When California’s Stone Brewing Co. announced their “True Craft” fund back in 2016, it was with the usual bluster for a company that has built its reputation on a bold, in-your-face attitude. The $100 million project was angled as a way for Stone to act as a guardian angel investor to small breweries (or even other food/drink enterprises) throughout the U.S., buying small, non-controlling stakes in breweries that needed capital to grow, but didn’t want to sell to the likes of AB InBev or MillerCoors. The announcement immediately generated tons of coverage, and still has a wikipedia entry all its own. The project was supposed to create a valuable alternative for breweries to seek investment, while avoiding cries of “sell out.”
And now, three years later, Stone has officially confirmed that True Craft is dead, having apparently never made any investments into small breweries. The statement from Stone co-founder Greg Koch is quite opaque, but it sounds like the company was never able to compete in terms of valuations in the way it wanted to.
“That hasn’t been active for some months,” said Koch, in reference to True Craft, speaking with the website PACIFIC San Diego. “It was an idea that never came to fruition.”
Back when the $100 million fund was first announced, Koch was saying the following:
“Some people start companies to sell out. Some start companies because they are compelled to follow their passion. True Craft is for the latter. Craft beer needs an alternative model to the one that requires founders to sell their company in its entirety. In a world in which there are constant forces toward homogenization and fitting in, I specifically want to foster a world of uniqueness, depth and character.”
It would seem, however, that either no breweries wanted to take True Craft up on its offer, which seems unlikely, or that True Craft was unable to match offers from private investment or larger companies such as AB InBev. In particular, Koch mentioned buyouts by AB InBev and Constellation Brands—whose infamous purchase of Ballast Point for $1 billion in 2015 set the high bar on over-valuation.
“We’ve spent an enormous amount of time working behind the scenes, because that’s how this kind of thing works,” Koch said then, in 2017. “The unfortunate fact of the matter is that some of the valuations coming from the buyouts by companies such as Constellation Brands and AB InBev have skewed the market.”
Still, one would think that True Craft probably could have functioned as an investor for smaller-scale breweries than the likes of Devil’s Backbone or Wicked Weed—breweries that AB InBev wouldn’t have had any interest in acquiring. It’s hard not to wonder if the closure of True Craft, and the presumed reclamation of its $100 million fund, might have more to do with the fortunes of Stone itself, which sold its Berlin brewery to Brewdog this April after admitting that they’d bitten off more than they could chew. Was the closure of True Craft as simple as the parent company needing that funding money back? We’ll likely never know, as Stone isn’t exactly going to be bringing up True Craft as a talking point in the future. It will remain an interesting case of what could have been for the craft beer industry.