Beer Man

AB InBev's Craft-Brewery Team Fighting Back Against Charges They Sold Out

It’s easy to like Todd Usry, Garrett Wales and Meg Gill. All three are smart, approachable and passionate about beer. They all have a good sense of humor and firm handshakes.

It’s even easier for some people to dislike their decisions, however. All three sold their breweries — Breckenridge Brewery in Colorado, 10 Barrel Brewing in Oregon and Golden Road Brewing in California, respectively — to Anheuser Busch InBev, the multi-billion-dollar international conglomerate that has been accused of using underhanded techniques to put small breweries out of business, and criticized for an ad campaign bashing craft breweries that ran just as it began buying them in bulk.

The backlash from those decisions resulted in some people no longer drinking their beer or serving their beer or stocking their beer. Meanwhile, the craft-brewing guilds in Oregon and California kicked out 10 Barrel and Golden Road, and the membership of the Colorado Brewers Guild elected last month to take away Breckenridge’s ability to vote or serve on the board of directors.

But Usry, Wales and Gill are tired of hearing about that shit. And they’re angry — angry at liquor stores, guilds, distributors, consumers, the media, other breweries and anyone else who thinks that they sold out, that they make bad beer or that they still don’t belong in the craft community.

“Anyone who knows me knows that this was a painful decision to make and that it took a lot of thought,” says Usry, who joined Breckenridge as a driver in 1991 and now runs the entire show. “And it wasn’t just about the Usry family being able to buy a new boat. This was about my team. [AB Inbev] can take care of my people better than I ever could have.” And although brewery owners criticized the sale in public, Usry says that some of those same owners gave him high-fives behind the scenes.

“There is a very vocal minority, and that is who you hear it the most from. You can’t convince someone that their emotions are wrong. Not to downplay it, but so much is a lack of understanding. If I get the chance to talk to someone, they usually get it. They might not like it, but they get it,” says Wales, who spends a lot of time explaining to customers that the quality of his beer hasn't declined because of the AB InBev sale. “Now, two years later, people are coming back into the fold. There’s no one we were friends with then that we aren’t friends with now, no one we don't collaborate with."

This fall, 10 Barrel plans to open its own brewpub in Denver's River North neighborhood, a plan that was under way before the buyout but that takes on added meaning now.

Because the three brewery managers are so easy to like, they comprise the public-relations team for the High End, AB InBev’s craft-beer division — and they're revving up a PR machine that they hope will convince people that they aren’t so bad after all. That machine began its tour last week in Denver on the same day that the three breweries held a tap takeover at the Ale House at Amato's (which is owned by Wynkoop-Breckenridge LLC, which sold Breckenridge to AB). The group may tour other cities as well.

Over the past five years, AB InBev has purchased eight craft breweries (seven of them in the past two years alone): Goose Island (2011); Blue Point Brewing and 10 Barrel (2014); Elysian Brewing, Golden Road, Breckenridge and Four Peaks (2016); and Devil’s Backbone (2016).

The heads of those breweries are now lumped together as the High End, and they meet officially on a quarterly basis — and informally much more often — to talk about logistics, brands, innovation and their image, and to school AB InBev on what works for craft-beer drinkers.

“I didn’t know what it would be like,” Usry says of his first meeting with the High End. But right away, he watched as Gill called out an AB InBev executive for a bad idea. In fact, rather than dictating what the breweries do, the company is seeking feedback from the group: “The one thing they told us we needed to do was to innovate,” he recalls. As a result, Breckenridge has released four new beers since the purchase and has six more new ones on the way.

And rather than forcing policy on the breweries or trying to convince the founders to leave, AB InBev has done the opposite, Gill says: “They asked me what I wanted to do with my career. They want people who are committed to saying on." Golden Road's founders weren't "looking for an exit strategy with this; we were looking for a strategy," she adds. "We chose our fate.”

All three breweries says AB InBev has taken many of the headaches off the table and replaced them with more resources, more equipment and more distribution channels. For Golden Road, that has meant a bigger presence in California grocery stores. For 10 Barrel, it has meant new kettles and help setting up its brewpub in Denver. For Breckenridge, it has meant added distribution outlets.

But what Usry, Wales and Gill see as opportunity, many independent breweries continue to see as a threat: In June, fourteen Colorado breweries broke off from the Colorado Brewers Guild to form their own organization. Among other reasons, they cited Breckenridge’s continuing presence in the organization, saying it's not appropriate for a company owned by a mega-brewer to have a voice there.

Usry and Wales believe that excuse is a smokescreen and that craft breweries are using them as "a punching bag to make themselves seem less petty."

“Guilds,” Wales says, shaking his head. “We have all been kicked out of the guilds. But who do they call first when they need help with fundraising or on political issues? Us. And we always answer.”

He thinks that some breweries have used the AB InBev purchases — and the possibility that AB distributors will force out other craft brewers — as a way to get “free publicity” and to work the consensus among craft-beer drinkers “in favor of themselves,” Wales adds.

Usry agrees. “People told us we are not welcome at the table,” he says of the Colorado guild members who formed their own organization. “Basically, what happened is that they took their ball and went home. Whatever happened to competition?”

Large craft breweries — from Oregon’s Deschutes and Ninkasi to Colorado’s Left Hand, New Belgium and Odell — play just as hard as AB InBev when it comes to getting their beers into bars and restaurants, Wales says. “We fought against them before [the AB InBev] purchase and we are fighting them now. It’s always been an uphill battle,” he explains.

The battle isn't as hard, though, with a lot of ammunition stockpiled behind them. AB InBev is a $44 billion company; the nation's 4,399 craft breweries, meanwhile, make up just 12 percent of the U.S. market combined, and most brew fewer than 10,000 barrels in an entire year. 

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice approved AB InBev's $107 billion bid to take over SABMiller, a move that some people have speculated will mean fewer brewery buyouts — a scenario that seems unlikely.

But even if that turns out to be the case, High End spokesman Adam Warrington notes that "this is a pretty amazing group we have now."

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes