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Monday, November 17, 2014

Risk and Reward in the 10 Barrel Buyout

When 10 Barrel Brewing agreed to be purchased by Anheuser-Busch, the founders surely evaluated the risk. In the end, they decided the benefits of selling outweighed the risks associated with potential negative consequences. That's how business decisions work.

One of the angles they certainly considered is that, by selling out to big beer, 10 Barrel would no longer be considered a craft brewery by the Brewers Association. The Brewers Association, although it is home to some odd rules, has some pretty simple guidelines when it comes to craft brewers.
  1. Small: Annual production must not exceed 6 million barrels
  2. Independent: Less than 25 percent of the brewery is owned by a large, non-craft brewer.
  3. Traditional: The majority of a brewer's volume is beer made by fermenting traditional or innovative brewing ingredients.
These guidelines have been questioned. What are "innovative brewing ingredients?" for instance. How does 6 million barrels make sense when most craft brewers produce in the thousands of barrels annually? Deschutes Brewing, one of the largest craft brewers, brewed 478,00 barrels last year. Sam Adams brewed 2.5 million barrels. What? Some say the Brewers Association has adjusted the production limit upward over the years to keep Sam Adams, the behemoth of the craft world, in. But never mind.

In 10 Barrel's case, the production limit won't be an issue anytime soon, if ever. Same goes for the traditional aspect. Where the problem occurs is ownership. Being a wholly owned subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch means they lose the craft label. Regardless of whether you think that's an issue, it is the reality.

So I was amused to see an article in the Bend Bulletin under the headline: "Could 10 Barrel Lose Craft Brewer Label?" Seriously? Folks, there isn't a question. The craft label is gone. Kaput. I enjoyed reading some of the comments, particularly those attributed to Van Havig, co-owner of Portland's Gigantic Brewing and a member of the Oregon Brewers Guild board of directors.

"Those people [at 10 Barrel] are craft brewers, period," Havig told the Bulletin. "It has nothing to do with who owns them." 

Actually, who owns them does matter to beer fans and the Brewers Association. But that's a nice way to spin it and a smart position for any brewer to take...just in case his or her brewery should be bought out by a beer behemoth at some point. Thinking ahead always makes sense. 

Whether the craft label matters is open to serious question. Goose Island lost its craft status when it sold out to AB in 2011. Widmer Brewing lost its craft status when it sold a roughly 30 percent stake to AB in 1997. Same goes for Blue Point Brewing, which came under AB control earlier this year.

The funny thing is, these breweries are doing fine. Widmer is a relevant national brand, distributed across the country. Goose Island is in the same boat. It's kind of early to say what will happen with Blue Point, but you suspect it will experience similar results.

10 Barrel is going to be the butt of jokes among beer geeks in Oregon for a while. A short-term drop in sales volume here seems likely. A lot of people have told me they will never support 10 Barrel by buying their beer or going to the brewpub that will open in Portland next spring. Fair enough.

As a kid, I was told, "You take your chances and you take your lumps." 10 Barrel took its chances selling out to AB and is taking its lumps. I don't like this buyout or those like it one bit, but I think 10 Barrel will probably be just fine in the end.

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