though the list gets longer and longer, I will never forget and never support the sell outs.
I cannot thank you enough for this,
brandon

JAMES BUDMAN

Mon, 09/12/2016 - 07:44

Since when is it is everyone's authority to make decisions for others business via blog. Unless you own stock in the companies that have "sold out" what business is it of yours to question their ideals or business concept. I like to think they BOUGHT IN to a company that gives them capital, grows them beyond anything they could do for themselves in 10 years and continues to pay the bills of its employees. You are so right(sarcasm) and the bear should not eat the dear if it catches it.
ABI has grown and continues to support the beer industry, its employee family and ultimately the shareholders. OMG, the soon to be largest brewer in the world taking care of their company and working to grow share and ultimately making lots of money...for shame!! They are like your grandpa that worked hard in the mills for 50 years and can now buy a boat or a Mercedes if he wants...THEY EARNED IT!! I see competition and I fight or I acquire, I play to win and to the victor comes the spoils!! ABI doesn't whine about all the breweries that stand strong against the giant, they move on to any one of the other 4000 start up breweries out there. Ultimately in comparison to the hundreds of years of brewing expertise, growth and billions of satisfied consumers worldwide...you are all just start ups in the grand scheme of things. And quite frankly you seem to give so much false hope on your over indexed category. Possibly without ABI some would just fail and die. Let's all remember the days ice beers, super low calorie light, flavored malt beverages and root beer ran the world...look at them now!! You sound like spoiled teenagers...mind your manners and watch your mouth. Stop telling your parents you hate them, show them respect and be better than them if you can!! You never know who might hold your purse strings in the future. And get over yourselves...at least they focus on the beer business and brewing, not on blogging about you theory of the beer business and ultimately somebodies love and passion.
When I want to make and sell beer, I will call them. When I want a good whiney blog written...you are the man!!
One other thing, it is laughable all the craft breweries associated with big beer wholesalers depending on them to deliver, market and grow their beers. We put 100 cases of craft on the trucks and thousands of cases of Bud Light. You might want to respect those that pay for the gas or you might find yourself broken down on the side of the road!
Cheers with a Bud!

Drew

Mon, 09/12/2016 - 08:55

James and Joe, cable companies are looking for similarly impassioned defenses of their mergers and are willing to pay handsomely. You don't have any time to waste with free posts here. They need you in Washington now!

Aaron

Tue, 09/13/2016 - 10:28

A lot of you are missing the point. Jacob isn't saying microbreweries don't deserve money and success, he's saying the microbreweries are being duped by big beer into thinking they are helping the craft industry. He's also saying that denying the fact that you sold out purely for the money is not only delusional, it is, as Jacob put it, bullshit.

morlock

Tue, 09/13/2016 - 01:51

{ corporate welfare for megacorp beer in the name of labor } Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) board was confronted by out-of-work Virginians protesting the commonwealth’s decision to provide a $500,000 grant, plus tax breaks & other incentives to MillerCoors in exchange for only 27 new jobs at its Shenandoah Valley brewery.
MillerCoors shut its Eden brewery in neighboring North Carolina this month. Of 500 jobs lost in Eden, 122 were held by Virginia workers.
“Why should Virginia taxpayers subsidize a $21 billion company that is destroying more jobs than it is willing to create ?” said Vernon Gammon, Teamsters Local 391 Secretary-Treasurer, the union local which represented Eden brewery workers for more than 30 years.
http://www.craftbrewingbusiness.com/.../virginia.../ 9.12.16

Leah

Wed, 09/14/2016 - 02:08

I have seen many references to the super-funded, built-to-sell Golden Road, as well as rumors they were "in bed" with ABI from the beginning. Does any one have any information on this? Or on the "private investor"? Inquiring minds...

Tee Morris

Wed, 09/14/2016 - 08:20

This was an amazing read. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Kevin

Wed, 09/14/2016 - 11:00

ABI doesn't care if their beers don't make a profit? That's great news-- even they're on board with me choosing something else.

Steve

Fri, 09/16/2016 - 12:22

You're just mad because your beer isn't good enough or your business healthy enough for AB to consider making a move to acquire you.

Craig

Fri, 09/16/2016 - 12:25

Great article and I largely applaud the bottom line message. I do suspect that the macros can ultimately offer greater technical, distribution, and procurement resources than most any craft brewer, but that doesn't necessarily translate to all the qualities that the serious craft brew consumer/fan most values. The most critical point I take from this is that ultimately the big boys are merely bullying our beloved craft heros in their purely capitalistic quest to eliminate what has become annoying competition. ABI and others of their ilk have always tried to market themselves as champions of the common man, a national tradition and treasure that spans generations of family and friends. Yet they showed us how much that mattered when the Clydesdales moved to Belgium (essentially). The underlying beauty of craft beer is multidimensional and at its heart so American. It's variety, experimentation, personal, fun and can often represent a tie to a specific town, neighborhood or region much like sports teams. Big corporate/global brewers are chained to growth and cost cutting and can't claim any true company-wide association with anything but revenue and profit. Any suggestion otherwise is purely marketing. While craft brewers have marketing of their own, the appeal has a much better chance of being genuine and translating to what is a more discriminating and passionate consumer. When I pass the macro-backed craft beer boutique bars at airports I am disappointed to often see all the same selections at each one. Few represent real local brewers. This is what the macros are doing with the "revolution". Taking it and making it their own and we know how that goes after so many decades of a 3 or 4 horse race. Some of their beers may be great, they may be cheaper, but it's not the same product. It's one dimensional and "less filling". I think our hold out craft champions will persevere regardless, but I for one will not support the charade.

moikes

Sat, 09/17/2016 - 12:15

Serious Eats. I like to play a game on their website by counting how many articles have the words "quick", "easy", "fast', and "crunchy". Pretty much every article. Their contributors are responsible for that and ill-informed articles such as the one being discussed here.

mike buhler

Sun, 09/18/2016 - 03:52

Interesting article for sure, I think it can clarify a few points.

I am a craft beer lover but I have one of the worst selections in my country despite our beer club of over 4000 members helping us get more good new beer here on a regular basis. We have had only 3 microbreweries in my province up until this year, now 4 but they don't bottle. Outside of 3 or 4 towns they are not available.

What that means is if I want to drink beer where I go for work or play I have no choice but to drink beers from the macros, they are what they are and I enjoy them after a 10 hour day hanging around 200' up a surge tank tower in the wind and rain.

What the macros do best is consistency and quality control. My friend is the production manager for the local Labatts brewery and he sends his sample of Bud Light to St. Louis every Friday for testing. All samples are still tasted/tested by a human test panel. If his diacetyl is 2 points high he hears about it. Their products are generally similar quality anywhere in the world you find them.

Do I like some of the big guys business practices? No! But I do accept that where I live it is what it is and I have to live with what is available. I'll be waiting for years for good craft beers to be available in small towns in this province if they ever are. Coors Light owns 30% of the provincial market!

mike buhler

Sun, 09/18/2016 - 04:04

as an addendum I joined Instagram a few days ago and last night a coworker showed me how to post a pic on it. Just now I scrolled through the 50 or so people following me and one from today was molson_coorsnl so I guess they like me too.

James

Thu, 09/29/2016 - 07:36

Man, so many RWNJ comments on here about capitalism.

If Lefttists are all Communists, then you're all a bunch of Nazis.

The quality of the beer would undoubtedly suffer, not to mention the wars over shelf-space and taps in retail and hospitality.

If you love capitalism so much, go live on a fucking giant Libertarian floating tax-haven out in the middle of the Atlantic.

jw

Thu, 09/29/2016 - 10:33

I have never seen the amount of brotherhood (and sisterhood) in any other business venture than I've seen in the brewing community.
In San Diego for (not brewing-related) seminar this weekend and will sure be stopping by for a few.

JW

Katherine Scheri

Sat, 10/15/2016 - 02:28

Well, Jacob, I told you when we met you at the GABF (we were your neighbors a booth down) that you inspired us in how we conduct our business. We are a small brewery and have the same struggles and issues many others in the industry, this is a very collaborative business and the resources and help available to a brewer are endless. It takes hard work, dedication and thinking out of the box to keep going. Your blog continues to inspire us. It is well written and I am proud of you for speaking your mind. You are entitled to disagree and speak up. So many responders here seem to think that if you don't follow along like sheep you have no rights to voice your opinion. Don't listing to the James Budmans of the world. Small brewers created this business because they wanted beer that tasted like something. If James likes watery beer made by huge conglomerate breweries that are supported by bureaucrats then he's welcome to it. That doesn't mean however, that we a) have to accept what we are given, shut up and be grateful as he suggests or b) tolerate bullies who try push us around and keep us in our place. Those 100 cases on the truck has continued to grow year over year and they certainly pay their own way by a sizable margin.

Bottom line for me: don't be bullied- keep pushing back - we are all in this together.

noneofmybusiness

Thu, 10/20/2016 - 02:43

" reality is that selling a product at or below cost is an anti-competitive business strategy that is intended to put smaller competitors out of business. "

They aren't selling "at or below cost". They are shrinking your profit margins, through predatory pricing, leveraged through massive threw-put. Either 1) stop selling your douchebag brews at ridiculous markups and start charging "fair prices", or 2) see your market share diminished and eroded further.

They have the capital to undercut you. If you want customers to keep buying your product than find a way to deliver it for a fair price. Us homebrewers don't expect you to understand. I mean you have a 5th house to buy and a 3rd boat purchase to make don't you. All that "equity" you speak of. Your own greed will be equally responsible for the failure of your business, at least as equally responsible as large corporations selling beer at lower margins because they are able to. You fight it by reducing your "PROFIT" margins. Oh wait, you're only it for the money too but that's acceptable because you're not a huge player. YET.

Starbucks started at a weekly market. Stop pretending that your end game isn't selling out.

Bilbo Baggins

Wed, 10/26/2016 - 08:03

Selling out is actually all about joining the East Coast bandwagon and literally "selling out" of "limited release" beers, in alternatively designed cans, so people who wait in line and fork over money early feel special about it. The Alchemist, Grimm, Other Half...nothing new here...

Irene

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 04:04

Most help articles on the web are inaccurate or ineecorhnt. Not this!

Roseanna

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 04:08

Me and this article, sitting in a tree, L-A---R-N-IEN-G!

Samuel Allsopp

Wed, 03/01/2017 - 11:49

Sooner or later, there will be so many small breweries owned by a larger corporation it'll be tough to discern between what's 'craft' and what's not. Gone will be the frivolous denouncing of breweries due to their ownership, because it'll be such a thickly weaved web, people may have to do the unthinkable: PICK WITH THEIR PALLETS AND NOT THEIR PREJUDICES!

Heavens, these people may actually have to form knowledge about beer instead of just opinions! An educated consumer will demand higher quality and we all get good beer. If you're that guy refusing to drink any brewery picked up by ABI, we need to start with you. Multinational corporations DO NOT buy brands that make inferior products, not when you're dealing with the most fickle 'informed' customer base of perhaps any industry.

That is of course, taking into consideration that people want GOOD beer. If they just want to support local, no matter what it tastes like, we'll be headed back to the days that bred American Light Lagers. Which will in turn (ironically) breed it's own revolution..

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Jerry Klein

Fri, 03/31/2017 - 02:29

I am contributing to a business plan to gain funding to launch a new craft brerwery in San Diego County. Your writing is insightful, informative, inspirational, and thrilling. When I was 20 years old (now much older) I was afforded the best advice I've ever received - "Discover what you really like, do it the very best you can, in fact strive to be the best ever. Don't worry about the money. If you constantly strive to be the best, the money will follow." Too often that's not the case. People chase the money, not what they really like. You chose to chase what you really like. Kudos to you.

BTW - I've enjoyed Modern Times when in San Dieogo

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Chris Ramirez

Sat, 10/14/2017 - 08:30

Now, given that you guys are employee-owned now, I don't believe Modern Times will ever sell. Do you believe that with 'selling out, the company loses it's credibility and the 'craft' in craft beer? Or do you believe that craft beer is still considered craft beer when owned by InBev or Anheuser-Busch?

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