Last Friday—the day that AB InBev announced it would buy Seattle-based Elysian Brewing—I was in Düsseldorf, near the banks of the Rhine. Among other things I was there to tour the Uerige brewpub, a local institution known for its distinctively bitter altbier.
My guide was Dr. Christoph Tenge, Uerige’s technical director. On Friday, we didn’t talk about the Elysian sale; I don’t think either of us had heard the news yet. But we did talk about AB InBev.
Why? Because before moving to Düsseldorf to make alt, Tenge’s previous job was in Munich, as brewing manager for Spaten-Löwenbräu, which is owned by… yes, AB InBev.
So naturally I wanted to know: What’s it like moving from a whale to a minnow?
At Spaten he learned a lot, he said, but, “For me, it was really fascinating to get back to the product, to get back to the beer,” Tenge said. “On the one hand, it’s really the connection between the product and the guest. You really see. You get directly the feedback from people who drink it every day.”
Uerige is a brewery, but it is first and foremost a sprawling pub that heaves with drinkers every night of the week. It exports the special sticke and doppelsticke to the United States and elsewhere, but the locals don’t ask for variety. They only ask for great Alt, and like the other grandfatherly brewpubs in the Altstadt—Schlüssel, Schumacher and Füchsen—Uerige has been providing it for more than 150 years.
“Here we are optimizing the product instead of optimizing profits,” Tenge said, as he showed me the coolship—basically a large, open-air copper tray—which Uerige still uses to begin cooling its beers after the boil. It’s an antiquated thing to do, but they believe the beers are better for it.
Uerige brewed 20,000 hectoliters last year—that’s about 17,000 U.S. beer barrels. Incidentally, Elysian brewed about 50,000 barrels last year. Just for perspective, AB InBev in 2013 produced about 380 million U.S. beer barrels at its breweries worldwide.
The negative reactions to news like the Elysian sale—and 10 Barrel back in November, Blue Point last February, Goose Island in 2011—make for fascinating cultural study. It’s hard to think of any other industry where people get so upset about entrepreneurs building something valuable and then cashing out. Isn’t that the goal of most tech startups?
The reactions when small breweries sell are more like how we would react, say, if our favorite underground band sold its tune for a Coke ad. Because we didn’t only like the band. We also liked that whole “underground” bit.
Unless you are from Seattle there is no point in mourning the loss of one independent brewery. We have 3,000 of them in America now. More are coming. On the other hand, there are plenty of folks in Washington state who have developed—as one does—a relationship with one or more of Elysian’s beers. In a rational, hedonistic world, that relationship would be based only on the beer’s own qualities—aroma, drinkability, price, or whatever suits you.
But people are not quite rational about this sort of thing. Part of what we like about small breweries is that they are not big breweries (never mind that size is relative). The independence is part of the context, part of the package; we pay extra for that, whether we realize it or not.
Meanwhile, the label of Elysian’s own Loser Pale Ale says, “Corporate beer still sucks.” It brewed the beer to honor Sub-Pop Records, the indie label that brought us Seattle grunge—and then sold a 49% stake to Warner Brothers.
But beer is not art—at least, not in the way that music is. It is an industrial product, even if some of the factories are small and charming. But breweries have their fans. And we occasionally develop personal relationships with these tasty, psychotropic commercial products. Especially the distinctive ones.
Hey, you know what else happened on Friday? A German newspaper called Express, which serves the Rhein region, published an article about a 75-year-old man named Werner Kusche. He has visited Uerige every day for the past 15 years.
The best part is, Kusche doesn’t live in Düsseldorf. He lives in Gelsenkirchen, about 50 kilometers away. The newspaper worked out the math for us: His altbier commuter mileage over that time is enough to travel around the world 13 times.
That is a strong vote of confidence. We all vote for what we like. It’s worth noting that a lot of people still vote for AB InBev, which enjoys more than 47% of the U.S. market—although it appears to be losing share faster than it can buy it. How many more purchases will we see this year? How many teeth gnashed?
Or we can shrug and say, “It’s a business.” Like any business it depends on consumer choice.