Buyouts and reactions-to-buyouts

'Crash of the Titans', artist's conception of the night sky during an Andromeda-Milky Way merger (Public domain, credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), and A. Mellinger)
Now that’s a merger

So last week, Asahi bought Mountain Goat. And earlier this month Heineken bought half of Lagunitas, then the company which makes Budweiser acquired something called Golden Road, and just under three years prior to that Emerson’s was subsumed within Lion.1 Meanwhile: Russia re-annexed Crimea, Pixar has so far spent a decade in the belly of Disney, India smack-merged with the Eurasian Plate fifty-million-or-so years back and (geologically speaking) threw up the Himalayas, and in four billion years our galaxy will non-violently combine with Andromeda and send countless millions of worlds swirling into new orbits until something else supermassive comes along ― plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.

The details, ultimately, don’t hugely concern me.2 It’s all very much business as usual and the same old ebb and flow that’s been going on for yonks. It’d be PhD-level economics to figure out if it’s ‘ultimately’ been good or bad for consumer choice, and I suspect the answer is somewhere in the vicinity of “a little of both, from place to place and time to time, and basically a wash in the end”. As for the latest pair of newsworthy sellers and buyers, I have fond memories of Mountain Goat (but no real ongoing adoration) and Asahi are just another conglom (but aren’t on my boycott list since their machinations don’t seem anything beyond par for the course)3 ― so my reaction was a combination of a quiet huh, an eyebrow-raise, and a lazy shrug.4

For now, I just want to note that you don’t have to “wait and see” with these things. It is perfectly okay to decide that you’ll never again buy a Mountain Goat beer, just as it was totally legitimate for Hashigo Zake to stop buying Emerson’s as soon as the sale contract was signed. They were wrongly criticised for a “knee-jerk reaction” and encountered a strange kind of meta-snobbery that accused them of being pretentious when they were just pretty-obviously following a long-stated principle of only stocking “independent” beer, which Emerson’s suddenly wasn’t. If you care about ownership, you can make your decision on the day you learn about a change in ownership ― indeed, it’d be weird if you didn’t. People blindly predicting that the beer will be ruined are exactly as wrong as people dogmatically insisting that it’s (only) the flavour in the glass that counts. Ownership and scale don’t logically or historically correlate with quality and any number of buyouts have seen it improve5 ― but other things are relevant, if you want them to be.6 I’m not personally an absolutist on this, but you can have your own priorities. The pile of possible factors-to-consider is vast and includes regional origin, aesthetics, price, the people involved, the tenor of their marketing, and of course ownership and taste. Do with them (all!) what you will.

And yes, making buying decisions based on corporate ownership will always be fraught with tensions if not outright contradictions ― as Rob Ruminski succinctly pointed out ― but that’s just the way of it. Moral purity is probably impossible in the messy world of modern capitalism, but you set your own threshold and tolerance and you do your best.7 The hard part, most of the time, is actually learning the facts about these matters given how hard many companies work to obfuscate their origins. Here, there’s an announcement and everything. So it’s fine to react to that, as-is.

  1. If any of that is a little too inside baseball, those brewing companies are, in order: 1) a global conglomerate based in Japan which operates in New Zealand as “Boundary Road” among myriad other disguises; 2) an 18-year-old Melbourne-based brewery, pioneers in their field for sure and who had (by presumaby-massive coincidence) been contracting-out a lot of their production lately to an Asahi-owned facility; 3) a multinational based out of the Netherlands which is best-known in New Zealand as the parent of D.B., one half of the duopoly which long held sway here (until Asahi effectively made it a threesome); 4) a Californian brewery whose owner was for a long time an outspoken critic of the big producers and their acquisitions and who is therefore now a massive (if wealthy) hypocrite; 5) namely AB-InBev, a conglom of congloms formed relatively recently and already pondering merging with the likewise-agglomerated SAB-Miller; 6) a small-ish brewery in California which we all pretended to’ve heard about basically so we could keep talking about The Lagunitas Thing and Mergers In General; 7) a Dunedin brewery with an arguable claim to being New Zealand’s first craft brewery (but with too much class to stake it); and 8) D.B. & Co.’s long-running adversary and the local subunit of Kirin, another Japan-based consortium.
  2. Well, except for the geology the astronomy.
  3. Which is a little depressing, granted, but not my present concern.
  4. I’d just pause to agree with Matt Kirkegaard that this was probably inevitable, and also to note (not coincidentally) that Moa were unusually-vociferous in their congratulations to M.G., perhaps quietly hoping that their own bargain-basement share price looks appealing to Asahi…
  5. I think it’s unarguable that the things now branded as “Mac’s” by Lion are across-the-board superior to the beers that carried that name under McCashin-family stewardship. And there’s a case to be made that Emerson’s are materially benefiting from their new family’s technical know-how, as well. But still, you do see people claiming otherwise on both counts, and there were plenty of people rashly asserting that Mountain Goat beers would soon be crap. I’m not here to defend them.
  6. Indeed, I suspect there are very few people who actually only make judgements on the taste of the beer itself. And I wonder if they did exist whether they’d be weird people.
  7. BrewDog, for example, is my boycott list’s on-again-off-again second entry. But would I turn down a brewed-at-BrewDog Yeastie Boys beer? No, probably not. I could live with that.

11 thoughts on “Buyouts and reactions-to-buyouts”

  1. With every Revolution comes a creation , then a reaction , then Disparity , then Disharmony , then defection, then Re-Election with Affection and the Label and Bottle Remain the same? All in the name of Financial Gain?Just when we thought we were all the Same?Long live the Revolution !!!

    1. Yeah, I was in two minds about the monster first note! I was caught between not wanting to presume that all those names meant anything to everyone and not wanting to get bogged down in explaining them since my point was just that (in a sense, in the generalities at least) This Isn’t News.

  2. Golden Road are interesting. I first tried a couple of fairly mediocre offerings from them while bored to tears at LAX. One was notable for being one of the only technically faulted beers I’d had during a two week trip. The other was technically fine, just dull. On my most recent trip, I’d actually been planning to go to the brewery. A hugely enthusiastic Uber driver almost convinced me that it was a place of unicorns and rainbows, and would be SO much better than my actual plan for the day which included Monkish, Smog City, and El Segundo brewing. Maybe he’d have been right. I’ll never know. I DO know their beer had improved massively in a couple of years. I tried several at various locations, and they were flavourful, interesting, and very well made. I’m a little sad that their future will now play out very differently under corporate guidance. I’d been looking forward to see what they’d do on their own.

    As for Lagunitas, and hypocrisy, I’d not get too uptight about it. We’re all hypocrites to some degree at the end of the day, and if you listen to Magee discuss the what, why, and how of the deal, it’s actually pretty good for all involved. Opinions and ideals change. I think that’s a good thing.

  3. As per usual (I am nothing if not predictable), I turn to the wine industry when looking at craft beer trends, and what I see there both disturbs and satisfies, depending on the individuals. There are numerous instances of corporate wine (or more accurately, drinks) companies buying up promising boutiques and ripping the guts out of them. There are also one or two exceptions – where some serious players have managed to extract concessions from the multi national which genuinely do allow the winery to carry on as before. I am thinking of what happened with Petaluma Group, which Lion acquired and didn’t really do anything to, because the senior management stayed behind to preserve the culture. When you look at what Lion has done in NZ though with wine acquisitions it has not been as rosy…
    At the end of the day, product integrity, company vision and talented individuals are what count. There are plenty of privately owned, over hyped, hipster craft brewers in this country who could probably do with a corporate overlord. That said, the way the big brewers are trying to claim that they are craft brewers is not only laughable, but deeply disturbing. Be honest guys!

  4. Great balanced comment. Yes, one can still like the beer – Emersons and Black Dog for example, but in my listings I have put them into the Non-craft tab as they are technically not a craft brewer any more – Emersons Macs Monteiths, or never were – Black Dog. I guess the question is – as a writer, blogger, or freehouse bar etc, – does your policy or philosophy include supporting craft brewers, or big multinational corporatists, or both?

    I guess the other reality is that corporatists seem to be buying craft brewers as craft is growing and corporate brewing is bombing – In marketing terms, this says clearly that they are buying technical and marketing expertise and knowledge that they do not have. It also says that they don’t understand the beer market so they need to buy out someone who does.

    1. I was just about to say exactly what Greig already did. It’s not unheard-of that we’d be of the same mind, but it’s rare.

      There’s no settled definition, obviously. And I submit that if your definition of “craft” beer excludes Emerson’s, then your definition is broken. Like I’ve said before, the word “independent” already exists. There’s no reason to try and make it synonymous with “craft” ― and I don’t see any good reason to think it’s a necessary condition for something to be “craft”.

      I’m not dogmatically anti-multinationals, myself. If I was, I’d basically have no choice but to live off the grid at some kind of subsistence level. Which means I’d die quickly, given my lack of practical skills. And that doesn’t sound fun.

  5. DB must be looking at its range and noticing a great big, Emersons-shaped whole in its range, especially with the nice new brewery Lion is building in Dunedin.

    Black Dog was never intended to match Emersons. The size of the Black Dog plant and experience of its brewers would never make a fair fight.

    The wee Dog’s role is to offer tied bars a craft alternative in the range, effectively blocking independent bars access to DB customers.

    It has done this well enough, but I suspect the bars and their customers will not be satisfied with the tied-craft option for long.

    If anyone is looking at acquisitions in New Zealand, it will be DB, and it will be looking for an established craft brewer with national and international recognition, rather than a large brewery.

    Suggestions please…

    1. I’m not so sure. DB just don’t have form in that direction. Lion and Asahi do. If you look at their reactions on the tied-bar front, at least, Lion bought up Emerson’s to pad out their range when it became untenable; DB relaxed their tie back from 100% so a few non-DB lines could fill the gaps and satisfy growing demand for things they weren’t making. That’s a very different approach. Maybe it can’t last, but if they did snap someone up, that’d amount to a big change of course.

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