On Brewery Independence

I walked into the almost-finished Stonecloud Brewing taproom on the morning of May 3rd, and greeted the owner, Joel, who quickly blurted out, “Did you hear the news? Wicked Weed sold to AB.”

I was stunned. My wife and I had just gotten back from a trip to Asheville a few weeks before. During that trip, I felt like I saw the whole spectrum of my industry; from Sierra Nevada, who, though a giant craft brewery, has remained independent and committed to quality and integrity for 37 years, to new, exciting breweries like Hi-Wire and Burial, each with awesome taprooms, cool vibes, and great beer. And there was Wicked Weed. My wife and I spent our first afternoon in Asheville at the Wicked Weed Funkatorium enjoying flights of sours and having great conversation. We later spent a few evenings drinking beer at the original pub location with friends in the industry. We talked about everything: where the craft beer market is headed, draft systems and service quality, and a million other geeky subjects. The beer was awesome, the atmosphere was perfect, and we all felt at home. This was the industry we all worked our asses off for. In that moment we didn’t know it, but we were proud. I was proud.

For most folks, Wicked Weed selling out to AB-InBev isn’t big news, but for us, for those of us in the industry or those who support craft beer and call it our own, this news is extraordinarily tough. One of my employees said it well: “It feels personal.” He’s right. It feels very personal.

I’ve watched many friends over the years fight and claw to make something for themselves in this industry, almost always starting from nothing. Several of them have grown to be quite successful and make great beer. The craft beer industry in Oklahoma is in a period of fantastic growth and exploration, and is already making a significant and positive economic impact. That’s due to the effort of a whole lot of people who deeply love what they do and have worked nonstop for a long time. The same is true for pretty much every craft brewery out there. It’s not an easy gig, and success means giving it everything you have.

And, hey, that’s nice and inspiring and all, but if one business cashes in on their hard work and sells to a big corporation, isn’t that their prerogative as owners? Haven’t they earned that big payout? That’s a hard question to answer succinctly and, honestly, I’m probably not qualified to give the right answers. I know my feelings on it, but, like I said, it feels very personal. I have a hard time being truly objective (though I certainly try). I have linked some articles below that I think do a good job of explaining why supporting independent craft beer matters. If you’re a beer consumer, or if this conversation matters to you for any reason, please give them a read.

The day after the announcement about Wicked Weed, I heard that Lagunitas had sold the other half of its business to Heineken (they had previously sold 50% to Heineken in September of 2015).  When they initially sold the first half, there seemed to be valid arguments that it was a distribution deal to get their brand into global markets, in the hopes of growing American craft beer’s reach internationally. At the time, I thought about not carrying the brand at Oak & Ore, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt. I feel now that was a mistake.

The news about Lagunitas didn’t really phase me too much, at least, not in the way that the Wicked Weed acquisition did. Then I realized I had received a keg of Lagunitas Waldo that I had “pre-ordered” that was in the cooler. Well, if I’m going to stand firm on my principle of only supporting truly independent craft breweries, then what the hell am I supposed to do with that keg?

For those who may not know, there have been a LOT of buyouts in the last 5+ years. A bunch of those brands have made it to Oklahoma recently. I’m very likely going to piss off some certain suppliers here, but you should know that these labels are all currently owned by AB-InBev: 10 Barrel, Golden Road, Goose Island, Elysian, and Blue Point. Ballast Point is also about to hit Oklahoma distribution. It sold last year to Constellation Brands - a huge conglomerate that owns Corona, Pacifico, and more – for an impressive sum of one billion dollars.

These brands are popular and well-known, so they take up a lot of shelf and tap space. Their new owners will be, or already are, pushing for them to take up even more. That’s shelf and tap space that crowds out local and other independent craft brands, who simply can’t compete against multi-billion-dollar forces. That’s where you and I come in.

It is more important than ever to know where your beer comes from. At Oak & Ore, we are fully committed to only serving independent, craft beer. All of this recent news has only reinforced that commitment. 

So back to that Lagunitas keg. I struggled about what to do with it. I guess maybe I could send it back, but it has been a few weeks since I got it. It’s kind of a jerk move, and a bit of extra trouble. But I had another idea.

I’ve decided to tap it this weekend, starting May 13th, and ALL of the money from the sale (after taxes) will go to the Craft Brewer’s Association of Oklahoma. That will be the last time Lagunitas will be poured from the taps at Oak & Ore. Please join us, and dedicate your glass to a strong future for craft beer in our state.



Owner, Oak & Ore