Stone Brewing, beer, and shifting sands

A lesson from last week’s news out of Stone Brewing – if you want to maintain credibility, don’t make a rhetorical rod for your back. We’re told Stone has been ‘challenging convention since 1996’, but laying off more than 50 members of staff in the wake of a multimillion dollar private equity investment is the epitome of capitalist conventionality. Yes, Stone (like Brewdog) is simply engaging in marketing hubris, but when the hyperbole is compromised by reality, its veracity is eroded. Also, it’s fucking boring.

While it’s doubtless that the aggressive acquisition strategy adopted by ‘Big Beer’ combined with the ever rising number of new ‘hyper-local’ breweries has stymied Stone’s growth potential in the US, it’s risible to apportion blame to the latter – especially as Stone claims to champion the underdog. Regardless, it’s clear that Stone and breweries of a similar stature, such as Brooklyn, are approaching a plateau in the US, leading the former to expand into Europe with its Berlin brewery and the latter to form a partnership with Kirin of Japan.

Meanwhile, Stone’s perennial protégé Brewdog is travelling in the opposite direction with its new facility in Columbus, Ohio, set to start production early next year. Given the recent slowdown in the growth of craft beer in the US, I wonder what Brewdog’s appeal will be in an increasingly congested market. It could be that beer geeks will be drawn to Brewdog’s ‘otherness’, ironically subverting the ‘hyper-local’ trend, with its beers sought out by those chasing alternative experiences (some have suggested Brewdog’s ‘Live Beer’ experiment was conducted with the US market in mind). Still, given the plethora of beers available to them, are American beer geeks as excited by the prospect of fresh Punk IPA as the UK equivalent seems to be for Stone Berlin’s output?

Returning to Brooklyn, its move to give Kirin a 24.5% stake means it retains the status of independent craft brewer under Brewers Association (BA) rules. Going forward, I wonder whether we will see the 25% ownership rule modified upwards given that the permitted volume of beer production was amended to accommodate growth from the Boston Beer Company? It wouldn’t surprise me if the larger US craft breweries lobbied the BA for this outcome in the face of increasing competition, as it would allow for growth while retaining their status (cognitive dissonance notwithstanding).

It’s clear that there are shifting sands on both sides of the Atlantic, and when the landscape changes you have to adapt, which brings me back to rhetoric. Having a company ethos is all well and good, but you’d be wise to ensure you’re not setting yourself up for a fall. Businesses necessarily react to changing market conditions – what are the odds on Brewdog selling out when it no longer likes the view on the horizon?

After all, who thought they’d ever see Johnny Rotten advertising butter?

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