Notes on the "so-called 'craft beer industry'"
💀 Murdered darlings: selling out vs. selling off edition! And: books in bars, Boozeletter Bipartisanship™ + more!
Please support this independent journalism about drinking in America with a paid subscription to Fingers:
I depend on readers to underwrite the labor that goes into producing this newsletter. Thanks for reading!—Dave.
Over at VinePair I published a big analysis of a remarkable shift in the American craft brewing industry/community: from scorched-earth paranoia over corporate sellouts last decade, to the muted resignation that brewery M&A activity has been met with more recently. Here’s the set-up from my lede:
As someone who’s covered the seething angst and vexing contradictions of America’s craft beer industry and culture for over a decade, I find this a remarkable development. Where have all the hate tourists gone? Or, to put it another way: How did a craft beer industry and community so opposed to selling out become so inert in the face of their beloved breweries getting sold off?
If that’s a question you want answers to, I hope you’ll read my story in full at VinePair. (Also check out this Fingers essay on Bells’ sale to Kirin this past November. If you want, I mean. No pressure.) In the meantime, here are a few “murdered darlings” from the reporting process—i.e., interesting insights and quotes from sources that didn’t make the final cut.
The quotes below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
— Bump Williams, a longtime beer industry consultant, on the acquisition landscape for the craft brewing business:
The world of M&A in and around the craft brewing business has always been like watching the TV show Survivor or perhaps even The Bachelor to see who the last brewery standing might be or who might be getting the biggest bouquet of roses. The breweries who didn’t get selected (a.k.a. “purchased”) were always a little jealous of the ones who got the golden ticket, immediate focus and share of mind from a dedicated distributor network and a strong voice at the desk of national retailers.
— Chris Shepard, a senior editor at Beer Marketer’s Insights, on how to evaluate whether/which craft breweries are ripe to be sold:
Looking at the largest craft brewers, it's not difficult to find a handful that fall into one of one or both of those buckets [underperforming breweries as assets that non-founder owners want to offload, or legacy first-generation founders who need an exit.] I think the other real indicator of how imminent a possible deal is, has to do with debt. That debt is often private, we don't always know, but you can assume that a company has taken on a bunch of debt if they've taken on pretty big projects. If they've looked to expand, if they build a second facility, and if they were pretty aggressive for a while in terms of their expansion.
Anybody who was sort of trying to sleuth out who might be next, the other tip would be to look at who's already done a deal with an investor who might want a return.
— Townsend Ziebold, a managing director at Cowen and Company who focuses on the beverage sector, on craft breweries’ platform/network value to potential buyers:
They're buying brands that come with infrastructure, so it's both, but there is equal emphasis, in my opinion, on the value of the platform, as well as the value of the brands.
As the lines blur, it's my opinion that these diversified alcohol companies will increasingly need multiple routes to market through through different types of wholesaler networks. If you want to stay purely a spirits company, fine: you can just have a wine and spirits distribution network. But as you get into RTDs and other things, it’s increasingly important to have potentially parallel routes to the market through both wine and spirits distributors as well as beer distributors.
It's not surprising to me right now that the big players are coming in after those ridiculous exhibitions of [Constellation Brands] paying a billion dollars for some company [Ballast Point.] I mean, who made that decision?! But it's not surprising to me that the money coming in now isn't so much venture capital and it's not so much buyouts of other breweries, but now it is beverage makers. Because, in the end, as I have always said, beer should always be thought of, in the United States at least as a player in the beverage industry.
Beer is not just competing with with the hard seltzer thing of the week. They are really are competing still with things like Coca-Cola, with flavored waters, with coffee-flavored [drinks.]
The existential crisis is definitely going to play out in the Brewers Association. For 35-plus years, this wing of the beer industry was built on the idea of a kind of general honesty and a dedication to a thing called “beer.” That's just not a feasible way to sustain the Brewers Association as it is now. It can't have these great big gigantic players who are now hot players in an industry that isn't even beer anymore. Effectively, they've been gobbled off into this mainstream… The so-called “craft beer industry” was never going to be the utopian ideal that was used to sell the culture for 35 or 40 years.
— Josh Noel, a Chicago Tribune reporter and author of Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch, and How Craft Beer Became Big Business, on the dwindling utility of “craft beer” as a term:
I do think we're at a point where it's getting harder and harder to use the term “craft beer,” and I think [the Brewers Association’s] definition of it is getting, let’s say slippery-er and slippery-er. That's not a criticism of them, it’s just the way that the industry has changed. And at this point, I barely even use the term “craft beer” and I'm actually trying to get away from it in my writing. Defining whose craft beer and who's not and it's kind of like… eh, whatever.
📬 Good post alert
📚 Books in bars: still good! Bad takes: still bad!
Thanks to Brewbound reporter/Friend of Fingers for sending in this breathtakingly bad take about reading in bars from NJ.com/Star Ledger “food/culture/whatever” reporter Jeremy Schneider. Jeremy, baby, what are you doing??? Who hurt you? This apparently unsolicited argument made a lot of people from Book Twitter and Drinks Twitter very Mad Online, which tracks given that reading in bars is both very pleasant and completely inoffensive to other patrons!
Schneider’s tweet got brutally ratio’d by introverts, bookworms, and bartenders pointing out that people who read in bars tend to be polite customers and good tippers. Most of it was pretty low-stakes and good-natured (well, good-natured for Twitter, at least) but there were also lots of women who jumped into the mentions to point out that bringing a book to a bar is one of the only ways they can avoid unwanted male attention.1 Not great!
I don’t typically highlight Twitter drama in the boozeletter because a) it goes stale very quickly; and b) almost never matters in real life.2 Nobody is going to stop reading books at bars because of this (bad) tweet! But this take bears mention for a couple broader reasons.
First of all, it reminds me all too much my time working in digital media last decade. Poorly thought-out, deliberately provocative takes were a reliable path to traffic, the coin of the realm. I wrote some really bad takes myself, once upon a time! I’m really relieved I don’t have to do that any more. As a newsletter, this project exists entirely outside the social media outrage industrial complex, which means I don’t have to come up with new and more noxious ways to troll readers for traffic. I write stuff that I care about and I think you’ll care about, and neither of us gets ratio’d into the sun on Twitter. The dream!
Such is the beauty of reader-supported media—there’s no algorithm in between you and me, so I don’t have to contort myself into indefensibly shit arguments just to score rage clicks, and you don’t have to wade through a bunch of hatebait to find stuff you want to read. If that sounds good to you, and you haven’t yet, consider buying a subscription to support this work:
Sorry, couldn’t resist making the soft sell. Anyway! My second point is that if we ever emerge from this pandemic, we’re going to be reentering third spaces and public drinking lives that are very different from the ones we abandoned in March 2020, and it’s genuinely very heartwarming (again, in a Twitter sort of way) to see so many people ready to defend indulgent, tactile, IRL barroom rituals3 rather than accept a future without them. Good! Small pleasures are a big deal, and comfortable bars offer them in spades. More reading in bars, less shaming people for enjoying private moments in semi-public spaces. Pass it on.
📧 Why Fingers covers booze companies' campaign donations to Republicans
Here’s a quick bit of housekeeping on the boozeletter’s approach to political coverage and campaign finance reporting, prompted by a thoughtful, good-faith inquiry from a Friend of Fingers who shall remain anonymous:
If you read this newsletter you probably have a feel for my politics by now. But I don’t want to be coy about it, either. I favor (among other things) the revitalization of the labor movement, implementation of universal social programs like single-payer healthcare, and an end to foreign wars. I don’t care for either major political party, because neither cares about any of those things. So while I often write about booze companies kicking cash to GOP politicians, I’ll always gladly accept tips on similar alco-corporate hypocrisy involving Democrats. Call that Boozeletter Bipartisanship™, bay-bee!
Don’t miss out, follow Fingers on Instagram today. It’s free, and your feed will thank you. (Not really, that would be weird. But you know what I mean.)
“If you're a woman and you need or want to eat out alone and not be harassed, you have two choices: book or computer. A phone doesn't work,” wrote novelist Rebecca Makkai. “I bring a book to the bar so the creeps won’t like me. (Especially the ones who think women are there to be “liked”.)” tweeted investigative journalist Lisa Guerrero. And so forth.
Don’t mistake this for a “Twitter is not real life” dismissal—when it comes to American politics, I (unfortunately) believe it is! But when it comes to this banal culture war shit… not so much.
What’s the social etiquette on reading a book in a bar in the Meta Lite Big Game Metaverse Bar Powered by Miller Lite? Hmm.