In a statement, Ninkasi said it has signed on with independents Bigfoot Beverage of Eugene and Odom Corporation of Bellevue. Bigfoot will handle distribution of Ninkasi product throughout Downstate Oregon and Odom will handle Western Washington. That's a lot of beer.
If you're wondering, Ninkasi will continue on with Maletis Beverage in the Portland area. Maletis is an independent AB distributor with a strong craft portfolio...a good place for Ninkasi to be, for sure.
The reasons for the change are easy enough to understand if you follow the industry. Ninkasi co-founder Nikos Ridge said the company is "committed to being an independent and locally-owned craft brewery, and we feel we will be better aligned long term with independent and locally-owned wholesalers."
That's actually a monumental understatement. Ninkasi will certainly be better off working through independent distributors. Their relationship with Anheuser-Busch had soured in recent times. Part of that is related to AB's acquisition of 10 Barrel Brewing a few months ago, and the knowledge that AB branch distributors focus most of their effort on brands they have equity in. Independents are like step-children and rented mules in the AB family.
But that's not all. I'm also hearing that AB brass quietly told Ninkasi they wanted a stake in the brewery if they were going to continue to distribute their product. This is all part of AB's ongoing effort to vertically integrate two of the three tiers in the beer business via ownership of distributors and breweries. It shouldn't be legal, but it is how they intend to recoup market share lost to independent craft brewers.
To their credit, Ninkasi told Anheuser-Busch to take a flying leap. Yesterday's statement merely served as their formal response to what's been going on. It must have felt really good to announce that Ninkasi won't be a pawn in what the AB mafia is doing. Locally-owned and independent is where Ninkasi wants to be, although it will soon launch in Utah via an AB house.
The timing of the announcement was not the best. Due to the widely publicized mash-up between Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas over a branding issue, Ninkasi's announcement received less coverage than it might have. But this was a big deal, make no mistake. We can only hope it encourages other like-minded breweries to bail on AB branches.