The news hit craft beer drinkers late last year almost without warning: 10 Barrel brewing, a Bend, Oregon craft brewery gaining national acclaim after bringing home medals at the Great American Beer Festival for several years, tucked itself neatly under the umbrella of the world’s largest beer company. Anheuser-Busch/InBev bought 10 Barrel and while it was not the first craft acquisition by the beer giant, it may have been a tipping point in an accelerating trend—AB/InBev acquisitions this year include Seattle's Elysian and LA’s Golden Road. Not be left out, Constellation (makers of Corona) bought San Diego’s Ballast Point just this week. And while outrage over the 10 Barrel sale in the beer geek community was swift (there must be a video on a Beer Advocate message board of the Budweiser Clydesdale’s pulling a beer wagon with the Star Wars Imperial March playing in the background) FWx wanted to see what was actually happening on the brewing floor at 10 Barrel a year after the sale.
First, it’s worth noting the humble origins of 10 Barrel. Just under 10 years ago, twin brothers Chris and Jeremy Cox dropped everything to start brewing beer and sell it from the back of their pickup trucks. And the Coxes certainly didn’t pick an easy place to do it. Bend, Oregon is (wonderfully) saturated with beer. The city of 80,000 people has 21 breweries; New York City (8.5 million people) has 26. Demand is high, but competition is higher. But with that competition, Chris and Jeremy say, comes camaraderie. “All brewers are friends,” says Chris. “We help each other out.” If the Coxes were short on hops, they could ask for some from Deschutes or Cascade Lakes. Or Crux or Bend or Boneyard. The brother-/sisterhood of brewing industry helped them survive. So did tirelessly brewing and selling beer to local Bend bars and restaurants. But what helped even more was good beer.
The Apocalypse IPA gave 10 Barrel the momentum it needed. The brewery used hops from nearby farms in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and the freshness of (relatively) local ingredients shone through in the beer’s taste. Drinkers noticed, and Apocalypse helped Chris, Jeremy, and business partner Garrett Wales—who had poured everything they had into their enterprise—finally break even after three years. They also offered the dark Sinistør Black Ale, which took home its first Great American Beer Fest medal in 2009.
As it grew, 10 Barrel didn’t need to look far for brewing talent. They wooed Jimmy Seifrit from Deschutes and Tonya Cornett from Bend Brewing to serve as brewmasters. They hired locals to work the production line so that they could brew with their buddies. When they could afford to, they experimented in the pursuit of innovative beers; at one point Chris and Jeremy wanted a “crushable” lager-style option they and their coworkers could drink at lunch and after work. What’d they do? They brewed their own and called it Pub Beer. It’s still available for sale in cans at their brewpubs—and in 5¢ vending machines on the brewery floor.
This is the kind of craft brewery mentality some worried 10 Barrel would lose when Wales and the Cox brothers sold their brewery to AB/InBev. People thought they sold out, that the brews would suffer. But the Cox brothers say—and a visit to the brewery seems to confirm—that 10 Barrel hasn’t lost the sort of start-up culture and focus on quality that has fueled the American craft beer boom. In fact, says Jeremy, the AB-InBev purchase has allowed them to further that culture with fewer worries. “We can do cool stuff that we never would have been able to do before,” he says. “We have the money to experiment.” They also have the money to expand: 10 Barrel recently bought a lot adjacent to its current 25,000-square-foot facility that will allow them to triple their size. All good things. The most obvious negative? “We have a boss,” says Jeremy.
Technically, 10 Barrel is no longer a craft brewery: The Brewers Association states that for a brewery to be considered craft, “Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.” But the local craft culture does in fact remain intact. The vibe at 10 Barrel is almost that of kids with rich parents who give them money to do what they want—and brewers Jimmy and Tonya are using that money to stretch the typical 10 Barrel offerings. Their small-batch experiments include a double golden ale aged in Pinot noir barrels, a pumpkin ale aged in rum barrels and Tonya’s Cucumber Crush (this author is not a huge fan of fruity beers, but the Crush is a surprisingly drinkable sour).
And 10 Barrel’s size—after the upcoming expansion, they’ll have the capacity to put out about 120,000 barrels per year—puts them right on par with other small craft breweries. So yes, they sold. Yes, they are now part of the most powerful brewing company in the world. And yes, people called them sell-outs. And the problems of consolidation in the beer world are certainly visible on the horizon. But despite all that Chris Cox says 10 Barrel’s quality hasn’t slipped with an increase in production, and that if it did, they would take responsibility. “We want to sell our beer everywhere,” he says. Their powerful parent could help them eventually do that.
10 Barrel’s beers are available in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Colorado, Nevada, and New York. You can visit their brewpubs in Bend, Boise, or Portland.