Craft beer is a wonderful industry. The beer is often very good and sometimes incredible. Creativity and innovation abound. People bring their kids and their dogs to breweries and the whole thing is this feel-good slice of Americana.
In Sacramento, the craft brewery experience has accounted for an entirely new way of socializing that simply did not exist here five years ago and has helped redefine what the region is all about.
But the industry is getting more complicated. That’s because the giant beer companies such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and Heineken have found their sales leveling off while craft beer enjoys steady growth in the double digits and gets all kinds of positive press.
Corporate beer wants in on the action and has started buying up thriving craft breweries such as Goose Island, 10 Barrel and Saint Archer. The M.O. is often the same: Make the purchase, keep the employees that grow the business and perpetuate the idea that it’s still a craft brewery. The lack of transparency is noteworthy. Few if any of these breweries make note of who the new owners are.
So far, the corporate infusion has been relatively gentle. If it really wanted to play the role of bully, A-B InBev could buy up every brewery in Sacramento with the money it finds between the proverbial sofa cushions.
Yet, many craft beer fans are already fed up and have been jettisoning corporate-owned beer from their personal purchasing choices. This week, that just-say-no edict became the officially revised business model for Capitol Beer and Tap Room, considered one of the great beer destinations in the region.
CapTap is best known for its rather amazing lineup of beers on tap and it features some of the best tap takeovers you’ll find anywhere. One of its signature events has been the annual Bourbon County extravaganza on Black Friday. I was there last year, and the place was packed with folks who dig high-alcohol barrel-aged stouts done at a world-class level.
There was just one problem that made the whole thing unsavory. Since 2011, one of the beers on tap, Goose Island, has been owned by A-B InBev. Many folks looked the other way for awhile, mostly because those stouts were so darn good.
But when Golden Road Brewing announced it was going to open a brewpub in midtown, CapTap owner Ken Hotchkiss had seen enough. Golden Road is also owned by A-B InBev and Hotchkiss is going to open his second location on the grid in early 2017, some seven blocks away.
“I think they are muddying the waters between what is craft and what is not craft, I don’t think all of the general consumers understand that,” Hotchkiss told me. “This is kind of a new plan where they are coming out with brewpubs and putting them into markets that are already craft beer strongholds.”
As a consumer, where do you draw the line? Do you stick with craft beer pioneer Lagunitas, which is now 50 percent owned by Heineken? Do you remain loyal to craft stalwart Firestone Walker, which is now partly owned by Belgian giant Duvel? Where do you stand on Ballast Point, which last year sold for a cool $1 billion to beverage giant Constellation Brands?
While all this may be this is confusing, there is no single best answer. It’s a personal choice. As I ponder this issue, I think about my own consumer choices. I wear Adidas sneakers. My TV is a Panasonic. My phone is from the most profitable company in the world. My bed is from Ikea. I drive a Honda. Despite my best intentions, I’m no craft purist. When I need laundry detergent and toothpaste, I go to the closest of the 1,800 Target stores.
But maybe our choices in beer are a chance to hold on to something personal and real in our lives. If craft beer is important to you – if you believe in the beer, the people and the way the industry has changed Sacramento for the better – it’s important you say so when you spend your money.