Five years ago, on 13 July 2008, Belgian beer and beverage conglomerate InBev purchased America's largest brewery, Anheuser-Busch, for $52 billion dollars.
With that sale, A-B joined the legacy ranks of Miller, Schlitz, Shaefer, Coors, and the other great names of 150-plus years of pre-'craft' American brewing history, all no more independent American-owned breweries. Pabst remained American-owned but it brews none of its own beer, and owns no brewing facilities. (It's a large 'gypsy' brewery, to borrow an annoying neoligism.) The mantle of largest American-owned brewery fell from A-B and its 160 million barrels to Boston Beer Company (maker of Sam Adams) and its 2 million barrels.
Why does this matter? During a seminar on wholesaler-brewery relations at the 2013 Craft Brewers Conference, the owner of a soon-to-open brewery asked a version of this question that was so naive, that my jaw, if it could have, would have dropped.
So, why? Because beyond history, jingoism or national pride, it's all about business power, sometimes raw and crude, sometimes insidious.
As the number of small, independent U.S. breweries continues to grow —over 2,500, according to a recent count by the Brewers Association— they will increasingly be fighting each other for shelf space —protestations of craft brewers are nice people notwithstanding— and with international behemoths. Likewise in bars in restaurants, where the number of craft-only establishments is still a tiny percentage, and in 'regular' establishments, where the fights for taps and bottle-inclusion will only become fiercer.
'Craft' breweries will increasingly compete with each and the international behemoths for raw ingredients (Citra hops, anyone?). Micro-malsters and micro-hopyards won't be large enough in the foreseeable future to take up the slack. Who has the financial means to influence growers' decisions and corner the results? Hint: not the small and independent breweries.
The consolidation of beer distributors nationwide is creating increasingly adverse pressure on small breweries. There are some mega-wholesalers who are combining legal restrictions, political muscle, and brute force to restrict marketplace access and influence breweries' beer-making decisions. Ironically, the three-tier system was originally legislated, in part, to protect small wholesalers from large breweries, not vice-versa.
Brewpubs might not have to deal with struggles over other restaurant tap choices and store-shelf squeeze, but they do face the exact same ingredient pressures as production breweries, and will also face difficulties if they choose to sell elsewhere, via self-distribution (often restricted or prohibited) or via existing wholesaler networks. The saturation point of brewpubs is probably not an issue in the short-term.
The 'craft' beer boom may not yet have reached its zenith, but its pace and size is creating new pressures. The "King" may be dead, but not the evil empires. To imagine not is to risk a brewery's health.
- Delineating the exact time-line of modern American beer history pre-craft can be tricky. Anheuser-Busch began operations in the 1860s, butYuengling, based in Pottstown Pennsylvania, opened in 1829, and is still operating today. It is the largest family-owned U.S. brewery, whereas Boston Beer is a publicly-traded corporation. Both produce about the same amount of beer annually: in 2012, approximately 2.5 million barrels.
- Some put the beginning of what we know call 'craft' beer at 1965, when Fritz Maytag purchased Anchor Brewing, a near-moribund San Francisco brewery. Others date it to 1977, when Jack McAuliffe opened the first non-pre-existing 'craft' brewery, called New Albion, in Sonoma, California. Thus, my somewhat amorphous figure of 150+ years of pre-craft modern American brewing history. Maureen Ogles' Ambitious Brew is a valuable history of the entire period.
- There are two histories on Anheuser-Busch itself worth reading. Under the Influence is concerned with the brewery's history from its beginnings to pre-takeover; Dethroning the King is an accounting of the ascension of chairman August Busch IV and the loss of the company. More: here.
- YFGF's story on Budweiser's sale: here.
- Just Drinks looks back at the purchase, and mentions the possibility of a further mega-merger between A-B InBev and SABMiller: here.
- ABIB has become even larger, recently purchasing Modelo, the Mexican maker of Corona. The complex 4.75 billion deal included an important not-so-side effect. Constellation —the world's largest wine conglomerate— has become a brewer, a big one. Read more, from Beverage Daily: here.