- AB InBev has moved into the digital publishing business by investing in websites that cover the beer industry. Members of these sites try new brews and discuss and sometimes rate them. The move by the world's largest brewer into the editorial business is raising conflict-of-interest questions and drawing criticism from the craft beer community, according to Advertising Age.
- The alcohol giant's incubator and venture capital unit ZX Ventures took a minority stake in RateBeer, a site that publishes consumer-driven beer ratings and stories on beer culture. The investment occurred last October but was recently found by another craft beer news site, Good Beer Hunting.
- Some craft breweries are concerned the investment could skew the results on the page in favor of the beer giant, removing the independent, unbiased voice that has made the websites popular.
RateBeer Executive Director Joe Tucker said in a statement on the publisher's homepage that the investment by AB InBev gives the fledgling website the "resources and infrastructure" it needs to grow.
"The focus of the agreement was on maintaining RateBeer’s value as an unbiased beer authority, retaining our operational independence, informing a whole new group of global consumers and keeping them excited about the beer," he said.
Asked about those concerns by Advertising Age, an AB InBev spokeswoman said the investment won't affect RateBeer's independence or ability to provide unbiased information.
Despite those assurances, there is skepticism within the craft beer community. ZX Ventures also has funded a beer culture magazine called October, and runs a site called The Beer Necessities.
Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head, said he was "troubled" by AB InBev's investment in RateBeer, calling it "a blatant conflict of interest." In a blog post, Calagione asked AB InBev to remove all Dogfish Head beer reviews and mentions on the RateBeer website immediately.
"It just doesn’t seem right for a brewer of any kind to be in a position to potentially manipulate what consumers are hearing and saying about beers, how they are rated and which ones are receiving extra publicity on what might appear to be a legitimate, 100% user-generated platform," he said.
The suspicion from Calagione and other craft breweries is not surprising given their rapid growth in recent years, and the interest larger beer companies have in acquiring them. The number of breweries in the U.S. has increased from 1,447 in 2005 to 5,005 at the end of 2016, much of it tied to craft brews. While the craft space is responsible for about 10% of domestic beer production in the U.S, it's still up significantly from a decade ago and stands in contrast to the big breweries who have seen shipments erode during that time.
With millennials gravitating toward craft beers — which have the bold and authentic flavors they crave — big brewers have little choice but to develop their own brands or look to acquire them.
AB InBev closed its purchase of craft brewery Devils Backbone last September, and two months later, announced it would buy Texas-based craft brewer Karbach Brewing Co., one of the fastest-growing U.S. craft beer brands. MolsonCoors also has bought several craft beer makers. "There is no law against it. Why wouldn't it be okay?" Pete Coors, vice chairman of Molson Coors, told Food Dive in April.
It's uncertain where AB InBev is going with its investment in RateBeer or any of the other beer-related publications. The industry is changing rapidly. If AB InBev is looking for a way to keep better informed about what is taking place, these deals could prove to be a shrewd investment. If AB InBev makes any attempt to suppress upstart craft breweries as some fear, there's a good bet many in the industry won't stay quiet about it for long.