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Friday, November 15, 2019

A Hefe day: Widmer Brewing, for all intents and purposes, is no more.

In the late 1990s, I attended a Craft Brewers Conference (then, a much, much smaller affair than now) in Seattle, Washington.

Paul Shipman, CEO of Redhook, gave the keynote address. Gloating in smug self-appreciation, he told us that his minority sale to Anheuser-Busch (itself not yet devoured by InBev), was the best business decision he had never made. Get big or die he seemed to tell us. A friend whispered to me: he's telling us to bend over and take it from A-B.

Where is Shipman now? “He calls the decision to partner with Anheuser-Busch 'the defining error of my career.'” In creating the brewery Craft Brew Alliance, Redhook would be, for all intents and purposes, subsumed by its bigger partner, Widmer Brothers Brewing. The Craft Brew Alliance itself sold a minority stake to A-B. And the [U.S.] Brewers Association punished it by rewriting Rob and Kurt Widmer out of the community of 'craft.'

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The 'end' of Widmer

Two and a half decades later, the chickens have come to roost. In case you missed it, with all the other news, Anheuser-Busch InBev has purchased the whole thing.

This past September, the international behemoth refused to exercise its option to purchase Widmer/Craft Brew Alliance by a deadline set years earlier. That inaction simply drove the stock price down. A lot. A-B retendered its offer but at a significant discount. The board of the Craft Brew Alliance, in its fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders, now had an offer it couldn't refuse.

And, now, there is no more independent Widmer.

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So what?

A collective yawn seems to be the response of many 'craft-ers.' Many new breweries think of themselves as the true torch-bearers and of all who came before --if years, or even months or weeks-- as irrelevant and unimportant.

Few will admit to drinking a Widmer 'American Hefe.' But they do. Because it's a refreshing and tasty beverage.

Yes, all this is just business; but it's a loss of our collective legacy.

Widmer dates to 1984. The following year, Oregon granted brewers the right to sell their own beers on-site —in no small measure because of the new brewery's lobbying efforts. That was THIRTY-FOUR years ago. For brewers in other states, it has taken decades to get that same business 'privilege.'

You rest on others' Jenga blocks. When you knock those out, you teeter. A sad day. I think I'll drink a Hefe. Bittersweetly.

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Read more.

  • The story of the sale: Oregon Live (11 November 2019).
  • The always perspicacious Jeff Alworth puts it in perspective: Beervana (13 November 2019).

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