Last Monday, it was announced that Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery is being acquired by Anheuser-Busch for the sum of $38.8 million dollars. Goose Island (tagline “Chicago’s craft beer”) produces a number of highly sought-after brews, including Bourbon County Stout and Sofie (a Belgian style farmhouse ale), in addition to their more accessible 312 Urban Wheat and Green Line Pale Ale.
While the sale of the brewery comes as a surprise, it’s not surprising that the owners should want to sell. It’s a pattern we’ve seen before here in Canada with our own regional microbreweries. There’s a set of criteria under which it makes sense to sell the brewery, and these same factors seem to crop up repeatedly.
One reason why people become dedicated to craft breweries is the face that’s associated with the beer. You might never meet the CEO of Anheuser-Busch, but sometimes you’ll see the owner of a craft brewery making deliveries and have a chance to chat with him. So it’s understandable that beer drinkers tend to feel betrayed when the owner eventually decides to sell their brand; it feels personal.
The tipping point for selling smaller breweries appears to be the amount of time invested, with the average coming in at around 20 years. Unibroue, for instance, sold to Sleeman after 14 years in business and is now owned by Sapporo. Creemore was independent for 18 years before being purchased by Molson in 2005. Granville Island Brewing in BC is an outlier, having made it 25 years before being acquired by Creemore (well, Molson, to be honest).
There’s not really any point in accusing the people who owned the breweries of selling out. Brewing is hard work, and after about twenty years of it, I’m willing to bet just about anyone would be looking for a change of pace. I imagine an owner gets to a point where further expansion is almost impossible without a large influx of cash, and increases in production and distribution become logistical nightmares.
There are only so many places to sell a brewery. You’re not going to get 40 million bucks for it on Craigslist. So while selling the brand to a larger brewery is probably the right decision, what that brewery will do with it is anybody’s guess.
A positive example is touted by a company like Unibroue, where the products don’t seem to have suffered any decrease in quality, and the distribution has increased to the point that you can find bottles of Maudite in Texas.
The purchase can, however, backfire in the short term. Creemore’s main selling point, for instance, is that it’s brewed in Creemore, Ontario. They’d be unable to move production without a significant hit in sales, and plans to increase the size of the brewery have resulted in a huge amount of resistance in the town of Creemore itself. While the quality of the beers hasn’t seemed to decrease, the intention was clearly to increase production and distribution after the purchase by Molson, and that plan has been stymied by the physical situation of the brewery; a situation on which the brand depends.
It remains to be seen what will happen with Goose Island. If Anheuser-Busch is able to simply facilitate increased production and distribution without changing the formula that has made Goose Island rise to prominence, it might work out in their favour. The question is whether a company that is used to promoting monolithic brands like Budweiser will be able to wrap their heads around a brewery that produces a wide variety of somewhat esoteric offerings. I suspect that they will not be able to, as the change in marketing strategy required to promote over a dozen brands from the same brewery is so far outside their wheelhouse. But there are two options here:
Best Case Scenario: We get some Bourbon County Stout in Canada.
Worst Case Scenario: Super Bowl halftime show sponsored by 312 Urban Wheat.