Portland Kettle Works & Labrewatory Owner Endorses AB/InBev While Criticizing Brewers Association

This is the first Hop-Ed column, The New School’s opinion section.

Local brewery owners and brewhouse/tank fabricators Portland Kettle Works have incited some controversy by throwing their support to Anheuser-Busch/InBev while criticizing the Brewers Association.

In an emailed statement, (also posted to its blog,) Portland Kettle Works and The Labrewatory owner Thad Fisco uses a meeting with Brewers Association members to frame his criticism. The lengthy defense of InBev and other large brewers by Fisco dropped at the same time small brewers are gathering in Denver for the Craft Brewers Conference, which is produced by the BA. The Brewers Association is a not-for-profit industry trade group representing small and independent brewers. The BA has championed the use of the words “craft beer” and brewery, independent brewer and the “Independence Matters” campaign.

“Anheuser-Busch, Heineken, Constellation Brands, MillerCoors, Mahou San Miguel, Kirin, Asahi and the other big players are fully invested and very engaged in the business of craft beer” writes Fisco.

In my own emailed response I asked Fisco how he can defend their anti-competitive assaults on craft beer by throttling distribution and shelf placements, as well as documented pay-to-play strategies. Rather than address these isssues directly, I was directed to comment on the PKW blog.

The competition is healthy and helps to drive innovation and quality throughout the industry.”

asserts Fisco, of InBev and other major corporate players influence.

The pro-corporate beer argument basically amounts to the idea that they are bringing more fans into the fold who will enjoy craft or “premium” beers, thus increasing craft’s market share. The entire argument hinges on the BA’s stated goal of 20% market share, a lofty goal that ultimately is just a meaningless marker if it’s counting corporate mass produced product.

While the BA is engaged in protectionism, AB InBev is experimenting and redefining the market in an effort to remove barriers to entry for the 80% of non-craft beer drinkers.  Independent brewers have a lot to learn from their efforts to grow demand in an increasingly competitive business,” writes Fisco.

I spoke to Sam Holloway, founder of Crafting A Strategy and board member of Oakshire Brewing, who is mentioned heavily in Fisco’s letter. Holloway disagreed that Fisco was letting ABInBev off the hook.

“I don’t think Thad’s email was a full endorsement of AB InBev, far from it,” – Sam Holloway.

However, Fisco’s impassioned defense of InBev does not once mention any criticism of their tactics, in fact just the opposite.

The evidence shows that the big brewers are not out to destroy craft beer, craft beer drinkers, or craft breweries.”

Fisco is apparently ignoring the numerous documented occasions of their shady dealings and repeated out in the open media assaults on craft beer.

“AB InBev and the other large breweries that have invested in premium beer offerings are helping raise all boats”

That’s a theory that may have once been true and that the late-great Don Younger subscribed to, but that was when we had a couple dozen breweries in Portland. Not approaching 100. And as we have seen in recent years in Oregon, (and across the country) the surge of brewery openings and InBev and Miller-Coors buyouts are pinching the bottom line and putting breweries out of business. It’s simply not true that AB/InBev’s investment in premium beer is raising all boats, more like its wake is sinking them, or at least making those ships take on water.

The New School’s Eugene correspondent Aaron Brussat weighs in:

“Growth in business is a measure of success.”Yes, well that’s one measure of success. Another measure may be how good your beer is, or how you support your local community, or how many facebook followers you have. That statement is almost meaningless unless applied to a specific instance, and while more money sometimes equals more success, I think you can use the WalMart example of putting thousands of small businesses out of business and taking money out of communities that growth in business also has negative consequences. Amalgamation of business on a large scale, with its purported efficiencies, eliminates the fractal effect of having many small, specialized businesses that may not be the most efficient but that produce dollars, jobs, and intangible positive effects on the people who work for and patronize those businesses.

Dude, this is crazy. Though I don’t agree with the BA’s re-definition of craft to continuously include Boston Beer even though it’s a publicly traded company (and thus not independent – which I think is/should be shorthand for “independently owned”), this statement of support by a relatively small business is ridiculous and it sounds like they’ve drunk the $Kool-Aid$ and are angling to be purchased by a large brewery conglomerate.

What happened to the BA’s 20% by 2020? That’s obviously not going to happen, though it might if it decided to take the AB pill and include all the “craft beer” it produces. But who fucking cares about a round number? Despite its flaws, the BA does present a threat to the capitalist paradigm that is bolstered by the current administration, and that is exactly what the economy and beer industry need in order to prevent corporatocracy and monopoly under the guise of a diverse portfolio. “Craft” is not part of a portfolio, especially if that portfolio also includes Bud Light; how is that not completely obvious to everyone? It’s the ouroboros of beer. Budweiser eats its young.

Add to that, and shame on PKW for supporting a business that would do this, the latest lawsuit against AB InBev for intentionally mimicking the brandingof another beer and another company: Patagonia. No regrets on AB’s part because it, like Heineken USA does when it gives away its draught systems in Washington State, can just pay some millions-of-dollars fines no problem, all the while maintaining its innocence. If that represents PKW’s imagination of what craft beer is, maybe the real craft breweries who purchase their products should think again.

The BA is a not-for-profit, and is run by a board of directors with term limits (basically the opposite of the companies PKW is supporting; do you even Brito, bro?). If there is enough of a voice to move it in a different direction by consensus, then it will. So get in there. 

Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

Aaron Brussat
Aaron Brussat

Aaron Brussat is a complex living organism with an interest in all things fermented. He started writing about and working in the beer industry in 2010. His experience stems primarily from spending six years at The Bier Stein as a beer steward, homebrewing since 2005, and passing the BJCP and Certified Cicerone exams. Highlights along the way include numerous collaborations with local brewers, curating beer dinners at The Bier Stein, and traveling to Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Peru, and New Zealand (as well as many parts of the U.S.) for a chance to drink beer at the source.

Discussion

  • Thad Fisco
    Thad Fisco
    Mon Apr 15, 2019 8:59 AM

    Ezra – There is a lot more to this conversation. I would urge your readers to look at the original article and think about what is being said.

    In the context of this discussion we are doing our best to view the business of craft beer from an objective viewpoint, as devoid of emotion and politics as possible. Through that lens, the only thing that matters is the well-being of the stakeholders in the industry. The current BA definition and misleading statistics stand to damage the industry in ways that are almost completely ignored in the current conversation.

    If negativity permeates the conversation around craft beer, (and the conversation is very negative at the moment) we will find that forces outside of our business will listen and react accordingly. Landlords will be less inclined to lease to breweries, and maybe move to more enticing tenants like marijuana businesses, banks will tighten lending standards, and pile covenants on loans with higher interest rates, an outcome that will affect every part of the industry. New entries in the form of innovative and energized entrepreneurs will move away from the business.

    Times have changed. Our problems are shrinking market share, wine, weed and spirits, and the total lack of a strategic plan to deal with a host of forces that are only now becoming known. What happens when weed is legal in 30 or 40 states and an edible replaces a few beers?

    https://www.portlandkettleworks.com/2019/04/08/craft-beer-is-not-depressed-but-the-brewers-association-may-be/

    • Drew
      Drew
      Mon Apr 15, 2019 1:34 PM

      I think what a lot of us find repulsive about your position is literally “doing [y]our best to view the business of craft beer from an objective viewpoint, as devoid of emotion and politics as possible.” I started in this industry because of all the men and women I admired who went after it for the craft, not to make as much money as possible by chasing trends and waving away unethical practices by multi-nationals. No one’s stopping you from grabbing your cash, but acting like you’re doing it for the betterment of us small time brewers is disingenuous at best. It’s showing, and none of your dead corporate speak is going to change that. If the crop gets smaller, those of us who planned on it will survive the winter. The mentality of GROW GROW GROW is what’s going to kill off a lot of breweries in the end, and we’re seeing it happen already.

      • Al
        Al
        Wed Apr 17, 2019 1:34 PM

        Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But if your “best interests” depend on sales to craft brewers, maybe STFU about your customers “best interests”. If this opinion came out naturally in a conversation or interview it’d be one thing. But to essentially knock at your customers door and preach that “the big guys aren’t that bad and maybe you’re the problem”, seems like a really stupid thing to do. My equipment shopping just got easier.

        • PA
          PA
          Wed Apr 17, 2019 3:01 PM

          I think you’re missing the overall point. Its about how craft beer is viewed by all consumers, not just those of us who are already committed to craft beer. If the BA continues to produce statistics that show craft beer is losing market share, then there could be damaging consequences to the industry. By not including production volumes from Founders, Avery, Wicked Weed, Brooklyn Beer, etc we are not seeing the whole picture. The more craft beer grows, the more opportunity there is for small independent brewers to succeed. If someone in rural Kansas can now get there hands on a 10 Barrel IPA at their local store, what are the chances the next time they want a beer they will head down to their local tap room? Once at the tap room, they will find that beer is much more than just what comes out of the can or bottle, its about an experience and a sense of community. To me the point was not to embrace AB and their tactics, but to use them to grow the industry as a whole. Independent brewers are the heart and soul of the industry and the more the rest of the 80% of the population not drinking craft beer at the moment see that, then the more opportunity there is for the current breweries and the many more in planning.

      • Andrew
        Andrew
        Mon Apr 15, 2019 5:11 PM

        I think your comment about “the only thing that matters is the well-being of the stakeholders in the industry,” tells us all we need to know about what you think is the most important aspect of the craft-beer industry.

        • Evan
          Evan
          Mon Apr 15, 2019 7:05 PM

          PKW is right. I don’t care who owns it, if you claim that Bourbon County Stout or any number of other beers are somehow “not craft” or not “authentic” because they’re owned by AB Inbev, your position is inherently disingenuous.

          Who cares if you don’t like some of the beers in any given company’s portfolio? Personally, I think Heady Topper is a grossly overrated dime a dozen IPA, and that it’s boring. That doesn’t mean that The Alchemist isn’t a good brewer, it just means that they focus on an overdone, boring style.

          The biggest threat to craft beer isn’t the macrobreweries. It’s the tens of thousands of virtually identical IPAs. They’re killing creativity and selection. 7-8 years ago, you’d walk into a bottle shop and find a wide selection of diverse styles of beer – English and Belgian styles, all kinds of good stuff. Now? 90% of the shelf space is taken up by IPAs that differentiate themselves by coming up with clever names, and with label art. And I’d rather have a Bourbon County Stout/Barleywine or a Wicked Weed sour than any of that swill any day of the week.

          The craft beer market will survive big breweries so long as it remains diverse and innovative. It won’t survive as long as the majority of breweries continue to put out cookie-cutter copies of each others’ products.

          You want the industry to grow? Try some more mixed fermentations, some more bitters and brown ales and barleywines, some more Eastern European and Scandinavian styles. Enough with the IPAs, they’re boring. And session IPAs and Brut IPAs and all the other spins on IPA you can possibly come up with, those are boring too. IPA is a played out style, and coming up with new, experimental hop varieties doesn’t help. I like homebrewing with Norwegian kveik yeast, but all the commercial brews I’ve seen using kveik just wasted its potential by smothering it with hops in yet another boring IPA.

          IPAs aren’t the only problem either, just the biggest one. Kettle sours and Mexican lagers are also lame. As for Mexican lagers, nobody wants “good Corona”, and it isn’t that good anyway. Just because one brewery did it doesn’t mean that everyone else has to follow suit. Kettle sours have their place, a gose or Berliner Weisse can be pretty good, but again, breweries are overdoing it, and the results are boring. There are few things better than a barrel aged sour, and kettle sours are a flaccid mockery of what a sour should be.

          So yeah, clean out your own house before worrying about what the big breweries are up to.

          • Dustin Christ
            Dustin Christ
            Tue Apr 16, 2019 12:41 PM

            Bummer. Labrewatory was a favorite spot of mine. In a city with plenty of options, I’ll default to the ones that treat their employees well and don’t cheer on InBev. This seems like whoring to me…but hey…you do you.

            Thad, are you bitching about weed? Seriously? The markets barely overlap.

            As for gripey McSour above me, I agree with some of your sentiment but you are sanctimonious as hell. Market dictates availability and your opinions are yours: quit pretending like your taste is anything more than the next guy. Stop speaking for the customer base when you’re an outlier.

            Prost!