Industry News

Vancouver Taproom Says Goodbye to AB InBev and MillerCoors

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For The Thirsty Sasquatch GM and beer-buyer, Ben Davenport, the discussion and debate on whether to put beers owned by AB InBev or MillerCoors reached its final straw last week. That last straw was a set of statements made by Pete Marino and Paul Verdu in AdAge. Marino is the president of MillerCoors’ “craft” and imports division called Tenth and Blake – the equivalent to AB InBev’s “The High End.” Verdu is Tenth and Blake’s VP of Sales and Marketing.

The Thirsty Sasquatch made its decision public on Facebook to thunderous applause (which is what hundreds of people clicking LIKE and commenting must sound like). Here’s what the Facebook statement read:

After a lot of debates and thoughts, we at The Thirsty Sasquatch have made a decision to no longer purchase anything fully owned by The High End (ABIn-Bev) or Tenth & Blake (MillersCoors). We will sell through our existing inventory, but no new items will be purchased.

…Statements made by both companies… are insulting the intelligence of the consumer and the beer buyer. Here at The Thirsty Sasquatch, we celebrate the diversity in craft beer, and want to highlight the best of breweries not trying to destroy local markets.

Reaction was quick and wildly positive. Locals like Phil Mitchell wrote in, “I approve of this action. Very much!” While another regular Eric Bowman stated, “Couldn’t agree more with your decision. Cheers!”

Even folks from the brewing industry lauded the decision. Wally Wakeman of Vancouver nano-brewery Brother Ass expressed his gratitude, “Thank you! Well done.” And brewery co-founder Ben Parsons exclaimed, “Hell yes!! Cheers from Baerlic Brewing Co.!!”

Staff from other local taprooms, like Tap Union Freehouse and 3Peaks Public House, who share in holding the same standard of refusing big beer products, offered friendly jabs with a wink and a nod. Corey Roberts of 3Peaks commented, “About time,” with a kissy-face emoji.

It can be semi-tiring standing in front of a craft beer section now. It’s the paradox of choice: There are so many options, what am I going to choose? -Paul Verdu, VP of Sales & Marketing for Tenth and Blake

A Commitment to Choice and A Commitment to the Best

While the decision came the same week that the Brewers Association unveiled the #TakeCraftBack campaign to buy AB InBev and local SW Washington brewers named 3 other local taprooms their 2017 Northbank Champion for supporting local beer, Davenport says neither of these items played a role in the decision. “Just a coincidence,” Davenport shared. The brazen attitude of Pete Marino’s statements was truly the deciding factor. Hearing that sort of language from the top brass of MillerCoors was simply unacceptable to The Thirsty Sasquatch team.

You’ve got to start thinking about building and driving a brand. We are still fearful that the beer category will become like the wine aisle. We are going to be punching hard against brand development. -Pete Marino, President of Tenth and Blake

“He made it sound like beer drinkers can’t be educated and that we have too many choices,” shared Davenport. “The whole thing about beers becoming ‘wine-ified’ – that’s just ridiculous.” Marino predicts that the lack of knowledge around craft beer will lead to it being sold like wine, in broad style categories as you see on a supermarket wine aisle.

The Thirsty Sasquatch opened April 15th, 2015–Tax Day, when America most needs a drink. It’s not just a beer bar, in that it also serves Washington-based crafted whiskeys & bourbons, an area where it’s always had a focus on local. In fact, The Thirsty Sasquatch’s local craft beer offerings have never been in short supply. The taproom rarely carries AB InBev or MillerCoors products. “Our commitment has always been to bring in the best beer possible – no matter who made it,” stated Davenport.

The prime example of bringing in the best beer possible in spite of it’s corporate affiliation is this: Since opening, The ‘Squatch has held events with an AB InBev brand, Goose Island. Most notably, the annual release of Bourbon County Stout – affectionately known by its followers as “BCS”. Goose Island was purchased in its entirety by AB InBev in 2011. Since then, the famous barrel-aging program has been a bright spot in The High End’s portfolio. Despite its direct ownership by the $213 billion beer behemoth, BCS attracts a craft crowd. However, what the craft crowd can’t see is the pressure put on taprooms and pubs to sell an undisclosed amount of Goose Island product in order to qualify to acquire BCS and its variants once a year. The resulting BCS release event for a taproom can be a huge reward, both financially and in raising said beer bar’s clout among the BCS hunters.

“They’re always dangling a carrot,” Davenport sighed. “You don’t really know where you stand. [The AB InBev distributor or sales reps] will say things like, ‘You might fall off the allocation list [for BCS] if you don’t order this.'” No one has ever provided a copy of this allocation list nor has it been communicated what, exactly, the qualifications for the list are. But the frustration doesn’t end there. Davenport shares that, in 2016, The Thirsty Sasquatch was offered 1/6bbl kegs of Goose Island’s IPA for as low as $39 – a steal in terms of name brand quality and the amount of beer. An offer like that is hard to pass up, but harder still for any independent craft brewery to compete with. This was another point of contention for The Thirsty Sasquatch’s team.

In-Whole vs. In-Part

The Thirsty Sasquatch’s refusal to carry AB InBev and MillerCoors products exists where big beer owns 100% of a former craft brewery. Brands that are 100% owned by ABinBev include Goose Island, Elysian, 10 Barrel, Wicked Weed, Breckenridge, Golden Road, Devil’s Backbone, Four Peaks and Karbach, in addition to beers you may have guessed were not craft, such as Labatt, Stella Artois, Beck’s, Bass, Spaten, and others recognizable from magazine and TV ads. Brands founded or acquired by MillerCoors or Tenth & Blake include Hop Valley, Crispin Cider, Revolver, Jakob Leinenkugel, Saint Archer, and Terrapin, alongside international brands like George Killian’s Irish Red, Pilsner Urquel, Blue Moon, and Birra Peroni.

“I’m still a big fan of Widmer as trail blazers for what they’ve done for craft beer here locally,” revealed Davenport. “They’re not completely owned by AB and they still have my support.”

Widmer Brothers Brewing was founded in 1984 by Kirk and Rob Widmer. The brewery’s Hefeweizen led to the Brewers Associations creation and definition of “American Hefeweizen” as a style. You won’t have to look far to meet someone who points to one of Widmer’s offerings as their “gateway beer” into the world of craft beer. It’s now widely available across the nation with a firm commitment to quality.  Widmer Brothers sold 32.2% to AB InBev in 2007 as a part of Craft Brew Alliance, Inc (CBA) (Nasdaq: BREW). The CBA deal also includes Kona Brewing and Redhook Brewery. The CBA and AB InBev restructured the deal in 2016 to start producing 300,000 barrels of CBA beer annually at AB InBev’s 19 factories nationwide. To put that in perspective, the combined total of barrels brewed in Washington State’s 334 craft breweries in 2016 was 467,270, the 14th most in the nation according to the Brewers Association.

Photo Credit: The Thirsty Sasquatch via Facebook

You can find The Thirsty Sasquatch’s cozy 28-tap taproom & bottleshop and wide-open outdoor back patio in Vancouver, Washington’s Uptown Village at 2110 Main Street.

Michael Perozzo is a life-long resident of Southwest Washington and a beer-loving father of 4. At his day job, he leads a digital marketing team supporting food/beverage clients at ZZoom Media. Michael helped start Brewcouver – the passport to Vancouver’s breweries – and co-founded North Bank Beer Week. Portland Trail Blazers fans may remember him as DarthBlazer.