Almost as quickly as the news of Elysian Brewing Co.’s sale to Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) whipped around beer circles online, one particular beer label appeared. A white background with bold black lettering: LOSER. Above the word, a phrase: “Corporate Beer Sucks.”

A year-round offering from the Seattle brewery, Loser is a Sorachi Ace-forward American pale ale. It is brewed in celebration of Sub Pop Records, the northwest label behind artists like Nirvana, Soundgarden and others. The message is unmistakable.

So, during a conversation with the Elysian co-founders (Dick Cantwell, David Buhler and Joe Bisacca) and Andy Goeler, Vice President, Imports, Crafts & Specialties at AB InBev, I asked who first broke the ice by bringing up that specific beer during the negotiation of the sale, which was announced in mid-January.

Buhler laughed, and quickly pointed out that it was never an intended dig at larger breweries. Loser was an in-house joke, he said, pointed squarely at Elysian, which is incorporated and has “INC.” after its name on all official documents.

“I thought, we’re a corporation, have ‘INC’ in our name, this is hilarious, we’re such losers,” he said.  Of course “now the joke has another level.”

For the record, the group said that an AB InBev representative brought up the label, it was taken in a good-natured way, and that production of that beer will continue.

Elysian Brewing Dick Cantwell David Buhler Joe Bisacca
Dick Cantwell, David Buhler and Joe Bisacca co-founded Elysian Brewing Co. nearly 20 years ago. Photo courtesy Elysian Brewing Co.

Letting Consumers Decide

AB InBev, headquarterd in Belgium, has been on a buying spree of late, adding smaller American breweries, traditionally defined as craft, to its global portfolio. Acquisitions over the past few years include Goose Island Beer Co. of Chicago; Blue Point Brewing Co. of New York; 10 Barrel Brewing of Bend, OR; and most recently Elysian. Industry estimates put the tab on all these breweries at more than $140 million.

According to industry statistics, the craft segment takes up less than 10 percent of the overall beer market in the United States, so the customers that support smaller operations are typically more vocal in their praise, but more so in their displeasure.

For many consumers AB InBev, along with other large global brewers like MillerCoors or Heineken, are considered corporate behemoths, more focused on money than the liquid. Smaller brewers that sell to larger entities are treated as if they turned their backs to friends.

On his Facebook page several days after the sale was announced Buhler wrote that he hadn’t “been called this many names since 4thgrade.” The post garnered, as of this posting, more than 175 likes and 115 comments. Being from his friends, the comments were largely positive and full of hearty congratulations. On the company’s Facebook page the tone was different. Optimists and realists were shouted down by the masses calling the founders “sellouts” and vowing to never drink their beer again.

Goeler was coy when asked if other breweries would soon be joining the portfolio, and expressed praise for the existing “craft” breweries in the company fold.

Craft, the word, is a tricky one to define, so I asked Goeler what it meant to him.

“We let the consumer define what craft should be,” he said adding that it’s likely “any beer that is high quality that some brewer wrote a recipe for and has a beer exactly as he intended it to be.” One that “consumers, buy it over and over again,” and “a well crafted beer, high quality, made by someone with love and passion for beer.”

Elysian’s founders insist that nothing is going to change recipe-wise with their beers, that their popular annual pumpkin beer festival will continue this October, and that the sale will benefit employees and give the brewery better access to equipment and raw ingredients.

Exit Strategy

Cantwell is the author of “The Brewers Association’s Guide to Starting Your Own Brewery” (Brewers Publications) and said that one chapter he wished he wrote was on exit strategy. Once a brewery gets off the ground, becomes popular, grows some more, builds a loyal base, and is considered successful, then what? People age, they want to retire, and if there isn’t a next generation to pass the business off to, what to do? It’s an important aspect to consider—selling or passing along a business—and Cantwell says it’s a reality all brewers should be thinking about.

It was Cantwell who initiated the sale to AB InBev, he said. He was judging at the World Beer Cup competition in Denver in 2014 when he struck up a conversation with an employee at the larger brewery. An exit strategy was discussed and interest was expressed.

“I had a responsibility as a shareholder,” Cantwell said. “Whatever my feeling, I needed to report back and have it be considered.”

Nine months later Elysian was part of the AB InBev fold.

Over the past two weeks Buhler says he’s gotten a new perspective on the brewery and how it is/was perceived. The process has helped him reflect on who he is, what he’s done, and what the brewery has meant to so many.

“I think the biggest emotion is how we’re seen in other peoples eyes, through their eyes. I don’t walk around all day using words like ‘iconic, legendary, favorite’, [to describe us] we don’t think of ourselves like that. We don’t see it like they do. I wanted access to cheap beer, that’s why I started.”

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John Holl is the Editor of All About Beer Magazine.