Brewing Crisis: When Craft Beer Hits the Big Time


DB beers
Photo: Heidi Crandall

On April 12, Devils Backbone, an independent brewery located in Nelson County, Virginia, announced they were being purchased by the biggest name in big beer, Anheuser-Busch InBev.

And then, the universe exploded.

Well, maybe not the entire universe. But if you follow craft beer, especially Virginia craft beer, you likely experienced an eruption of opinion across your news and social media feeds. Though the tone ranged from repulsed (“this is disgusting…a cancer in the bloodstream of good beer”) to resigned (“you will be much missed”), the largest, or at least the loudest, reaction from craft beer enthusiasts was that this was not a good thing, and would signal the decline of a quality craft product.

AB InBev’s recent acquisitions include Blue Point, Elysian, 10 Barrel, and Goose Island Breweries, among others. photo: Eric Helgas for Bloomberg Businessweek

What’s going on:

Devils Backbone is the eighth independent brewery that AB InBev (primarily known for not-so-craft beers like Budweiser, Corona, and Bud Light Lime-a-rita) has acquired since 2011. While their strategy is clearly born from business objectives—craft sales have soared while big beer brands have been steadily slipping—the relationship with the breweries they’ve acquired thus far seems to be more “supportive big brother” than “man-eating giant.” Overall, customers have reported no drop in quality while the brewers themselves have noted few changes outside of greater efficiency and more room to experiment.

So, if there’s no evidence to suggest the taste will suffer, what’s all the fuss about?

What’s really going on:

Ask 100 people what draws them to craft beer and you’ll get 100 different answers, but ultimately you can boil it down to three key features: quality, authenticity, and discovery.

And while we usually rationalize our decisions and opinions in terms of quality, it’s those other two factors that make us so attached to the beer we consume. There’s an authenticity inherent in craft breweries that makes them easy to love—local pride, two guys (or women) against the world, a palpable passion behind the product. All the while, an intoxicating sense of discovery draws us through the journey–from newbies trying their first flight to connoisseurs coveting the most obscure breweries.

Once we’ve made that discovery for ourselves, and once we’re emotionally invested in that narrative of authenticity, it becomes a part of our identity.  And that is why it stings so bad to see a local brewery “sell out.” It’s just like when your favorite underground band signs to a major label and suddenly becomes a house-hold name. The music hasn’t changed, but the context around it has (and nothing makes you question your coolness like hearing your mom sing along to your favorite song).

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For Devils Backbone and other breweries in their position, this is an end of an era. But their larger story is just beginning to unfold. Great brands are built around a purpose that rings true regardless of their size—just think of Apple, Kashi, Converse, Etsy, Ben & Jerry’s, and Patagonia, to name just a few. Shedding their underdog, under-the-radar status requires these breweries to double down on what makes them unique, and think a little harder on how to quench their customer’s thirst for quality, authenticity, and discovery.

With plans to build a scenic, 100-acre campsite around their brewpub at the base of the Blue Ridge mountains, it appears that Devils Backbone, whose brand has always championed a love of the great outdoors, is on the right path.

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