This post could probably run on to book length, with as much as my stunned brain – abruptly informed of the sale of Elysian Brewing to AB/InBev yesterday as I was busy with something else – has churned up in the hours (many of them sleepless and dead quiet) since I received this…this gut-punch.
Seattle’s Elysian Brewing has been sold to the Great Satan of the beer world, Belgium/Brazil’s AB/InBev, a soulless, bean-countin’, avaricious, cut-throat, amoral international conglomerate that has gobbled up many of the world’s great breweries and now has its sights set on the craft beer movement here in the US.
For those who want a basic primer on how I feel about AB getting its malignant tentacles into ANY part of what has been, for 30 years, the most uplifting, soulful, life-affirming, humane, and decent business segment in American history, this link will take you to my piece on their acquisition of Bend’s 10 Barrel, and this link will go to my Seattle P-I post on AB’s take-over of Chicago’s legendary Goose Island. There’s no need for me to plow all that ground again but just know, if you decide to click over, that every single thing said in those posts applies here.
I was confused when I heard about Goose Island. I was pissed when I heard about 10 Barrel. I’m DISGUSTED at this decision on the part of the people who own Elysian; people I had always held in high regard and trusted to make a solid product, if not always the best of its type, even locally. There are a LOT of Elysian beers that you never once saw mentioned in my seven years of writing The Pour Fool. I have always thought “Loser” was dreadful and still do. The Dragonstooth Stout is a real lowest-common-denominator version of a big American Stout. The Perseus Porter is quite pallid by comparison to even Elysian’s neighbor out I-90, Snoqualmie Brewing’s “Steam Train”, not to mention a couple dozen West Coast Porterae. Many of their experiments elicited a big ol’ Irish “Meh” from me…but many were sublime. “Avatar” Jasmine IPA is one of the great ideas in making infused beer ever. “Peste” remains the best chili beer I’ve ever tasted. Their Peppercorn Saison is exceeded only by Ballard’s Populuxe Brewing’s version of same. And Men’s Room Black was simply inspired; a near perfect example of hoppy Darkness that wears better than your favorite jeans.
This is all gone, now.
I can’t see doing anything that helps validate the sworn enemy of American craft beer by being as worldly and faux-hip as those people who offer a jaunty, “It’s just business, dude. Relax and have a great beer!” Beer trade “professionals” love to fancy themselves as having a level of sophistication at which accommodations can be made for AB and other mega-producers. Not me. Cannot and will not. That will be the mantra for Elysian, now, just as it was for Goose and 10B: “The beer won’t change! It’s all about the beer“, AB and the newly-rich owners will trumpet, “It will get even better, now that we have more resources and better distribution. More people will be able to enjoy our beer! This will be GOOD for beer lovers!”
I have no personal knowledge of this at all but I would bet anything that one of the first official acts, after a craft brewery is sold to AB, is for some transition expert from The Borg Collective comes in and says roughly the following: “Look, you need to be ready for what’s about to happen. Lots of people are going to be angry. They’ll say you sold out. They’ll say they’ll never drink Elysian again and some of those will be your best customers. You, personally, will be called whores and sell-outs. This is going to go on for a while and you’ll need a thick skin to get through it. The best move? Just smile and ignore the tough questions and Stay On Message: “The Beer will be ever better!” Make it about the beer, not about the sale. But remember, the American consumer has a short memory. Once those people who abandon Elysian calm down and taste the beers and realize that nothing has changed, they’ll come back. It’s hard to be pissed off for months and years on end. And those people who do actually follow through and boycott you will be replaced, tenfold! You’ll find an all new customer base, all those people who never saw Elysian before. You’ll be in sports arenas and grocery stores all over the country and even casual drinkers will find an Elysian they like…and we’ll help with that. We bring over 100 years of experience in targeting what American beer drinkers like and we’ll help you sand off the rough edges and make beers that appeal to everybody.”
And there goes yet another fine American craft brewery, willfully marching straight off into Hell, hand in hand with Lucifer himself.
Make no mistake here: this is just another rather modest step in AB’s eventual plan to recover what they lost when the Craft Beer Boom came along: their iron-clad control of American beer. For over 100 years, AB ran things in American brewing. Other breweries like Coors and Miller and Pabst have endured but, despite their high brand visibility, neither generates more than a fraction of AB’s sales:
Combined, Molson Coors and SABMiller – with all their subsidiary brands like Blue Moon tossed in – account for 6% less than AB alone. Bud Light is still the best-selling beer in the US, surpassed globally only by two brands with captive audiences in China, Snow and Tsing Tao. (2 billion Chinese can’t be wrong…can they?)
In their everyday actions at limiting the growth and distribution of craft beers, AB/InBev shows the hollowness of their claims of being a friend of brewers everywhere and big fans of craft beer. They’re fighting craft on dozens of fronts simultaneously, from Florida’s ongoing dust-up over allowable growler sizes (Bud and its associated brands and not, of course, growler-fill items) to its bloodthirsty attempts to obfuscate the issues in South Carolina’s bid to get a Stone satellite brewery and pub in Charleston. Anyone who thinks for a second that AB’s goal in acquiring Elysian, Goose, 10B, and Blue Point is anything other than an attempt to either control or kill craft beer simply doesn’t know history or is so spiritually vacant that they can easily rationalize away all that messy fluff like business ethics and morals and customer loyalty and independence and American entrepreneurship and what’s right and wrong. For those empty meat sacks, “It’s all about the beer, man!” and they are exactly the brain-dead geese AB relies onto keep their markets profitable and their ink black.
But in Elysian’s case, this is more to me than the flash of anger that 10 Barrel’s sale evoked. The Cox brothers were just a couple of Central Oregon mover ‘n’ shaker wannabes; guys who, as dozens of my Bend friends have confirmed, were always in it for the money and prestige and Cool Factor of “being in craft beer” and whose vacuous response to dollars from AB was entirely predictable. I didn’t know them, had no personal investment.
But Elysian was, almost certainly, THE quintessential Seattle/Washington brewery. They were hard-working, which we value here in the Mildew Corner. They were adamantly, defiantly counter-cultural, with their association with SubPop and KISW’s The Men’s Room and the Fisher House and the Seattle music scene.They have a pub 200 feet from the Seahawks stadium. They invested in those hallmark Seattle neighborhoods of Georgetown, Capital Hill, Tangletown, and Pioneer Square. They did all manner of Cool Shit, like the 12 Beers of The Apocalypse, with their Charles Burns labels and Uber-Cool flavors. Save for Mac & Jack’s and Georgetown Brewing, there was no brewery that was more Seattle than Elysian. “Gut-punch“? You better believe it. There is no brewer in Washington for whom I had a higher regard than Dick Cantwell; no brewer in the Northwest I admired more than 10 Barrel’s Tonya Cornett. Now, both of them and all the little miracles they have wrought and will in the future are dead to me. Beer quality be damned, there are some things that are more important than just kickin’ back with a Cold One; some ideals and principles and allegiances and relationships and an entire communally-built culture that simply CANNOT – Can-Goddamnit-Not!! – coexist with the cynicism and bottom-line mentality and appalling business practices of a company like AB, which has shown itself capable of anything when it comes to initiating competition, seizing every advantage, stickin’ it to anyone who dares to compete, and openly scoffing at the whole notion of “a level playing field”.
But beyond the moral aspects of the sale of Elysian is this one over-riding fact: for their entire history, AB has been about uniformity, consistency, and sameness – all those things that craft beer has been the remedy for. It’s at least arguable that craft beer exists at all because so many of us simply got sick and tired of not having ANY beer options. For over 100 years, we had a dozen or so choices of exactly the same beer. Watery, pallid, bland, cheaply made Pilsners were IT for America’s beer drinkers and you chose from either “weird” imports or minute variations of the same flavors, with so little intensity that you might as well be drinking club soda. “Beer”, in America, is synonymous with “drunk” for a reason: that’s what the stuff was good for, a mindless chugging aimed at oblivion. BudMillerCoorsPabst, etc., etc., didn’t need to be great beer because we didn’t demand it…and we got what we settled for. Craft brewing changed all that and AB would love nothing better than to undo that swing toward choices. If AB is allowed, unchallenged, to continue insinuating itself into the nation’s craft beer markets, you’ll see more of what’s currently happening with Goose Island, where their two most unappealing beers are being marketed to death merely because they’re light and “drinkable” and fall squarely into AB’s guiding aesthetic: No Challenges for Drinkers. Mild. Inoffensive. No extremes. The sameness of generic lagers and tame Pale Ales is AB’s comfort zone and the way, as their entire history has shown them, of making maximum dollars with minimum outlay of both money and effort. They’re hell-bent on shifting the cultural aesthetic back in their favor and if they succeed at it, craft beer will – at a glacial pace that will lull many people into believing that it isn’t happening at all – become far less creative, adventurous, and varied. A creeping homogenization will set in and, one fine day in the not-so-distant future, Americans will look around and find craft beer boring, predictable…Cheese Whiz and Pop Tarts for restless youth. Don’t believe me? Go back and look at AB’s history and then decide.
Today, the owners of Elysian – Joe Bisacca, Dick Cantwell, and David Buhler – have offered all of us who bonded with their community vibe, great beers, and – for lack of a better word – Seattleness, a big ol’ hearty “Fuck you!” What they’ve said, in effect, is that our allegiance to their brand, our dollars spent on Elysian beers, our online reviews, our proudly wearing Elysian gear, the crowd-driven demand for Avatar as a year-round beer, our good wishes and support were just…not enough. In the classic, predictable, utterly sad and depressing manner of businesspeople everywhere whose ambition eventually begins to outweigh their original values, they went for the easy cash. Somehow, breweries like Firestone Walker, Three Floyds, Cigar City, Deschutes, Stone, Dogfish, Sam Adams, Founders, Bell’s, Troeg’s and a hundred others worked it out to become prominent national brands on their own initiative, by their own rules and values, without resorting to crawling into the well-soiled bed with a proven enemy of everything they originally held dear. Oh, they’ll tell themselves that they did it to “grow their brand” and help them achieve their goals and please more people but what it actually did was invite into my fucking state, my backyard, my goddamned hometown, a virus that will and very much wants to kill craft brewing as we know it in the US. Bisacca, Cantwell, and Buhler weren’t imaginative enough to see how they could achieve their lofty ambitions for Elysian without compromise, so they chose the easy way out, the quick ‘n’ dirty, the deal with the devil. They were lazy and greedy. Now, these AB hooligans, these unprincipled Belgian sons of bitches own property in Washington. They can now legitimize trips to Olympia to sell their Holy Of Holies, the three-tier system, which they largely control all over the nation. They now have an entree for their well-documented shady business practices, squeezing competitors, and undermining, basically, anybody who is not AB/InBev, because that’s what they do. That’s what they have always done. It’s always been impossible for AB to sell their beers on the level-playing-field basis of quality because they have no quality to sell. They make watery, insipid, cheaply-made adjunct Pilsners and that is all they do well. They’ve become world-class great at little backroom deals and dismissive marketing ploys because they had to in order to keep people from discovering just how profoundly crappy their products are.
I recently had an email exchange with one of my favorite brewers. In it, I asked him how we could all go about defining what is a “craft brewery”. His answer was unequivocal: even breweries the size of Elysian and Deschutes are not, to him, craft breweries anymore. I disagreed because I can’t justify to myself the idea of penalizing success and achievement. Now, of course, Elysian has conveniently removed any question of whether they’re a craft brewery or not. They’re just NOT, now. They are merely the Seattle outpost of a huge international manufacturer of shit beers and don’t qualify for the reverence we bestow on those breweries who have struggled, achieved, and grown on their own merits.
I don’t care if I become the brewing community’s answer to the old man who wanders around the town square with his weenie hanging out, cursing and ranting about what used to be. I don’t care about the haughty dismissal of my views with a jaunty, breezy, “It’s just business, dude, Chill out!” I don’t care if nobody in the northern hemisphere agrees with me on this:
I BEG YOU, if you are a brewer who wants to “grow your brand” and is seeking a financial partner or looking to sell out and retire, PLEASE, make discreet inquiries to SAB Miller, MolsonCoors, Duvel Moortgat, or find private investors/buyers. If AB/InBev makes contact and inquires about buying your brewery, THINK about the culture you helped create. THINK about how universally reviled this company is. Even if you believe that that revulsion is exaggerated, it is undeniably real. THINK and grit your teeth and tell AB this: FUCK…OFF.
When Boulevard Brewing was sold to Duvel, not only was I not upset about it, I thought it was a marriage made in flippin’ heaven. A Euro company that has the utmost respect for what Boulevard is about and will be good stewards. When Terrapin (Many thanks to reader Russ Jones for this correction!) partnered with SAB Miller, I was sad but not livid. The simple fact is that both Coors and Miller, giants though they surely are, have none of the track record for thuggery and malignant business practices of AB. No, maybe you won’t get as big an offer but what will it be worth to keep your good name, your reputation, and your self-respect? I cannot, in anything like good conscience, cast Dick Cantwell, Dave Buhler, and Joe Bissaca as douchebags. I know them not to be. But in selling out to AB, they have behaved in the manner of douchebags, have done as douchebags do, and everyone who doesn’t have close personal knowledge of Elysian will see them as only that.
I’m not sad, today, especially. More like “tired” and certainly “disgusted”. I feel the same as I would if somebody told me that kindly old Mr. Jenkins, my next door neighbor for 25 years, was just featured on “To Catch A Predator”. In fact, I lived, while I was in high school, about two blocks from John Wayne Gacy, in suburban Chicago. I saw him playing a clown at children’s events. I actually spoke to him once. Years later, when all the horrors in his crawl space came to light, the feeling I had was just like this: shock, crashing disillusionment, and a jolt of stomach-turning revulsion. Elysian will no longer be mentioned in The Pour Fool, just as 10 Barrel will not. Tomorrow, I’m going back into my post panel to remove all past references of both. I cannot and will NEVER aid an abet the efforts of a company like AB/InBev and will correct it anytime I may do it inadvertently. Elysian is gone, as far as I’m concerned and if you think that’s just silly and “the beer will be fine, dude“, then you an accomplice in the destruction of craft beer. Don’t bother to post comments like those here. They’ll just be removed. There is right and wrong in this world and I will not accommodate the wrong, not for any amount of money.