Fun with Big Beer: “The High End”

The battle for your dollar rages on in the beer industry. For the last 2 decades, “Big Beer” in North America has tried many different tactics to try and quash the looming threat of micro-breweries taking their existing revenue: threatening to pull advertising to networks airing shows promoting micro-breweries, running ads during the Superb Owl labeling them as soft hipsters, developing phony “artisan” brands to trick consumers. The list goes on. Now that craft beer’s market share has changed from less than 1% in 2005 to 12.3% in 2016, and after failing to actually improve their own products, Big Beer has gone out and started purchasing successful micro-breweries to produce under their umbrella of #brands.

In the last 2 years, longtime California staples Lagunitas and Ballast Point have been sold off from their independent owners to the groups that control Heineken and Corona respectively, for mass production after winning numerous awards for their exceptional products. There are the usual cries of “No recipes will be changing!” and “We’re still the same company!” following these acquisitions, but when producing on such a large scale, that becomes unsustainable to largely cost-preventative ownership. 9 months after it’s purchase, the entirety of BP’s former C-level employees no longer work for the company. Sculpin IPA, their flagship beer, is much more widely available and the price has dropped significantly, but has developed more of a malty profile and a noticeable loss in smell and taste. Here are all the awards Sculpin has won since coming to market:

  • 2011 Silver at the California State Fair
  • 2010 Gold and 2014 Gold at the World Beer Cup
  • 2007 Bronze and 2009 Silver at the Great American Beer Festival
  • 2012 Bronze at the San Diego International Beer Festival and Competition
  • 2006 Bronze at the Bistro 9th Annual IPA Festival
  • 2011 Gold and 2012 Gold at the Great Japan Beer Festival
  • 2010 Gold and 2011 Gold at the European Beer Star Awards
  • 2014 Bronze at the Los Angeles International Beer Competition
  • 2014 Modern IPA Gold at the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival

Hmmm, it’s almost like something changed in 2015…

The acquisitions of these micro-breweries has been fairly quiet and outside a few business journals or publications solely dedicated to the industry, it can be pretty difficult to know to whom your monies are going to. I consider myself pretty informed on the topic, but even I was fooled a couple of weeks ago by Elysian Brewing popping up in a local bottle shop. Having only heard the name once or twice before and seeing that they were based in Seattle, I decided to give them a try, having no idea they were owned by AB InBev. and it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I even realized that was the case. When I had it, the Space Dust DIPA tasted old, even though the bottle date was less than a month ago. This seems to be a common complaint that I have with these types of subsidiaries, most noticeably with St. Archer (Miller-Coors) here in San Diego.

It’s not that I won’t buy beer produced by these #brands just because of who their ownership is, but it certainly influences my decision. Ballast Point makes one of my favorite beers in their Victory at Sea, which I will still continue to buy as long as it tastes so damn good. What bothers me are these extremely misleading marketing practices attempting to confuse consumers. If you can actually make a better product, you will succeed and gain respect in the industry.

On June 27th, the Brewer’s Association (a non-profit trade group for small and independent craft brewers) released a seal for their over 7,000 members to display on bottles, cans and six-packs to clearly identify themselves as “Independent Beer,” as opposed to “Craft,” which Big Beer can now claim with these buyouts.

This of course got the #upforwhatever crowd very spun up, especially after recently restructuring their purchased craft breweries into what they are calling “The High End” division. This label will directly effect their marketing strategy and positioning that they have worked so far to establish. So much so that ownership thought that they should fly everyone out to a secret volcano lair and shoot a video in an attempt to dismiss the label. What follows is some of the most maddening, tone-deaf tripe I have seen from the industry, and this is my response.

David Buhler (Elysian): What would I do, because it’s about my brewery and my people…

Well it’s really AB’s brewery, but go on.

…and as a team of graphic designers and packaging on that side of the business and what we do?

Either put it on your labels or not. This doesn’t seem too complicated.

I thought “How I would use it?” and “Would I use it?”

Let me answer that second one for you – You can’t!

…and “What are the decisions that other breweries across the country are doing right now looking at this logo?”

Probably “Will this help us differentiate from those big guys that keep trying to pretend to be us, while simultaneously shitting on us?”

Is this logo a mandate for breweries to put on their labels that are not part of “Big Beer?”

No, there’s no mandate. If you read the announcement the Brewer’s Association put out at launch, you’d know it’s optional.

Does this logo designate something like quality?

You didn’t read it, did you?

Does it differentiate anything about what the beer is or how it is perceived by consumers?

Okay, now I’m starting think you can’t read.

Because it’s all about the consumers, the consumer is what drives our businesses, right?

“That’s why we put together this handy propaganda flick, just to dissuade you!”

Walt Dickinson (Wicked Weed): I mean at the end of the day we are all making beer, we are all brewers, whether you want to call us craft or not craft or whatever.

Okay, this guy I can talk to. You’re actually making some sense here, Walt.

I’m pretty sure Pernicious was a craft IPA like 2 months ago and I’m pretty sure it’s a craft IPA now, right?

Under the loose definition of what “craft” means now, you would be correct.

So we’re all doing the same thing – we are beer. We are fighting this bigger battle which is wine and spirits and we are losing margin every year to them…

Wait, what? I thought we were here to talk about this logo.

…and so they have to be looking at us and just laughing, thinking this is just — why are you throwing us a bone right now?

Well, if you actually look at the data, wine and spirits are taking market share away from light beers, not craft beers. I thought you just said you were craft beer.

You guys are literally in-fighting, this is just a civil war meanwhile this armada of boats is coming across the Atlantic to crush us and we are shooting each other with, you know, muskets and sling-shots. So what’s the point? We need to band together and grow this market as a whole and if we do that everyone has a great space in the market, right?

“Why can’t we all just be friends? [Under breath] As long as we make all the decisions and keep the money.”

Small independents like us innovate…

Hold on. You lost the ability to call yourself “independent” the minute you sold your business to a global conglomerate.

…they get a platform from a strategic or something to take those great ideas and take them to a bigger market and create new consumers and grow the space as a whole and what does that do? It opens up more spaces for innovation and good product wins.

Right, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. And so, how is this logo preventing that, exactly?

So that’s the point of this whole thing.

I’m still not sure what the point is.

You know, I was just hoping we could get back to just talking about beer, but I guess we’re not there yet — but hopefully soon.

I hate to break it to you, BUT YOU’RE THE ONE MAKING THIS VIDEO NOT TALKING ABOUT BEER!

Garrett Wales (10 Barrel): At the end of the day the beer does the talking, not the label on the package, and the consumer makes up their own mind.  The problem is that the [Brewer’s Association] continues to refuse to let the consumer make up their own mind and try to make it up for them.

“Yeah, Brewer’s Association! Stop trying to “inform” everybody! Let them make up their own minds, where we continue to blur the lines as much as possible!”

They have a little bottle that someone told me “that’s what I have to buy” because there is a bottle on the six packs – but that doesn’t mean shit to me.

“I’m not panicking. Not panicking at all. Look at how much I’m not panicking! Look at it!”

Andy Ingram (Four Peaks): There are clear threats from wine and spirits out there.

Jesus, I thought we already covered this.

Whether we are being willful and not noticing that or we are too busy fighting amongst ourselves, there is a clear present danger out there, there are storm clouds on the horizon for the beer industry. Some people think its top heavy — I don’t, I think we can  sustain a lot more — but we are not going to be able to do that if we are divided.

I think that is a key role going forward that the [Brewer’s Association] needs to focus on, as well as getting back to quality. When a major trade organization is saying it doesn’t matter whats in your glass as long as it’s independent, and they’re telling consumers that, then that’s a big issue…

“How dare the BA stands up for the companies that they represent!”

…you’re saying go ahead and drink crap just as long as you don’t support the big guys.

“When you really should be drinking the crap that supports the big guys. Did you know there are nine flavors of Bud Light Lime-a-ritas now?!”

Felipe Szpigel (The High End): And now comes this piece on- you know independence, and for me the real thinking behind independence is that consumers don’t necessarily care about independence.

Well you’re the consumer so clearly you know best.

What they care about is, what is the impact that small businesses have on the communities? And are the communities being better? Think about our partners, the amount of support we give locally, the amount of jobs that we provide locally by keeping on investing on our own partners.

It’s not like when a local brewery is sold, the local marketing, accounting, human resources, finance and many other teams lose their jobs when they’re outsourced to “The High End” team or anything.

By the responsible things we do in terms of drinking or connecting to communities or natural resources and giving back – honestly I see no other brewer that does as much as we do.

That makes me proud. And I think that’s what we are going to tell our consumers. That at the end that’s what really matters behind being independent or being small — is doing the best for your community or the communities… I’m proud of what we do and our partners do in the communities that we are in.

I feel like we’ve gotten off track. Isn’t this supposed to be about some logo or something?

Steve Crandall (Devil’s Backbone): We are going to continue being the same guys we have always been. We are going to continue offering the best possible beers and occasions to our consumers that we have always done and we are always going to support the craft beer industry.

“We’ve clearly been shitty people this entire time. You just didn’t know it because we weren’t powerful enough yet.”

David Buhler (Elysian): Well to be independent would mean you don’t put the logo on because you’re indie.

I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.

So to be truly punk you don’t use the logo, you do your own thing and you follow your own rules. [Cracks self up and walks off camera]

Goateed Jeff Fisher is so fucking punk! Look at him, being in this video for his corporate overlords talking about how punk he is! Ain’t nothing more punk than that!

There are multiple people working for AB InBev who think what just happened was an epic mic drop. Enjoy that.

[Banner image via]

Low Commander of the Super Soldiers
Low Commander of the Super Soldiers
Low Commander of the Super Soldiers is a native North County San Diegan with an affinity for the Padres, beer, whiskey, punk rock, video games and the end of days. If you eat a fish taco with a fork in his presence, you may lose your hand.
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LemonJelloHoratio CornblowerDon TMoose -The End Is Well NighKing Hippo Recent comment authors
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LemonJello
LemonJello

Damn.

Devil’s Backbone and Goose Island are just tools of THE MAN?!?

I find that…disappointing.

Horatio Cornblower

/Horatio creates a delicious beer, let’s call it Treedomicile.

Big Beverage: “We would like to buy your company.”

Horatio: “No. I would lose control of the creative process, I can’t be sure that the quality of my product would survive the massive scaling-up that you would bring and I have no guarantee that the product won’t suffer during the vastly increased transport to markets across the country.”

BB: “Have you ever seen what a billion dollars looks like?”

Horatio: “No. No I have not.”

BB: “It looks like this.” (Picture a massive safe parachuting in from on high and slowly opening while angels sing)

Horatio: “Here are the keys. The recipes are under the couch cushions. You can keep the couch as well.”

Don T

A label that FORCES consumers is beyond stretching the truth. And the whole “the real enemy is the bourgeois wine and spirit apparatchiks, mega- and small brewers unite!” is so… UGH! I wish I found that funny.
Awesome post.

Rikki-Tikki-Deadly

When you said “The High End” I though this was going to be about how Josh Gordon will fit in to Cleveland’s revolutionary “single wing” formation they play to unveil this season.

Rikki-Tikki-Deadly

Jesus, with the way these guys are talking about “sharing” and “cooperation” you’d think this video was about the virtues of communism not a reaction to something that is happening in a capitalist marketplace.

King Hippo

Mao’s Little Red Ale!

#BudChina

litre_cola

In Canadia Mill St was bought by Labatts and regularily I have guys at the bar asking why the beers from them lately taste like shit. Cobblestone Stout is one that used to be delish and now tastes metallic.

Senor Weaselo

The guy from Elysian is right, someone’s definitely going to go meta-hipster and not label their beer as indie because that’s too mainstream. I will put money that that hypothetical someone will be from Brooklyn.

Moose -The End Is Well Nigh
Moose -The End Is Well Nigh

Low Commander of the Super Soldiers; This is fucking great; you summed up my feelings on this except possibly I have a touch more anger and depression. Fantastic write-up.

King Hippo

The key is…everyone should have the right to make an INFORMED CHOICE as consumers and hold the manufacturers accountable.

So capitalism can actually work.

But certain monopolists would just fucking HATE that.

I shall still drink Lagunitas’ stuff, because I still like it. But will I still generally prefer the truly local? Sure. Eating/drinking locally and simply is sustainable and healthy, I find. Other things make more sense as having to be part of more globalized commerce to be hyper-efficient. I get that each village ought not be knitting its own socks in the 21st century.

Moose -The End Is Well Nigh
Moose -The End Is Well Nigh

OOOOOH, logit this asshole who is toooooo good to knit his own sox. smgdh. Local craft sox are way better.

Moose -The End Is Well Nigh
Moose -The End Is Well Nigh

Yes indeed; that is why fucking Coors goes to GREAT lengths to hide the fact that they make Blue Moon and the like.

With the good beers they will keep the recipe and process, but at some point they will change it to reduce expenses simply because that is what larger companies do. It is not necessarily bad because it increases efficiencies…. well, it is bad for those who got replaced by a robot. However in the beer industry this inefficiency fosters variety, product innovation, and local jobs on a larger scale.

Moose -The End Is Well Nigh
Moose -The End Is Well Nigh

All that being said; huge corporations have had a long history of looking out for the little man, the individual, a person’s rights, they always act responsibly when it comes to the environment and the local community.

litre_cola

Holy Fuck these guys have their ears full of cash from the big brew crews and have lost touch. Jesus Christ reading that infuriated me. So from now on whenever I want a craft brew my handy phone should tell me wherher they are independent or owned by a bunch pf shit sippers.
Thank you LCSS that was i informative and well done.

/please dont let Wasatch have been bought by someone.

Moose -The End Is Well Nigh
Moose -The End Is Well Nigh

“I HAVE A BUTT LOAD OF CASH FROM SELLING OUT [granted, I would probably sell too, depending on the situation] BUT NOW I WILL RATIONALIZE IT BY ATTACKING AN ASSOCIATION THAT IS OUT TO HELP SMALL BUSINESSES OF WHICH I WAS ONE BEFORE THIS BIG CHECK CAME IN DIRECT DEPOSTIT.”

Rikki-Tikki-Deadly

Yeah, if you’re gonna sell out, you gotta own it. I don’t begrudge people for taking the cash, I begrudge them for pretending they didn’t.

Moose -The End Is Well Nigh
Moose -The End Is Well Nigh

Abso-fucking-lutely.

Don T

This should be embossed and hung on offices. What grates is The Hipocrisy. 💯

Moose -The End Is Well Nigh
Moose -The End Is Well Nigh

Exactly.

SonOfSpam

Yeah, Sculpin’s definitely lost…something from a few years ago.

This is excellent work. You should have some beer as a reward.

Horatio Cornblower

Sculpin in delicious and I am going to fight everyone of you that says differently.
/never had Sculpin before they were bought out, so what do I know? Nothing.

BrettFavresColonoscopy

How much do you think this killed these guys inside?

theeWeeBabySeamus

Does this mean I gotta start drinking now?
Well, if I gotta……

Moose -The End Is Well Nigh
Moose -The End Is Well Nigh

I will join you in the great sacrifice for the greater good.