There’s been talk in the air for months regarding Anheuser-Busch approaching regional craft brewers about aligning themselves with them in some fashion — either by purchasing or other distribution arrangements — and many, many names have been dropped as being potential targets. Most have proved unfounded and because of this I’ve been careful not to name any rumored names. Even so, I’ve gotten several e-mails from friends in breweries letting me know they’re definitely not in negotiations with A-B, which has been appreciated. It’s nice to able to whittle down the list. But several names have persisted and even a few of them have been seen in print. So it was no surprise that more definite rumors abounded at the Craft Brewers Conference last week about which craft brewers might be joining Anheuser-Busch’s Craft Brewers Alliance.
Current members include Redhook and Widmer Brothers. The distribution deal, which is rumored to include a small percentage of ownership by A-B tied to performance standards, has worked wonders for Widmer and their business has grown quite dramatically. Redhook, on the hand, has not fared as well. As I understand it, they did not meet performance goals and as a result A-B exerts greater control over them now then before and owns a greater percentage of the Seattle-based company. I don’t know the actual specifics — does anybody? — but it’s something like that.
Three names kept coming up last week as having signed deals or being close to closing a deal with A-B to join the Craft Brewers Alliance. I want to stress that the exact nature of the deal, if any, is strictly rumor at this point. Though several people I spoke to seem to have it on good authority that this is what is happening. The three breweries consistently mentioned are Firestone Walker Fine Ales of Paso Robles, California, Goose Island Brewing of Chicago, Illinois and Kona Brewing of Hawaii. If true, that would make the CBA five fairly large and prominent breweries. For those breweries it would mean increased distribution nationally. For other craft brewers, especially those currently being distrubuted by A-B distributors, it could spell disaster. If your distributor has five reasonably popular craft brands with a variety of styles that they’re effectively bound by contract to focus on, then the amount of attention other brands will get will certainly be less, assuming they even keep those other brands. There will likely be additional pressure for the distributors to have “100% share of mind,” the name of A-B’s wholesaler exclusivity program, and that will likely result in many A-B houses dropping smaller, local brands in order to accomodate the new CBA brands.
Rich Tucciarone, Director of Brewery Operations for Kona, did confirm that they have had in place for some time now several distribution only agreements in a few states for Bud distributors to carry their products but that no new negotiations or deals have taken place in recent months. From what he told me, this is only new insofar as people are talking about it again and examining relationships between craft brewers and A-B houses involved in distrubting their product.
I wasn’t able to speak with Matt Brynildson, Firestone Walker’s brewmaster, because I only saw him accepting his awards at CBC. I did, however, talk with Mark Cabrera, an old friend and Northern California Sales Manager for Firestone Walker. He told me the rumors are patently untrue. Firestone Walker has, he mentioned, recently switched distributors in southern California to include exclusively A-B houses which may have fueled speculation. But, he assured me, Adam Firestone, though certainly approached, rebuffed A-B’s advances.
Goose Island, on the other hand, does appear to at least be in talks with A-B. As long ago as last December, the Chicago Tribune reported as much. As mentioned in Stan Hieronymus’ Beer Therapy “Goose Island president and founder John Hall confirmed as much, but said discussions have been limited to ‘distribution issues.’ He declined to comment further on the nature of the talks.” I saw Will Turner, who’s a Bay Area brewer who now brews for Goose Island, at CBC but I didn’t get a chance to ask him about this.
Every person I did talk to about this had a certain wearines in their voice, like they’d grown quite tired of talking about this and refuting the rumors. And that makes sense, there’s few things more damaging or harder to defend than an unfounded rumor. They’re a lot like viruses. No one can pinpoint where they started and they’re pretty hard to kill. So it seems that these recent round of rumors amount to virtually nothing, unfortunately, so we really still don’t know exactly what’s going on, who’s making deals, and what the deals are. Until that happens, all we can really do is wonder, speculate and worry.