…The Times, They Are A-Changin’…
Recent news in the beer world has unceremoniously slapped some of the rose-colored glasses off of many faces and forcing us to see the industry for what it is. A business. I know that it is shocking and hackle-raising to use such base terminology, but at the very core of it all, brewers are in business to make money. I think it is all too common that we as lovers of the brew have a tendency to close our eyes and imagine that the brewers we love and support are all the best of friends and would do anything for one another regardless of the bottom line, and only have the quality and best interest of the beer lover at heart. And in a lot of cases, this is true. By and large, most brewers – at least in my experience – will go out of their way to help each other and to give the consumers what they want. But at the end of the day, if they are not making money, they can’t keep the doors open. For some, this means making difficult decisions. For others, it means protecting their “intellectual property” and name.
The big news last week was that Bell’s Brewery, maker of the much-loved Two Hearted Ale, issued a “cease and desist” letter to homebrew supplier Northern Brewer for their clone recipe: Three-Hearted Ale. This really set off a lot of negative buzz, with some beer lovers even calling for a boycott of the Kalamazoo brewer. It should be noted that this clone recipe has been available for years without incident, and Northern has even collaboated with other brewers to create clones of other brews (Surly Brewing’s Furious being a notable example). The official response from the brewery indicates that the issue is not with the actual clone recipe and kit, but with the use of the name “Three-Hearted” and that it could confuse the public. While I fully respect the notion of trademark names and intellectual property, I think that is a stretch at best. Consumers looking for Two-Hearted Ale are going to be at the store buying beer, not shopping online on a homebrew supply store. Homebrewers looking for a clone of this excellent beer already KNOW the name of the commercial product, so will not be confused by the numerical change. I wish I could say I saw the motivation for this action, but it just smacks of arrogance and bullying to me.
The other big news just came today, as macro-giant Anheuser-Busch announced it was acquiring Chicago brewery Goose Island for $38 million. Brewmaster Greg Hall will be stepping down and Deschutes Brewery’s Head Brewer, Brett Porter, will take over Hall’s duties as Brewmaster. CEO John Hall will be staying on, and the two brewpubs are not part of the deal and will remain open. This was not something most in the beer community saw coming. Beer reviewer and Hoptopia founder Lee Norman Williams said quite bluntly that he “saw this buyout coming like a freight train.” The big question in my mind is what does it mean in the long run for the industry? Is this just a single, albeit large, event? Or a sign of things to come? Will AB/InBev try to snap up more regional and independent breweries to bolster their own “craft beer” portfolio?
The other question, though, is really: does it matter? If the beer remains the same, and all that changes is the increased capacity and distribution and accessibility, is it a bad thing? If SAB/Miller bought Russian River and suddenly I could get Pliny the Elder in Florida, woudl I raise hell about it, purely on principle?
It is too soon to say yet what the implications of this event are. I am taking a wait-and-see approach, but I have had only limited exposure to Goose Island. Would I react differently if the brewery were, say, Cigar City? Yeah. I can safely say I would.
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
– Bob Dylan