Earlier this month, the California-based craft beer powerhouse Lagunitas Brewing Company announced that it was entering into a “joint venture” and/or “powerful new partnership” with Heineken International, a Dutch corporation that, in addition to putting skunky pale lagers into transparent green bottles under its own name, owns “over 170 beer brands” in “more than 70 countries,” trailing only the Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors in global beer sales. Heineken will now own a 50 percent stake in Lagunitas, which will make use of Heineken’s international distribution channels while continuing to “operate independently,” according to the press release.
Lagunitas is hardly the first American microbrewery to surrender its sovereignty, in whole or in part. Notably, Chicago’s formerly independent Goose Island Brewery has since 2011 belonged fully to AB InBev, whose more recent acquisitions include Elysian Brewing Company and 10 Barrel Brewing Co. in Washington State and Oregon, respectively.
Lagunitas founder Tony Magee has stated that he would never have agreed to a buyout from AB InBev or MillerCoors (the latter of which, apart from its ownership of Wisconsin’s historical Leinenkugel brewery and an insignificant share of Georgia’s Terrapin Beer Company, hasn’t shown much interest in American craft beer), no matter the money involved, since, according to Magee, those conglomerates are “essentially holding companies, bankers by any measure. Heineken is still a brewer first.”
Heineken’s flagship product may have slightly more credibility among beer snobs than Budweiser, Miller, or Coors, but it has substantially less than that of the Belgian brewing company Duvel Moortgat, whose broadening empire recently overtook Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City and Brewery Ommegang in New York—two operations equal to Lagunitas in esteem, if not quite in popularity.
Nevertheless, the Lagunitas deal is important because it is (or was) the sixth-largest craft brewer in the United States and thus the macros’ largest acquisition to date from that particular corner of the global beer market. It is also—among Ommegang, Boulevard, Goose Island, and Elysian—by far the most specifically American product, famous primarily for its extremely hoppy IPAs.
The American IPA comprises our country’s most distinctive and important contribution to the international brewing tradition.
Thus, depending on your perspective, the Lagunitas sale may signify the beginning of an exciting new chapter within the grassroots success story of American craft beer—whose homegrown flavors will now have a chance to reach virtually every corner of the earth—or it may simply strike you as a sellout.
The quality of the American IPA depends more upon its freshness than perhaps any other style of beer, so to “go global” with a great West Coast IPA, like Hop Stoopid or Lagunitas Sucks, may represent a challenge so complicated and expensive as to necessitate the utilization of a larger corporation’s resources—or it may be, by its very nature, a losing battle that, for Lagunitas, will result in a forfeiture of quality control and a “diluted brand,” even if Heineken really makes good on its promise not to interfere with Lagunitas’ recipes or creative team, which (ultimately) it probably won’t.
It’s worth noting that, so far, from a drinker’s perspective, the increasing corporatization of American craft beer hasn’t wrought any tangibly disastrous consequences: Goose Island and Boulevard both still make great products, for instance. The question as to whether these companies have nonetheless made the “wrong” choice depends in large part on whether you view American craft beer as a product or as a culture: for many of the trendsetters who initially rejected Budweiser in favor of their local brewery, it was as much about supporting smaller, kinder, more environmentally conscious businesses as it was about the taste.
Ironically, one of the most vocal propagators of the antiauthoritarian, DIY ethos of American craft beer was Lagunitas’ Tony Magee—whose “partnership” with Heineken, in addition to his ridiculous, abortive lawsuit against Sierra Nevada’s Hop Hunter IPA, suggests that he was essentially a capitalist in hippie’s clothing the whole time. More broadly, it may suggest that, all along, the “culture” of craft beer was itself a product: a calculated, sanctimonious, profit-oriented rebelliousness in which the endgame was not to overthrow the corporations—or to provide a sustainable alternative—but to join them. Even in the Heineken press release, Lagunitas announced, amid words like “integrity” and “family-owned,” that it could now “export the exciting vibe of American Craft Beer globally”—not the product, but the “vibe.”
I would argue that “vibes” simply are not exportable; if they are, then they weren’t real vibes to begin with.
In the coming years, we’ll get to see what a lot of small American brewers are made of, ethically speaking. Before the Heineken deal, Lagunitas already owned two large brewing facilities, in California and Illinois, and shipped all over the country. The serious locavores had surely stopped caring about them years earlier, and they may not perceive the news of Lagunitas’s buyout as a threat to their beloved farmhouse nano-brewery around the corner. They may have the right idea. But my own feeling is that “craft beer culture” is a real thing—a fragile, fuzzy entity without which, however, your beloved farmhouse nano-brewery wouldn’t exist—and that not every microbrewery has to sell out in order to destroy it.