The best breweries seem to be inspired by love, not lucre. Nevertheless, it's still a business. A very fascinating business, it turns out.
Yesterday two large concerns announced two very different acquisitions. The first was routine: Constellation Brands, who stunned the beer world by paying a cool billion dollars for Ballast Point two years ago, announced the purchase of Florida's Funky Buddha.
I was interested in two very basic questions: 1) Did breweries believe it was important for consumers to know about breweries' independence?, and 2) were they planning to use the seal? I canvassed a half dozen breweries of different sizes from different parts of the country and got responses from four--Ninkasi (OR) and Harpoon (MA), large craft breweries, Port City (VA), a medium-sized brewery, and Gigantic (OR), a small brewery.
Yesterday, the Brewers Association announced a logo--or "seal" in their jargon--certifying a brewery's independence. It demonstrates the Brewers Association has narrowed its focus to what is truly important to members and is preparing to move to the offense. This is a smart initiative.
Last week, AB InBev (ABI) made news (and sparked anxiety) by buying Asheville's Wicked Weed brewery. This week they've caused even more anxiety when news broke that they had seized the entire crop of South African hops. Dozens of stories have been written about it, and breweries have been shooting off angry emails all week.
Here's the thing: breweries are unusual businesses. They make a product to which their customers have a strong sense of emotion. This long predates craft beer--for generations, people have attached themselves to Miller or Hamm's or Budweiser with something like the zeal they favor their hometown baseball teams
On one end of the market, flavor is driving sales. Leaders in the craft segment may be suffering, but as Bud (down 5.6% this year) and Bud Light (-3.6%) both continue a slow death spiral, mass market craft like Goose Island are flying off shelves. So how does a flavorless, blandly corporate beer becoming one of the few success stories in the domestic mass market sector? Branding is the only answer anyone can identify.
Over at Willamette Week, Matthew Korfhage has an article about Oregon's tightening beer market. The story is an Oregonized version of one we've seen applied to the national market a number of times over the past couple years. Thumbnail: in a tightening market, it's harder for the biggest players to maintain their barrelage even while small and mid-sized breweries continue to post big numbers. This is, in fact, what you'd expect in a mature market and it's not particularly surprising. Korfhage's case-in-point in the article is BridgePort, which is busy imploding before our eyes--but I think this illustrates a different lesson: in a tightening market, a brewery can no longer make a series of stupid decisions and expect to avoid tanking spectacularly.
Bryan Roth, beer's Nate Silver, has applied some data journalism to the idea that rare beers dominate "best of" lists--and beer geeks' hearts. Riffing on that, he wondered about causality: do we just happen to like rare beers, or do we like them because they're rare?