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Posted March 2016

 

How near is the end?

Craft beer deals | Man, you'd think Armageddon is just round the corner, what with all of the tweets, blog posts and articles I've seen commenting on a spate of craft beer deals that shook the industry in 2015. While I was waiting in vain for apocalyptically boiling oceans, rains of fire and rivers turned to blood, doomsday preppers wailed and gnashed their teeth because, in contrast to me, they had interpreted the signs as ushering in The End of the World as We Know It.

In the days before Google algorithms, news reporting used a hierarchy. There are two sayings that explain which news received top billing: Most famously, “sex sells”, which meant any A-lister’s sordid hanky-panky got high ratings. The other one “if it bleeds it leads” was to say: the more violent the content the more newsworthy it became.

Last year’s acquisitions of craft brewers by the Big Brewers did not fit into either category: no one took off their kit or ended up dead on the floor. Yet, U.S. media gave those craft brewery sales utmost priority. Why is this so? In market economies, companies tend to get bought and sold. It happens every day. No big deal, really. However, for some reason or other, those craft beer transactions stuck out, considering that in terms of employment and total profits craft brewers don’t even rank amongst top U.S. industries, although their growth has been most impressive: from a few hundred 25 years ago to over 4,000 in 2015.

What is it about craft beer that it has become all-American like apple pie, notwithstanding a healthy teetotalling 30 percent of all Americans still preferring apple pie to beer? From my side of the Atlantic it seems that millions of American beer drinkers are on the verge of panic. Is it because they have long understood that the rise of craft beer was more than just beer rolled into a business? To many observers outside the U.S. those thousands of brewery start-ups merely lived the American Dream, pursuing their goals unencumbered by conventions or social hierarchy. Yet, unbeknownst to most non-Americans, the little guys also battled heroically against the Evil Ones.

Perhaps part of the success of U.S. craft brewers is that, in communicating their personal quests of how they survived various trials and emerged triumphant, they managed to draw on well-known mythical narratives which gave their individual accounts a far wider cultural resonance. From styling themselves as modern day Davids who fight the beer Goliaths to appropriating tropes from end-time scenarios, craft brewers have displayed an intuitive grasp of the power of biblical stories.

Obviously, there is more to the rise of U.S. craft beer than archetypal storytelling and clever marketing. Nonetheless, craft brewers’ self-mythologizing as righteous warriors for a worthy cause proved compelling because it tapped into an ur-American anxiety that the apocalypse is one step away and that in the final battle the good will lose out, while at the same time it catered to primordial human desires for redemption and salvation.

For two decades now, U.S. craft brewers have found it easy to push the same old buttons in stone-age brains. When a few years back, the Brewers Association published its list of “crafty” beers – those that deceptively come along as craft beers but are, in fact, produced by the Big Brewers – it caused an outcry. By juxtaposing “craft” with “crafty”, they harped on the fear that, with so much going on in the craft beer arena, right-on beer lovers will fail to observe the arrival of the Antichrist, who, as is written in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, will be charming, charismatic and immensely popular.

And charming they were, those gifts from the Antichrist. Initially, the Big Brewers only wooed the masses with their crafty Shock Tops and Blue Moons, all the while prophesy watchers warned consumers to look for the digits 666 (the number of the Beast according to the Bible) on the labels. As could be expected from such cunning adversaries, they were loath to find it.

 

They want what we have”

Alas, the Evil Ones were not content with deceiving the unsuspecting public, they were already plotting their next assault: the takeover of craft breweries. My oh my, when AB-InBev acquired the breweries Blue Point and 10 Barrel in 2014, cries of anguish could be picked up on this side of the Atlantic too. But instead of hearing out the founders as to why they had chosen to sell, word was spread that Armageddon (“They are out to destroy us!”) was about to begin. Sam Calagione of the much-feted Dogfish Head brewery told media in February 2015: “they’re using these once-craft brands as pawns in their game to knock the true indie breweries off the board.” His words were echoed in February 2016 by another craft beer veteran. In best fire-and-brimstone fashion Jim Koch, 65, the founder and Chairman of Boston Beer, warned Ohio craft brewers that “the big brewers are going to try to put us all out of business. They want what we have.” Although he added “there’s nothing evil about that” many in his audience would have been confirmed in their suspicion that the Evil Ones intended to lay their grubby hands on their treasured breweries all along.

Craft beer lovers’ doomsday compass has always pointed to AB-InBev as the Antichrist, so much so that when in 2015 several Big Brewers – AB-InBev, Heineken, MillerCoors and Constellation Brands - clinched craft beer deals, they did not waver in their conviction for a second. After all, did not AB-InBev buy three breweries in five days – Breckenridge and Four Peaks in the U.S. plus Camden Town in the UK - just before Christmas? Peel away the apocalyptic garnish and they are all the same spot on.

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