Growth is a hard thing to understand sometimes. People encounter growth through numerous avenues, from physical to mental growth as you get older, to personal and business relationships later on in life. Unfortunately, there is a casualty to growth: you leave something behind. When you grow up physically, your old clothes don’t fit. When you grow up mentally, your childhood teddy bear or blanket get left behind, or that dream of becoming a spaceman or racecar driver starts to fade. Even when you leave a serious relationship, there is someone with strong feelings on the other side trying to grasp at what used to be.
Today, all Virginians felt that same feeling. In an announcement we had hoped would never come, Devils Backbone has agreed to become a part of AB InBev’s “The High End,” which is their collection of craft brewery “affiliates” from around the country. In essence, InBev will be helping to finance Devils Backbone to become a national brand, the same way they are working with Goose Island, Blue Point, and Kona.
First, let’s leave emotion out of this and look at it from a purely business perspective. This is a legit move by Devils Backbone. As a part owner of a business, I understand the need for DB to seek outside funding for this expansion. Boulevard, Lagunitas, Ommegang are all nationally recognizable brands along with the 3 above because they needed a business partner to be able to grow at an accelerated rate. In a market that is becoming ever more saturated with craft beer options, this is becoming more paramount if it is believed that there will be a “bubble” pop at some point in the near future. In addition, Devils Backbone will have a backer in their national expansion from a distribution side, not having to worry about getting squeezed out by the company that has been doing a lot of squeezing for decades.
And in all honesty, why shouldn’t Devils Backbone get bought out?
These guys are at the top of their game and have been for some time. I tried to find another brewery that has won 3 GABF Brewery or Brewpub of the Year Awards in 3 different categories and could not. Every time they get bigger, they keep stepping up their game. It is not a mystery that Vienna Lager is in our Hops Of Fame. You could make an argument why it is not the best Vienna Style Lager in the country, but you would be wrong. And with the constant innovations, like the Peak and Trail Series, things are pretty tasty over in Nelson.
So if every national craft beer brewery is taking on partners, why the still sinking feeling in our stomachs? First, it’s us being selfish. We always wanted to say “Virginia Owned” about all of our craft breweries. We are only just getting a seat at the national table besides the likes of California, Colorado, Oregon, etc., and now one of our big guns is not gonna be there with us moving forward. And I understand that everyone has “all good intentions” of being here in Virginia, but many forget we have seen this play out before. Old Dominion Brewing was one of the first real craft breweries in Virginia, and really was the first people to get out to the west coast and beat their chests for The Commonwealth. They were bought out and are now part of Fordham & Dominion out of Dover, Delaware. Sorry if we’re not ready to part with y’all yet.
Secondly, while most craft beer business partners “sit on the sidelines,” AB InBev does not. The mostly negative reaction is that Devils Backbone partner is one who actively markets against craft beer. I can’t think of another national brand that does that or one who took such a PR hit from the craft beer community around the nation. In my moment to reflect on the day, I had to be reminded that Lagunitas is 50-50 with Heineken. Now, I’m not in California and my compats around the states might have a different opinion, but I don’t see Heineken running ads for Heineken saying don’t drink craft beer.
But the biggest question out there is now the overall perception of Devils Backbone in the craft beer community. Chicagoans watched Goose Island become a national brand, but they left behind Chicago. Sure you can still go there and have a blast (I’ve been there and had a blast), but the mindset and the feel wasn’t Illinois Craft Beer. Just a few years ago, the defacto American Founder of the Craft Beer movement, Jim Koch of Samuel Adams, couldn’t even find his beers in a “craft beer” bar. Devils Backbone has a glorious location on Rte. 151, and I love going there all the time, and will continue to do so. Still, this is the home every August for the Virginia Craft Brewers Festival. What do you think the tone will be this year? My hope upon hopes is that it is business as usual, but it is very hard for the craft beer consumer to see past the scarlet letter.
I will always enjoy Devils Backbone. I’m not going to say “I hope they keep….” because frankly they will. There is a real passion behind their beers and you not only notice it in the product, but in their people as well. And now more people in this country, and possibly others, will get to share the same enthusiasm for Vienna Lager and Gold Leaf and Eight-Point and Danzig and Kilt Flasher that us as Virginians do. It reminds me of the end of the movie Swingers, when Vince Vaughn’s character looks at Jon Favreau and says “Our little baby’s all growns up.”
You know what, our little baby is all growns up. Godspeed on your next chapter.