4 Pines Brewing Co. is now wholly owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. Here’s a look at the initial reaction and what it might mean for the brewery and our local beer scene in the future.
On Friday 22 September 2017, 4 Pines Brewing Co. announced that they had been bought by AB InBev.
Firstly, congratulations to the 4 Pines team on building something incredible. The brewery has been a forerunner within the Australian beer landscape, particularly here in Sydney. This sale is reward for years of hard work.
At the heart of what makes this story worth discussing is independence. It’s a hot topic in the beer world, reflected by a preference for independently owned beer in Beer Cartel’s recent survey.
Some of the reaction echoed that of when Mountain Goat was bought by Asahi. However, the response didn’t feel quite as intense. Perhaps, while people still value independence, they’ve become more accustomed to these acquisitions.
Reactions vary from person to person. Some will continue loving and drinking 4 Pines beer, as “all that matters is the liquid in the glass”, some will boycott the brewery, while others will say “what does it matter, they haven’t been craft for years” because, well… actually I can’t explain that last one.
The announcement, although nailing some points that have become standard in these statements, was done with typical 4 Pines charm. It was pretty well written. Apart from that “joining forces” bit. It’s an acquisition. Let’s just call a spade a spade.
The “what you really want to know” is a fun little spin on the standard template announcement we’ve come to expect. It acknowledges all the questions and concerns beer lovers have when these deals happen. It also pokes fun at the militant craft beer drinkers who will deliver the inevitable backlash.
The thing is, many of those beer drinkers have been 4 Pines’ biggest supporters. So, while it puts across important points succinctly, the tone jars somewhat.
It’s a bold move on 4 Pines’ part to be so explicit with how things will and won’t pan out. Many an acquired brewery has claimed that there won’t be job losses but that’s not always the case. I certainly hope 4 Pines are correct.
The Brewery Who Cried Independence
This move is a far cry from 4 Pines’ response to rumours of an Asahi takeover just over a year ago. If it demonstrates anything it’s that breweries should be careful about putting independence, or an anti-corporate stance at the heart of their identity.
Selling isn’t hypocritical but it delivers a conflicting message after being “proudly independent” for so long.Selling isn’t hypocritical but it delivers a conflicting message after being 'proudly independent' for so long. Click To Tweet
We can debate buyouts/sellouts all day long. The most succinct explanation for that feeling of disappointment when breweries sell comes from British beer writers Boak & Bailey.
People buy from small breweries because they’re independent, because they provide an alternative. When that brewery sells, it takes all that financial investment from the customer with them. It’s gone. And not where the customer intended.
There’s an important point around the word “investment” too. There is a degree of financial investment from customers. They choose to trade their hard-earned cash for a particular beer because of what it represents. But there’s also an emotional investment. When the beer no longer represents the same thing, it can be tough.
That said, the “investment” from customers is nowhere near the level of investment by the people who actually own(ed) the business. They started it from scratch, built it up and made something valuable and, let’s be honest, amazing. Does one form of investment matter more than the other when it comes to selling the business? Absolutely. But many of us don’t like to think about that.
Particularly interesting in the case of 4 Pines is the longstanding opposition to the old CBIA. They refused to join until the large multinationals were excluded. When the CBIA changed their membership criteria and rebranded to the Independent Brewers Association, 4 Pines joined. Now, it goes without saying, they will no longer be members.
What Does It Mean For 4 Pines & Sydney?
First things first, the quality of 4 Pines beer will not decline. If anything quality should get better because of the resources available to the production team. Will it change? Who knows? Maybe. Maybe not. But beers are changing all the time.
We now have a big crafty brand on our doorstep. With ABI investment they’ll be pushing to challenge brands like James Squire in the local market. We’ll probably see them appearing on more and more taps. They’ll be a good crafty option at many pubs and bars contracted to ABI brands.
Is that good for consumers who want flavourful beer? Yes, at least in the short term. Is that good for independent brewers and venues in Sydney? No. No it’s not.
It’s an incredibly smart acquisition by AB InBev. 4 Pines have a national presence. They’re already in some pubs and bottle shops that other craft breweries could only dream of.It's an incredibly smart acquisition by AB InBev. @4pinesbeer have a national presence. Click To Tweet
They have a core line-up of consistent and approachable beers which can be produced for a reasonable cost, but they also have their experimental and seasonal beers, including their barrel program. This selection of beers serves a range of different consumers. If the Keller Door and barrel programs are managed well, we could even see affinity for the 4 Pines brand increase.
Look at how AB InBev has managed Goose Island in the US. Their special beers are as beloved as ever before. Translate this to the Sydney and Australian markets and we could see an erosion of the craft vs corporate dichotomy that exists in our beer landscape.
We probably won’t see much reaction from Sydney’s breweries, at least not in public. It’s a pretty close knit professional network and there aren’t many people who have a bad word to say about 4 Pines.
In the medium to long term though we’ll probably see a push by other brewers to emphasise their independence. 4 Pines are nationally recognised as a craft option. Most consumers will retain that understanding of the brand and the products.
If independence is a major buying consideration as the IBA would hope it is, then it feels increasingly important for them to distinguish between what’s independent and what’s owned by multinational corporations.
But doesn’t this risk getting into something of a loop? A brewery is bought so other breweries shout “I AM PROUDLY INDEPENDENT” until they’re acquired and the same accusations of hypocrisy surface, and other breweries shout “I AM PROUDLY INDEPENDENT” until they’re acquired and the same accusations… You get the idea.
If anything, perhaps this 4 Pines deal will short that circuit. Breweries are going to need to be more particular in their choice of language. Retaining a local and independent facet to their identity is going to require some nuance. The days of banging the anti-macro drum are behind us.
However, the added resources available to 4 Pines will put pressure on other breweries, particularly here in Sydney.The added resources available to @4pinesbeer will put pressure on other breweries, particularly here in Sydney. Click To Tweet
It will force breweries to be clever in how they adapt in a changing landscape. The sale of 4 Pines to AB InBev is a landmark event in the evolution of our local beer scene and one that makes the future even more interesting.