Perhaps not since your favorite ‘90s rock band decided to sign with a major label has the idea of selling out been as front and center as it is in today’s craft brewing scene. After over a decade of rapid expansion, with the number of breweries in the US flying towards 5,000, the inevitability of consolidation is starting to wash over the industry with the biggest names, like Anheuser-Busch InBev (who most recently bought Devils Backbone), Heineken (who notably partnered with Lagunitas) and Constellation Brands (who grabbed up Ballast Point) garnering plenty of headlines with their acquisitions.
“Craft brewers” who have always defined themselves as diametrically opposed to “big beer” haven’t taken kindly to names like the ones above encroaching on their collective territory. So last week, Stone Brewing – one of the biggest players in the craft brewing scene (as it’s defined by the advocacy group the Brewers Association) – announced they were stepping in to try to do something about it.
Their new venture, called True Craft, plans to buy small stakes (no more than 25 percent) in independent breweries so they can grow without turning elsewhere, like large international conglomerates. Overall, Stone – as well as its unnamed partners – is planning to infuse $100 million into the industry.
“This gives craft brewers another option to selling out to Big Beer,” said Stone co-founder and former CEO Greg Koch according to the LA Times. “This gives them the financing and flexibility they need to flourish while keeping their soul and control.”
As the Times points out, details are still vague. Apparently, Koch and his other Stone co-founder Steve Wagner have been planning the idea for over a year, but decided to rush the announcement based on recent developments in the industry.
The biggest lingering question though is just how different getting funds through Stone's venture is than geting them from other sources, even those faceless conglomerates. Investments like these rarely occur simply out of the goodness of someone's heart and True Craft will likely tie its investments to some sort of expected return, although what that might look like hasn't been specified yet.
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But regardless of these important details, Stone is certainly offering an interesting proposition to breweries looking to make tough decisions about their future, and they doing it by once again reaffirming the old line in the sand between craft and the big boys, even as that line continues to blur.