#CraftBeeringIsCaring: Supporting Those Who Support the Community
It is remarkable how much good beer (and I mean very good beer) is available to a beer buyer right now. I could write up at least 3 or 4 stellar draft lists (each 29 taps with a broad range of styles like at Monk’s) that maintain top quality without repeating a beer. There is a reason that this is so. The craft beer industry’s success over the last decade is a direct result of the collaborative spirit that has been a prevailing force in the industry. Those on the forefront of this wave of growth (Vinnie, Tomme, Lauren, Greg, Jeffers and Matt—to name a few) were trailblazers; more importantly, they left breadcrumbs behind to grow the industry through its quality. But we are at a crossroads and major potential dangers are showing their head. One huge risk is a market correction due to saturation, in which even some good breweries don’t survive a crowded market. Another danger is more systemic and has the potential to do major and lasting harm to the industry on the whole: monopolistic ownership.
We realize that we, as a retailer, have a responsibility to ensure that we are doing our part to support the greater craft beer community. When we opened (almost) ten years ago, my job as a beer buyer was to seek out and get access to the best beer: to ensure the quality of the beer on the beer list. Now, with the dramatic shifts in brewery ownership, it has become my responsibility to ensure the quality of the company behind the beer as well. We retailers, when creating our beer lists, declare our support for the producers represented. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that our support is reserved for the companies whose ethics match our own. As such, we at the Monk’s Kettle are recommitting ourselves to solely supporting companies that respect competition and whose business practices benefit the industry on the whole.
Over the last few years, shifts in ownership have taken a variety of forms: outright acquisitions, mergers, partnerships, partial ownership buyouts and private equity investments. It has at times been difficult to sort through the various ownership configurations and draw a clear line. That said, there has been one company that has stood above all in their predatory and imperial practices: Anheuser-Busch InBev, the multi-national corporation that last month essentially shut off the supply of South African hops to American breweries that are not Anheuser-Busch InBev.
Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) is a company that was created in 2008 when the Belgian conglomerate InBev (itself a merger of the Belgian Interbrew and the Brazilian AmBev) acquired Anheuser-Busch. Around this time, the craft beer sector began seeing exponential growth and so the company began a multi-pronged strategy to gain market share and suppress competition with craft. This tactic has included a multitude of mergers and acquisitions of breweries, hop farms and distribution channels to gain greater leverage and control of shelf space and tap handles.
The company’s first major acquisition of smaller craft breweries was Chicago’s Goose Island in 2011. It was a sale that jolted the industry and first exposed the company’s plan to gain market share through acquisitions, a strategy that continues to this day. The company’s next tectonic move was last year’s $100 billion merger with SAB Miller, which made it the largest beer company in the world. Included in that deal was SAB Miller’s subsidiary company, SAB Hop Farms, which supplies South African hops to ZA Hops, the American hop importer of South African hops. In early May (2017) it was announced that, “due to low yield,” the South African hops the farm harvests will be reserved for the ABI brands that use them and no surplus will be supplied to ZA Hops.
We feel this move crossed a line and presents a clear and present threat to the industry on the whole. This move clearly shows the very real dangers in this type of monopolistic ownership: a single company, through a series of mergers and acquisitions, is able to cut off the supply of valuable raw ingredients to all of its competitors. The effects of this can be seen locally, since several brewers with whom we work have used South African hops the last few years. Cellarmaker Brewing was one of the very first US brewers to use South African hops, while others like Alvarado Street and Temescal followed their lead; Alvarado Street is already out of these hops, while the others’ stock of them are dwindling with every use. ABI’s practices are dangerous and we fear for what comes next. Who is to say that the strategy of ingredient control does not end with these hops? What if this is another front they’ve opened up that they intend to pursue further and seek control of more popular hops used by the industry?
The local community is also currently affected in another way: the L.A. brewery Golden Road (bought by ABI in 2015) is working on a beer garden in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, a craft beer scene that includes Temescal Brewing, Hog’s Apothecary and others. We have great faith in small businesses, but worry about the long-term effects of competition with the largest beer company in the world. Especially here and now, when the entire industry is struggling with rising costs, a flooded market and a demographic with changing spending habits that are stressed by high living costs.
We felt compelled to speak out when all these things converged. These are somewhat tumultuous times in the craft beer industry, and our interest is in protecting its integrity. We are examining our relationships to ensure that we are supporting those with whom we share business ethics and standards.
On Saturday June 24th, 2017, we are hosting an event that reaffirms our commitment to the local brewers we work with. We as retailers want to work with those that foster a richer community and avoid those whose business practices create disadvantage for others. The event is designed to highlight our devotion to supporting local producers, celebrating their products and bringing attention to the challenges they are currently facing.
Firstly, we will be selling the last of the very few ABI products we have in-house and all the proceeds will be donated to our local brewers guild, San Francisco Brewers Guild. The Belgian brewery Bosteels sold to ABI last fall, and so we will sell the last remaining bottles of Tripel Karmeliet and their Biere de Champagne, DeuS. There will be no more Bourbon County Stout sold here: we’ll miss you—but we can’t in good conscience have you represented on our list any more.
More importantly, however, we want to celebrate the community of local brewers that we work with that are doing really good work. To honor those brewers, we will be pouring the following beers ($1/pint will also go to SF Brewers Guild):
Cellarmaker Hoppiness is Fleeting – cask dry hopped with South African hop “XJA436” (alongside regular draft of the base beer)
Temescal Local Passion (Pale Ale w/Southern Passion hops from South Africa)
Please join us when we open at noon on Saturday June 24th 2017 to celebrate the local craft beer community, and commit to better business ethics.