Beer Man

AB-InBev-Owned 10 Barrel Brewing Rolls Into Denver as Bud Mocks Craft Beer

Some of Oregon’s best breweries — including Breakside, Oakshire, Gigantic and Cascade — have invaded Colorado over the past year, delighting beer fans here and further crowding bulging tap menus and store shelves. But the newest Oregon arrival is likely to cause a little more controversy.

Earlier this month, Bend-based 10 Barrel Brewing began distribution outside of the Pacific Northwest for the first time, starting with Denver.

The move was made with help from Anheuser-Busch InBev, the maker of Budweiser, which bought 10 Barrel last November — a move that caused an uproar among craft-brewery owners and fans, who don’t like the idea of an international conglomerate absorbing formerly independent companies in order to compete with them. But the rollout wasn’t part of a larger sales tactic by AB InBev, says Chris Cox, who founded 10 Barrel in 2006 with his brother Jeremy and Garrett Wales.

The brewery had purchased several new tanks – big 400-barrel ones – before the AB acquisition and had already planned to expand its distribution. Now that it has access to AB's entire distribution system, however, 10 Barrel “got to choose where we wanted to sell it,” Cox says. “We have always loved Denver and the culture there because it is similar to the culture in Bend.

“For us, it’s not rocket science — we try to sell beer where we want to hang out.... Denver has a cool vibe and a refined palate,” he continues.

He and his partners decided to sell 10 Barrel because running the brewery was beginning to take a toll, Cox says. “We got into this business to drink beer and to have fun. If there was a big powder day, we close down and go skiing,” he explains. “If it's 90 degrees, we go to the river. But as we got larger, there were fewer of those days. We were stuck ordering hops and ordering glassware, and that's not the reason we got into this.”

Now 10 Barrel has access to all of AB InBev's resources, like its hop farmers, supply chain and distribution arm, which means the owners can focus more on making beer and less on paperwork. “Our entire brew team is still here. We still make the beer...and we still run all of our own sales and marketing here at the brewery,” Cox says.

But sales and marketing have been a point of contention in recent months when it comes to AB InBev’s public perception. Not long after buying 10 Barrel, AB InBev also bought Seattle’s Elysian Brewing — a much older and more well-known craft brand — adding it to a portfolio that includes Chicago's Goose Island and Blue Point Brewing in New York.

That move attracted nationwide attention in February, when Budweiser launched an attack on craft breweries during a Super Bowl ad. The now-infamous commercial, “Brewed the Hard Way,” bashed craft breweries with the line: “Let them drink their pumpkin peach ale. We’ll be brewing us some golden suds.”

To many observers, including the Boulder-based Brewers Association, the grade group for the craft-brewing industry, it looked like Budweiser was both running scared and at the same time picking an unnecessary fight in a battle that it seems to be slowly losing.

And then there was the irony that AB InBev was actually buying craft breweries at the same time it was maligning them — and the most recent purchase, Elysian, had actually made a pumpkin peach ale at one point.

Although Bud received plenty of blowback and some negative publicity for the ad, the company has continued to go after craft beers, although with a slightly lighter touch. In a more recent spot, a tulip glass containing a dark beer next to a burger is replaced with a Bud — while the words “This could be a debate. But it's not” appear on screen.

But that battle isn't one that interests the founders of 10 Barrel, according to Cox. They are more concerned with spreading the word about the beers they have been making since 2006 and continue to make, like Apocalypse IPA, Joe IPA and Cucumber Crush, which took gold at the Great American Beer Festival last year.

Cox says the ads don't bother him much. “Budweiser is a brand inside AB, and they have their own customer base within them," he explains. "They are marketing toward a different customer base.... I’m sure there are some people out there who might kick back because of the ownership. But it is our beer that makes our brand. And it is our people who make the beer.”
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes