It was staring us in the face all along. Heck, it got me good, too. See, a few weeks ago I spoke with Jason Oliver, the Brewmaster for Devils Backbone, and he spoke of upcoming employee events with a total nonchalance were anything in the works would have completely belied the gravity of those same “events.” Around now is when I was expecting to hear about the “Family Pack” and so it was with little surprise to see the “closed on April 12 for our Devils Backbone family company meeting.” What came out today took us all by surprise, though.
At work I can’t get Twitter. This is probably a good thing. On days like today, it’s all that saves me from having my accounts locked down and the nice man with a gun escorting me off the premises. But others do have Twitter, and don’t sit behind firewalls, and have, well, time to react to big news. So it was that fellow VBR crewmember Ben blasted us with an e-mail subject line not fit for print, and a sole link as the contents. If you’ve somehow stumbled here as a result of a stroke or were Rick Roll’d by a clever friend, today will supposedly live in Craft Beer Infamy.
Today, April the 12th, 2016, Devils Backbone Brewing Company, one of the great success stories in American Craft Beer and native to the Commonwealth of Virginia, accepted an acquisition by the notorious snake oi…err, macro beer people at AB InBev. Those of Anheuser-Busch, Hoegaarden, Michelob, Stella, Shock Top, and on down the line. Specifically, DB will join “The High End,” AB InBev’s specialty unit for import and craft lines. The hot takes in VBR’s internal discussions today are enlightening only insomuch as the divergence of opinions among the three of us. You could be Ben, who “showed them” by relegating his DB taphandle to the non-VA row of his display stand. Or Hamilton, who after my prodding of the Lagunitas example, found some balance in DB’s decision while lamenting the loss of a homegrown mainstay.
As for myself, I found myself not getting all that worked up. On one level, I applaud the business savvy of the deal even though we don’t know the full details just yet. On a higher level, I smile, nod, and build little finger pyramids.
Yes, this is an eggcelent move by Devils Backbone. It all goes back to very first taste of a not-so-little beer called Hoegaarden. Back in 2007, or the Dark Age of Craft Beer, it was a hyuge deal to find good beer at your college bar, and in fact it was the same Hoegaarden that was my first Beer Love. And you know what? Without InBev being the conniving little merger specialists they are, I might not have found Hoegaarden and thus no craft beer. Instead, I was head over heels to the point that when selecting kegs for my wedding a few years later, my groomsmen freaked out when the taps for the Hoegaarden keg weren’t the right kind and it had to be returned. Ben will vouch for their actions in hiding this fact from me basically the entire evening, but impressive as that is, more impressive is what something as simple as name recognition gets you.
To Hamilton’s point in his earlier Op-Ed, Chicagoans lament the loss of their native Goose Island. A perceived drop in quality notwithstanding, Chicago’s loss is a massive gain for craft beer lovers around the country. A total dive bar good for little more than darts and billiards near me has not one, but three Goose Island brews on draught at all times. I’m not personally a big fan of 312 or others, but my friends with less discerning palates love it. As luck happens to have it, Goose Island is also a part of The High End portfolio. And that is why DB’s move today is fantastic for beer lovers.
As someone who will be taking a year-long sojourn to the flat expanse of Kansas in the near future, I realize there’s now a better than decent chance I may find some DB near me while I’m out there. Sure, I’ll be sandwiched between Boulevard, New Belgium, and a host of other good Midwestern brewers, but now the bars and retailers could realistically feature a Virginia-born beer. Beers like Vienna Lager, Gold Leaf, and Striped Bass are to me personally so much better than anything else in The High End that I think you see them (and others) eventually become the same staples to us that Fat Tire or “Sierra Nevada” are to others. And no, I don’t think the quality will suffer.
I personally am not questioning whether DB may change a few recipes. I know they will, because they already do. You see, I stumbled across some surprising evidence of American craft beer’s influence abroad when I visited England in June of 2015. The image above I snapped wasn’t at Heathrow, London, or even a port like Dover. This is from a small town called Henley on Thames, an idyllic little setting best know as the historic setting for Brakspear, an English beer with a long history of market dominance. The irony notwithstanding, Jason Oliver informed me that the American IPA pictured above is made especially for the English market. And I think we may see some of that going forward, but this won’t be disdain or laziness from Devils Backbone; instead, I see a heavily involved brewmaster like him building recipes honoring local styles in regions in which DB has yet to have a major presence. Here in VA, we’ll continue to get the same beers we love from the flagships to the adventuresome collaborations. They’ve already solved some of the scaling issues at the Outpost, and in going from a brewpub to a midsize brewery. Why would they take beers brewed in, say, Arizona and ship them to us? No, we’ll keep getting the same beers and the same experience as always. Which is to say, Devils Backbone will keep on rocking our tastebuds.
If you’re Devils Backbone, you also had to make this move. They’re doing a fantastic job scaling up, but there’s only so much capital and leverage that can be brought to bear when, in all reality, VA is late to the big stage of craft beer. We win a disproportionate amount of awards, but we objectively have a small presence nationwide. If I’m DB, I see Stone, Deschutes, Oskar Blue, Sierra Nevada, and Green Flash opening production facilities up throughout the same region that’s my stomping grounds, and at a certain point I just have to think, “how the heck do I compete with that?” Those are some big guns being aimed at our region, and they have a lot more leverage and penetration ability. At this point my options are to take Port City’s “regionwide dominance” approach, partner up with a few other likeminded breweries (maybe, say, Flying Dog), or push my chips in with a shit-eating grin. And yes, bringing DB’s absurd portfolio of beers to someone like AB InBev and saying, “whatcha got?” is that all-in moment.
Does it hurt a little bit to think that Devils Backbone is no longer a product solely of the Commonwealth? I’d be lying if I said no. But at the same time, this could be precisely what Virginia Beer needs right now. We’re striving for that national recognition, but this time it wasn’t Lagunitas or Ommegang that got the “wait…what?!” treatment. Virginia beer got the big dog acquisition treatment. And Devils Backbone has the culture to make this work. They don’t just act micro as they’re scaling up, it’s bred into their DNA. I don’t think we’ll see the stagnation which has affected the graybeards of the East Coast Craft scene, where it took a few years for Flying Dog and Starr Hill to recapture their groove. DB has the beers, culture, and savvy to pull this one off. Ignore the weird Budweiser ads and focus on that whole “autonomy” thing in the announcement.
So you can say “shame on them,” but I say hell yes. And you’ll be the one thanking Zeus the next time you’re stuck in Omaha and see that gnarly tap handle poking up at the bar.