Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

December 22, 2014

Beer Issues:

Et tu, Founders?

Did one of the Midwest’s best craft breweries sell its soul?
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
So the first I heard about Founders selling a minority stake to Spanish brewery Mahou San Miguel was—shocker—on Twitter, when some wag tweeted for some guidance on what he should do with his bottle of KBS now. Of course this sarcastic post is poking preemptive fun at the inevitable knee-jerk reactions from beer dorks who think Founders sold out and their beer, once so sought after, is now only suitable to be poured down the drain.

While we here at aren’t much for jerking our knees, I can see why the news gave people pause, since the immediate analogy you’ll want to draw is what happened when Goose Island sold a minority stake to Anheuser Busch (actually through a proxy sale to Widmer) in order to gain some distribution traction in far-flung markets. And we all know how that bright idea turned out.

The basic bullet points of both deals match up pretty well—well-regarded craft brewery looking for new distribution channels sells stake to a much larger international conglomerate seller of “premium” swill—but once you start to dig into the facts, the analogy kind of falls apart.

First off, Founders is looking for international distribution, an area even the largest craft breweries like Stone, New Belgium, and Sierra Nevada are struggling with. When Goose Island sold its stake, it was just trying to get distribution outside of the Midwest, which, admittedly, at the time was tough for craft breweries to do, but was possible without selling out (just look at Bell’s and, of course, Founders). Founders is already in the middle of a $40 million expansion, and setting up in the international space on their own probably wasn’t financially feasible. So this appears—from the outside, at least—much more calculated than Goose Island’s sellout.

At worst Founders got favorable terms for part of its soul from a minor demon.
Second, Mahou San Miguel isn’t even remotely comparable to Anheuser-Busch, at least in size. In 2012 they produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million barrels of beer, less than one-tenth of Anheuser-Busch’s annual output. Hell, at the rate Founders is growing—they’ll be capable of brewing 900,000 barrels at the end of their expansion—they might be bigger than Mahou San Miguel in ten years. So while you could say Goose Island sold its soul to the devil, at worst Founders got favorable terms for part of its soul from a minor demon.

But all those facts don’t really answer the question of whether Founders now is no longer a “craft” brewery in the eyes of consumers, especially beer dorks like us. According to the Brewers Association rules, they aren’t, since more than 25 percent of them will be owned by another “non-craft” brewery. But the BA is just trying to quantify what it is to be considered a “craft” brewery, a subjective, if not outright meaningless, term to most people. We’ve always thrown the term “craft” around to describe breweries we like and admire, basically because there really isn’t a better word out there to use. But to us being a craft brewery isn’t about business partnerships or numbers of barrels or percentages of ownership. A craft brewery makes great beer with us, the consumer, in the forefront of its mind instead of anything else.

So, then, is Founders still a craft brewer to us? Yes, but we’ll see what the future holds. Founders CEO Mike Stevens says all the right things in their press releases, but talk is cheap. All you need to do is throw out words like “community” and “local” and make sure you say “passion” at least three times and people will just lap that shit up. But as the quote goes, as I grow older I pay less attention to what brewers say. I just drink what they brew. We’ve been huge fans of Founders since our inception, and frankly I can’t see them changing for the worse because of this deal. Let’s hope I’m right.

Happy anniversary, Lakefront Brewery!

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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