Within the world of craft beer fandom, there are a few debates that will never go away. The “crafty” selections produced by U.S. mega brewers are especially divisive. Put simply, it’s a question of whether these brews are something a person who attempts to support the craft brewing industry will choose to buy. It’s a question of whether or not taste is actually the most important factor in making a purchase as a consumer. Or are your purchases informed by other, less obvious factors?
Goose Island is my closest personal example. Since the Chicago brewer’s buyout by Belgian super-conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2011 (a $38.8 million deal), I’ve stopped buying their products, to the consternation of certain acquaintances. The decision, honest-to-god, has nothing to do with taste. Goose Island beers produced at their brewpub locations in Chicago are still winning medals every year at the Great American Beer Fest. I’m not going to claim anywhere in this piece that they’re now making substandard beer. But there’s more to my decision to eschew Goose Island than just how the product tastes.
What it boils down to in this instance is business practices. As the kingpin of the U.S. beer scene, AB InBev (along with SABMiller and Molson Coors) has done everything in its power to foster the worst possible environment for the craft brewing industry. On a surface level, it’s understandable business savvy, but the seedy underbelly is marked by dirty play.
In 2009, AB InBev first acquired a 30 percent ownership stake in Chicago-based liquor distributor City Beverage. To observers, this was a fairly obvious violation of the three-tier system of alcohol distribution enforced in 32 states, which keeps brewers, distributors and retailers separate. When AB InBev attempted to increase its ownership stake, the Illinois Liquor Commission stepped in to block the purchase. That’s when AB InBev filed suit, claiming that if they weren’t allowed to own a distributor, small craft brewers shouldn’t be able to distribute their own product. In a flash, a U.S. district court judge found in Anheuser’s favor, stripping small Illinois brewers of their ability to distribute the precious few barrels of beer they were able to produce. The law, previously in place to encourage the growth of small brewing operations, was dead.
Thus began a court battle lasting several years, as small brewers, led by the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild, fought to regain their lost ability to self-distribute. They eventually succeeded—partially. The law currently allows only breweries making less than 30,000 barrels per year to self-distribute, a fraction of the previous limit. Chicago brewers such as Revolution Brewing are poised to breeze past that number, creating a new host of logistical problems and expenses.
The suits at AB InBev are anything but fools. Once it became clear their attempt to circumvent the three-tier system wasn’t going to fly, their strategy became “Well, let’s take the craft brewers down with us if we can.” And their legal “carpet-bomb” succeeded in making Illinois a more difficult state to open a new, small craft brewery.
Other states have it significantly worse, thanks to political lobbying by the macro brewers. Take Alabama as ground zero—where beer stronger than 6% alcohol by volume was outlawed until 2009. Modern brewpub laws didn’t arrive until 2011, and the large format, 22 oz. bottles favored by many craft breweries, were illegal until 2012. Homebrewing was finally legalized just six months ago, putting the state only 35 years behind most of the country. And—surprise!—many of the legislators holding craft brewing legislation down received campaign contributions from Big Beer.
Want to hear what that sounds like in action? Listen to this clip of Alabama State Representative Alvin Holmes opposing the entry of new craft brewers into the state a few years ago. His entire “argument” consists of repeating “What’s wrong with the beer we got? It drink pretty good, don’t it?” over and over. It’s absolutely inane to think that this man was attempting to speak for what the residents of his state would want. Because as it turns out, “jobs in the craft brewing industry” was not one of the things they would want.
Historically, lobbying from those macro breweries initially brought on beer limitation in entire states such as Colorado, Kansas and Utah, where one can’t legally buy any beer in a supermarket stronger than 4.2% ABV. Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Coors Light are exactly 4.2% ABV—obviously not a coincidence.
As if that’s not enough, the macro brewers have been exposed for illegal practices on the retail and distribution ends of the spectrum as well. The results of a multi-year investigation by Crain’s Chicago Business found a myriad of evidence for “pay to play” in Chicago area bars, where the area’s primary distributors of Anheuser and Miller products allegedly made illegal payments and gifts of free beer to local bars in exchange for removing craft beers from their rotation. Figureheads of the craft brewing industry like Greg Koch of Stone Brewing were happy to go on the record exposing this dirty business, and I’d say he knows this marketplace far better than you or I.
All these factors make it an easy decision for me not to buy from AB InBev, SABMiller, Molson Coors or breweries owned by them. I am simply unwilling to support companies that are actively working to undermine the rest of the industry when I’m aware that each dollar I send toward a company like AB InBev could then be used to lobby against craft brewers.
I know this isn’t a priority to all craft beer drinkers, and that’s perfectly fine. For a lot of people, taste will remain the only factor that matters. But for every Goose Island beer I might have enjoyed before, I can think of a dozen other craft brewers that make something just as good. In an age where quality beer has become such a raging success, we are blessed with a startling variety of choices. And with my dollars, I’ll continue to support that independent spirit in any way I can.