Virginia craft beer is reeling. It was bound to happen eventually, but news this week of the sale of one of our homegrown breweries to Big Beer still came as a shock to the system. Devils Backbone is joining the portfolio of AB InBev (Budweiser, in layman’s terms).
The response from craft beer fans has been swift and severe. I’ve seen countless “I’ll never drink a DB beer again” posts on social media and in forums, pictures of unopened Vienna Lager bottles in trashcans, and conspiracy theories about AB InBev’s dastardly intentions. Whatever you currently do for a living, be glad that you don’t work in public relations for Devils Backbone.
How did this happen? In order to fully understand we need to look at the history of the brewery. The Devils Backbone Brewpub (now referred to as basecamp) was the brainchild of real estate developers Steve and Heidi Crandall, who had fostered a love for beer in Europe and the western United States. The idea behind the brewpub was that it would be an anchor for a new housing community. Unfortunately, the housing market crashed and the development of the neighborhood stalled; were it not for some incredible good luck the brewpub could have very likely died on the vine.
That luck came in the form of founding brewmaster Jason Oliver, who they snagged from Gordon Biersch. They wanted someone with a European brewing background and he seemed a good fit. As it turns out, he also happens to be one of the most gifted brewers in the country. The awards started to stack up, especially for the flagship Vienna Lager. Champion Brewery and Brewmaster for Small Brewpub at the 2010 World Beer Cup. Small Brewpub and Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival (GABF). Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the year at the 2013 GABF. Mid-size Brewing Company and Brew Team of the Year at the 2014 GABF. The list of awards goes on and on.
Recognizing the potential very early on, a larger production facility was opened (outpost), with the goal of producing 10,000 barrels in the first 10 years. By the end of the third year they had produced 45,000 barrels.
The point of the history is this: I don’t think the meteoric rise of Devils Backbone was ever the intention of the owners. That’s not to belittle their love for the beer at all, but the motivation behind the founding was probably more for business than for the love of the industry. It has grown very big very quickly. I recently got to spend a few days with Jason Oliver, a great guy who is incredibly humble and is very much more at home at the brewpub as opposed to the major production facility. I think everyone is a little surprised that the brewery took off like it did. Given the quality of the beers it was inevitable, but that is all hindsight. The whole thing seems like a happy accident.
All of that said, of course I am upset about the sale. Everyone prefers David to Goliath, and nobody likes their favorite band to get popular. The silver lining is that eventually the expanded distribution will bring more attention to Virginia beers. Vienna Lager is one of the most approachable craft beers out there, and it will be a gateway beer for a lot of people. The theory that AB InBev bought the operation to somehow sabotage the industry as a whole is a stretch; the reality is more likely that they recognized an opportunity to make a lot of money by taking a decorated operation to the next level. Will quality suffer? Most likely the changes in taste will be psychological. Fixing something that isn’t broken doesn’t make a lot of business sense. Ironically, a large number of the people crying foul and warning of quality sacrifices are the same people who line up on Black Friday to secure a bottle of the Bourbon County releases from Goose Island, which is also owned by AB InBev. That line seems to be somehow untainted by Big Beer in the minds of consumers, and fans of Virginia Beer should feel similarly about DB Basecamp. I suspect that things will remain much the same there (barring some cosmetic upgrades possible by the influx of cash), with Jason Oliver continuing to do what he has always done.
The gut reaction on this is to take it personally, but it’s clearly business. What started as a small brewpub turned too quickly into something else. For my part I’ll continue drinking what I like to drink, including many beers from Devils Backbone. We need to temper our sadness with a little bit of pride.