The purchase of Wicked Weed Brewing Company by Anheiser Busch-InBev’s, aka Budweiser, has sent shockwaves through the brewing world. Beer enthusiasts are boycotting in disgust and small breweries are berating them as sellouts and hypocrites. For once the hurricane in North Carolina is not on the coast! As a veteran of a few hurricanes, both meteorological and metaphorical, I’d like to offer this advice to the victims of Hurricane BuschWeed: first take a deep breath and second look at what the storm is doing rather than what the social media forecasters are telling you.
This storm is changing the brewing industry as well as forcing consumers to reconsider the terms micro-brewery and craft brewery. AB-InBev controls a massive share of the beer market which has ballooned since the Department of Justice approved its merger with SABMiller. This international behemoth is powerful enough to buy legislation that restricts competition by manipulating distribution laws and freezing small breweries out of accounts. Trying to count all of the brands in the AB-InBev portfolio is like counting the heads of a hydra; more keep popping up. Bass, Beck’s, Lowenbrau, St. Pauli Girl, Best Damn Brewing Company, Landshark, Stella Artois, Rolling Rock, and Shock Top were just a few of the more well known names on that list; the company’s tentacles have over 60% of the global market in their slithery grasp. Distributors associated with the company offer their stores and restaurants discounts, services, and free promotional materials for prominent or even exclusive product placement. I find it difficult to understand how a company that monopolizes the market share is not legally considered a monopoly. It makes a mockery of the anti-trust statutes Americans count on to protect small businesses from corporate bullies.
The only real way to fight back against the mega-breweries is to buy and drink locally. Not just a craft beer or a microbrew from 100 miles away, but the closest breweries to your house. If we as consumers ask breweries to sell their beers in our neighborhoods, no matter how far away we live, then we are asking them to grow. We are asking them to invest in bigger equipment, more staff, more expensive packaging, and distribution. There is no way a microbrewery can expand to such a degree and still retain the charm and personality that made them stand out amongst the crowd. Take New Belgium Brewing as an example. They are a brilliant company with strong commitments to their employees and the environment. However, you don’t tour New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins to discuss different malts or hop strains with the brewers. Speaking from personal experience, the beer was almost incidental to my tour. The real attraction was the spectacle of the vast facility, massive grain silos, and canning lines that create a rattling labyrinth around the room. They’ve done an incredible job promoting craft beer culture, but now they’re another ubiquitous tap on a bar lineup, not an exciting microbrew.
I’m not saying that big breweries are bad or incapable of making good beers, or that microbreweries should only sell their beers within a limited radius. What I am saying is that consumers should not be so hasty to judge how their favorite microbreweries get the tools or funding to meet their demands. There’s an old saying in retail, “Give the people what they want.” But an even older adage warning consumers “Be careful what you wish for.” This is the tightrope microbreweries are walking every day and it isn’t easy. So maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to complain if they fall into the net. Even if it is held by Budweiser.