Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Devil’s Backbone Brewing Acquired by ABI

You’ve probably already read, heard, or felt a disturbance in the force that Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) has acquired Virginia’s own Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company. That happened.

Devil's Backbone sold…to the devil?
That seems to be many craft beer enthusiasts' initial response. On BeerAdvocate, Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter the brewery has already had comments by upset fans on the news as well as the “I was a hater before they sold out” remarks and will quickly face the first Untappd post saying “Vienna Lager now tastes like Budweiser”.

Press Release and Statement from Steve
In the press release itself, DBB’s founder Steve Crandall specifies that the management team will remain onboard for years to come, though did not specifically reference the brewers staying on. A statement from Steve Crandall highlighted additions planned for the facilities including a camping area and additional infrastructure at the Nelson County Basecamp as well as expansion of the shipping & receiving facility in the Lexington Outpost. The management team is excited for the merger and will have a high level of autonomy.

Is this really a surprise?
To be honest, it makes a lot of sense as Devil’s Backbone is enjoyed by many non-craft drinkers. The last time I went beer shopping at a non-local store I saw one cart full of Budweiser and Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager. Vienna Lager consistently wins award after award but only has a 3.63 rating on Untappd, which isn’t bad but certainly not the outstanding rating the beer gets from professional beer judges. Devil's Backbone brews appeals to both the craft and non-craft market, a sure win for ABI.

So what will happen?
This was just announced so we will need to be patient and see. But people still seem to love many of the other breweries already acquired by ABI. Elysian, Golden Road (founded by a Virginian, Meg Gill, who graduated from the same high school as Clay, Ercell, and Jessica, went to Yale, and founded a successful Cali-based brewery all by the age of 26 earning her spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list of 2014), and many others still get purchased and enjoyed across the county. And everyone is aware of the crazy rushes to buy and trade for Bourbon County anything, despite the most recent year’s copious infection problems.

The press release indicates that Devil's Backbone will remain focused on their local communities while spreading their brews across the country. Craft enthusiasts respect the art and purpose just as much, if not more, than the final product so any major shift in ideals can be ruinous to the original fans. Those who will be introduced to Devil's Backbone post-acqusition will not experience the same sense of betrayal and will likely embrace the brews more openly, especially in new markets currently unaware of Devil’s Backbone and their Virginia roots.

The next Adventure Pack will be with Budweiser, Busch, Stella, Corona, and Natty Light
No, of course it won’t. But it’s inevitable for fans and non-fans alike to be upset. Every quarter it seems another craft brewery is being acquired. The craft community, which is made primarily of passionate drinkers, take their brews personally and feel each acquisition as betrayal of the craft community. In Virginia Devil’s Backbone is an OG, one of the early craft pushers that has always embraced the local and craft beer community of Virginia and responsible for the Virginia Craft Brewers Fest (working with Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, also chaired by a Devil's Backbone employee), so for them to be the first big acquisition from the state has a huge impact on Virginia’s craft beer community.

Craft or crap?
Without getting into personal opinion, to me it seems the biggest change will be with the consumer and not so much with the brewery. Devil’s Backbone has been honing their beer offerings and expanding their distribution which will likely both continue. Despite the fact that the beer will continue to be made locally, many craft enthusiasts have already placed them in the crap group of the craft not crap idea while others put them in a gray area of locally made but owned by a major corporation.

Certainly the Crandalls and the Devil’s Backbone management have all taken this into consideration before making their decision. There are tons of questions but very few answers since this is all so new. Over the coming months and years, we will see what comes of the merger but until then I have only one recommendation – read the comment sections of news and social media at your own peril.


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