The craft beer world has gotten a bit of a head-turning aftertaste as of late, with Anheuser-Busch InBev’s planned acquisition of craft brewery Elysian, not to mention its earlier craft brewery acquisitions of 10 Barrel, Blue Point, and Goose Island.
The Washington Post's Wonkblog reported beer sales for the U.S. slipped 2% in 2013, but the craft beer sector, comprised of 2,700 microbreweries and brewpubs, rose 17%, according to Brewers Association data.
Food Dive caught up with AB InBev’s Andy Goeler — the CEO of its craft segment — in an email interview, where he answered questions on the company's acquisitions, industry trends, craft beer drinker backlash, and more.
Budweiser ad uproar
AB InBev took some heat for a Super Bowl Budweiser ad in which it poked some fun at microbrews and people who consume them, but Goeler emphasized the importance of craft (and other brands) to the company.
“Our focus is on our consumers and providing them with the best beers, experiences and stories behind our breweries,” he says. “We cannot do that without our craft brands, or without our highest-selling brands. All styles of beer play a role in elevating our industry and the consumer experience, including lagers, IPAs, stouts and pumpkin peach ales.”
Trends in the space
Goeler discussed “two major trends” in the space — “sour beers and barrel-aging programs” — which he touted as “specialties” of Goose Island.
“We’re also seeing increased interest in wet-hopped beers, which you can only brew around hop harvest in early fall,” he says. “Our craft breweries have a unique opportunity to experiment with those thanks to Anheuser-Busch’s Elk Mountain Farm, our hop farm in northern Idaho.”
Food Dive spoke with Amy Gutierrez, beer category manager at BevMo!, a West Coast specialty beverage retailer, who talked about craft beer trends in California, Washington, and Arizona. In her opinion, the biggest ones are session beers, barrel-age beers, and limited release beers.
What does this mean for the little guys?
For those craft beer diehards who worry about these smaller company acquisitions, Goeler offered reassurance.
“With Goose Island, Blue Point and 10 Barrel, we are hands-off and leave brewing decisions to their brewers, just as we will do with Elysian when that deal closes,” he says. “They were all making great beers when we acquired them, and the purpose of the partnership is for them to continue to make great beers that now more people can enjoy.”
As John Craven of BevNet pointed out in a tweet:
Has any brewery that's been acquired by AB-InBev taken a turn for the worse post-acquisition?— John Craven @ BevNET (@BevNETCraven) January 23, 2015
But it may not exactly be sunny skies and pints-a-flowing going forward, as a regulatory battle between craft brewers and AB InBev in Kentucky is brewing regarding beer distribution. AB InBev is trying to purchase more distributors beyond its current two in the state, though independent brewers are concerned it could shut them out of the market. While a House committee approved a bill that would force AB InBev to sell its distributors and block it and other brewers from taking control of any going forward, it's unclear what will happen come its turn at the House floor.
That aside, Goeler certainly has a lot on his plate — err, in his glass — going forward.
“Between bringing 10 Barrel and Elysian into the portfolio, I plan to be pretty busy for the foreseeable future,” he says. “That said, we’re really excited about the new Goose Island barrel-aging warehouse and the work that Blue Point is doing around cask-conditioned beers. We’re investing a lot into our craft brands and I think beer drinkers will be excited to taste the results down the road.”