You’ve probably heard the rumors and the news that 10 Barrel Brewing, acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2014, is trying to open a new brewpub location, this one in San Diego, California. Today I received a press release from ABI, detailing the trouble they’ve met in trying to expand into the Southern California market. Here’s what they had to say:
This will be the first non-craft brewery, per the Brewers Association’s definition of a craft brewer, to expand into San Diego — which is already home to 117 local craft breweries, with 40 more in planning. The news has been met with strong opposition from members of San Diego’s craft beer community, including the San Diego Brewers Guild, who’s mission is to promote awareness and increase the visibility of fresh, locally brewed beer.
10 Barrel has applied for a permit to construct a brewpub in San Diego’s burgeoning East Village, at 1501 E Street, and has proposed a “full-service restaurant with accessory alcohol manufacturing.”
Today, February 17th, representatives of 10 Barrel will present on behalf of the project to the Downtown Community Planning Council (DCPC), an advisory group, and a decision is expected soon.
Apparently, the biggest opposition they’ve received is from local brewers already in the market, in the guise of the San Diego Brewers Guild. This is setting up to be an interesting battle. San Diego business owners clearly want to keep their local angle for the businesses, though how that will square with the acquisition of Saint Archer by MillerCoors remains to be seen.
Curiously, ABI’s press release also includes that opposition, in fact is more than half of what I received, giving voice to their complaints. According to them, “Representatives of the San Diego Brewers Guild, including President Emeritas Kevin Hopkins, will speak at the meeting on behalf of the Guild,” and also circulated the guild’s official statement:
“The acquisitions that transacted last year and the news of AB-InBev’s intentions to open up in San Diego through 10 Barrel highlights the fact that San Diego is truly a world-class brewing center. That reputation is due to the hard work of locally-owned breweries and the San Diego Brewers Guild. Historically, it has been independent brewers who have built the thriving beer community that San Diego is now known for around the world. The risk underlying the acquisition of breweries by large, international corporations and the risk of businesses like the proposed 10 Barrel brewpub in San Diego is that beer drinkers here may think that when they patronize these businesses, and buy and drink beer, that they are supporting the local brewing community. That is not the case. Should the 10 Barrel project open in San Diego as proposed, consumers need to know that it is owned by Anheuser-Busch and not a local craft brewery or a craft brewery in general. Now more than ever, with the introduction of non-craft breweries to San Diego’s craft landscape, it is important to continue to support locally owned and operated San Diego breweries, like the brewer members in the San Diego Brewers Guild.”
I’m a little baffled by that. Are they looking for sympathy for their cause. On one hand it’s certainly understandable that San Diego brewers would prefer to not have a carpetbagger come into their midst, but as Thorn Street Brewery owner Eric O’Connor said in a letter of opposition, “large companies have the right to open and operate where they see fit.” I’m sure I’d feel the same way, but I’m not sure what anyone could do about it. As long as consumers support the venture, it will continue to thrive. If everyone agreed to not patronize it because its ownership wasn’t local, it would likely have to close. But how realistic is that? I’m not trying to be difficult, I honestly don’t know. We all talk a good game about supporting local and not spending money with breweries who’s ownership has changed and/or is not to our individual liking. But Goose Island, 10 Barrel and even Blue Moon continue to do quite well despite all the foot stomping. And this is not a new problem. People said the same thing about Redhook and Widmer when ABI acquired just a minority interest in them in 1994, and both are still in business over twenty years later, so I’m not sure a boycott would really work, nor could this sort of hand-wringing do any good.
In O’Connor’s letter, he adds that if 10 Barrel does come, “there should be complete transparency of who the ownership is and where the money is going.” But isn’t there already? Don’t we already know that ABI owns 10 Barrel and that’s, of course, where the money will go. MillerCoors isn’t hiding the fact that they own Blue Moon, or Saint Archer. Likewise, it’s not exactly a secret who owns Goose Island, Blue Point, or Shock Top. But that’s because there’s a tiny sliver of the market that actually pays attention to who owns what. Most of the world is busy doing something else, living their lives, and drinking whatever they want, oblivious.
And believe me, my sympathies are with the San Diego brewers, but I don’t see what they can really do. ABI also included a pdf of all the complaints their plans have received, including letters from other local bars and brewers. The gist of them is that “beer drinkers here in San Diego may think that when they patronize a business like what 10 Barrel is proposing, and when they buy and drink 10 Barrel’s beer, that they are supporting the local brewing community.” And they’re probably right to be concerned about that, but I think it’s more of a problem because most people don’t care as deeply about that as we do. Mike Sardinia, president of the guild, insists “it is vital that consumers need to know that it is owned by Anheuser-Busch and not a locally operated brewery.” In his conclusion, he warns that “[i]t is important that the City not make it easy for Anheuser-Busch to open in San Diego without due diligence and without a full review of its application and its intentions with the 10 Barrel project.”
The irony there is that in the early days, small brewers were complaining that it wasn’t fair how difficult the then Big 3 (Bud, Miller and Coors) made it for them to obtain distribution, tap handles and generally succeed in a market that they dominated. I’m certainly glad we have more power now, and have, in many cases, succeeded spectacularly, but I’m still not sure this, while understandable, is the best way to use it.
Last month, Peter Rowe, in the San Diego Union-Tribune, asked rhetorically, An Anheuser-Busch brewpub for San Diego? Toward the end, he even mentions that “some threaten to picket and boycott 10 Barrel, when and if it opens,” which also seems silly. If people in San Diego, like most places, are really as supportive of local-only businesses then it will fail all by itself. But I think the real fear is that everybody loves the locals on Twitter, or Facebook, or when answering a pollster, but not when it comes to reality. Like it or not, national brands in every industry are popular precisely because they’re familiar, widely available and the same everywhere. It’s certainly true that artisanal products, like cheese, chocolate, bread, etc. are all doing great, but the big brands are still the big brands, just like with craft beer. Dents have been made, but they still have a majority marketshare.
But headlines about this from mainstream news are along the lines of Local craft brewers to Anheuser-Busch: Keep out. It feels strange to side with the big guys but it doesn’t feel like they’re doing anything particularly wrong here. I understand opposing this or even working together to promote their own local-ness as a positive attribute, but this feels like a case when turnabout isn’t fair play. We should be better than that. If San Diego brewers are making great beer — and they are — and if people in their market are willing to support them, then this is something that will take care of itself, and that, I think should be the goal.