Craft brewers wrestle with selling — without selling out

June 6, 2015, 12:58 PM UTC
Courtesy of Fireman

It happens every time a craft brewer is sold to a macro brewer: Fans groan. Select other brewers grumble. And the beer, no matter how beloved it was just a few weeks before, loses some of its cool factor. That’s, in part, because of the fiercely independent nature of the craft community—drinkers and brewers who feel they’ve helped revolutionize the beer industry in America (and they have). But because the craft beer world is still so immature, many supporters—and brewers—haven’t starting thinking long term yet.

It’s relatively easy to start a brewery these days — certainly much more so than five or 10 years ago. And few craft brewers have reached a level where they’re thinking about what happens to the brewery when they decide to retire. Some have, of course. In 1999, Full Sail Brewing became an employee-owned facility. New Belgium followed suit, moving from 41% employee-owned to 100% in late 2012. And last year, Harpoon Brewery hopped on the employee-owned bandwagon.

For others, it’s a family affair. Bear Republic Brewing, for instance, is split four ways amongst the Norgrove family – mother, father, son and daughter-in-law—and the owners plan to keep it that way moving forward. “Our purpose was not to open the business to sell it,” says CEO Richard Norgrove Sr.

Still, for other brewers, a sale makes sense — and when ImBev or MillerCoors is on the doorstep with bags of cash, it can be hard to say no. “I would be interested in having the conversation,” says Sara Brand, co-founder and co-owner of Austin’s (512) Brewing. “I’m not sure my husband [who’s the brewery’s other co-owner and brewmaster] would be. With that sort of cash to spend, we could do some interesting things. … If we could maintain certain creative rights, we would take that seriously.”

In some cases, the founder’s long term plans are secondary, since investments from venture capitalists or private equity investors require them to consider an offer. California’s Fireman’s Brew, for example, has raised over $1.8 million so far through private stock offerings. In March, it launched another round seeking $5 million. And chief operating officer David Johnson says if an opportunity to sell to a macro brewery presented itself, he’d ‘certainly’ consider it.

“I’m not one of the more snobby craft beer companies when it comes to that,” he says. “I’m in business to be in business. If someone would like to make an offer for the company, I would entertain that offer—regardless who it was from.” Most brewers, though, are still figuring out what steps they will take when the time comes to pass the torch. Peter Zien, brewmaster and owner of AleSmith Brewing Co., says he’s considering turning the company over to the employees at some point, but he’s not shutting the door in the faces of investors and competitors who try to convince him to go another route.

“Venture capitalists, and other breweries even, have sniffed around asking if we’re interested in selling a part of or even the whole company,” he says. “I entertain those meetings. I like to learn. … For a brewery that was stared on a shoestring, to hear some of those numbers is flattering and enticing. Right now, though, it’s not the time for me to entertain that.”

Transition plans don’t impact the taste of a brewery’s product, thankfully. Curious about some of the places we talked about today? Here are some thoughts on some of their offerings.

AleSmith Horny Devil – Even before you take a sip of this Belgian-style golden ale, you’re hit with the smell of pears and bananas. It has a unique sweetness, that’s different than other Belgians I’ve tried—and is a bit more heavily carbonated (almost like a Saison), but that works to its advantage. The high ABV is concealed amid the fruit and coriander spices. It might just be the perfect beer to pair with seafood. (ABV: 10%)

New Belgium Ranger – The oils of the hops are clean and prominent from the first sip of this American-style IPA. It’s a very crisp beer with virtually no lingering bitterness. The citrus is pronounced, though I only got a hint of the pine notes. Some prefer the sweeter Rampant IPA from New Belgium, but for me, Ranger is the way to go. (ABV: 6.5%)

Fireman’s Brew Redhead Ale – Like a lot of ambers, this isn’t an overly complex beer. Instead, it’s a good choice for sipping when you’ve completed a hard day of yard work or are tending the grill while making burgers or BBQ. It has a solid caramel flavor with strong malt notes. Unlike many of its fellows, it finishes clean, with no residual aftertaste. (ABV: 5.5%)

(512) Pecan Porter – Before you adjust a porter, you need to nail the base—and (512) absolutely does that, with a great chocolate/coffee balance and creaminess. But the hint of pecan that rests atop that takes this beer to another level. The nutty maltiness is a nice twist on what you’d normally expect. (ABV: 6.8%)