Is Anheuser-Busch Done with Craft Brewery Buyouts?
Changes are afoot at The High End, the division of Anheuser-Busch created in 2014 to handle the company's stable of acquired craft brewers (and one cidery). Last week, A-B announced the layoff of over 300 salespeople, all from The High End division, in a move the massive brewer said was intended to reduce redundancy between the sales force at the corporate level and the teams at the acquired breweries themselves. But the announcement of these layoffs has also brought to light what could prove to be far bigger news in the beer world: Anheuser-Busch may be done with buying out craft brewers moving forward.
According to Tara Nurin, writing for Forbes, in an interview with The High End President Felipe Szpigel the Wednesday before the layoff announcement, he said that the company would no longer be focusing on acquisitions and instead would attempt to build more from the ground up. "Our plate's full," Szpigel said. "We have 10 amazing craft partners. Our focus is going to be organic."
If true (and having spoken personally with Szpigel multiple times in the past, I have no reason to believe it isn't), the end of A-B's craft beer buying ways would probably be more significant news than any of its acquisitions. Awaiting the seemingly inevitable announcement of the next craft brewery sale has been the norm within the beer would since at least 2015 when The High End bought out four craft breweries, more than doubling the number it owned at the time. Though activity slowed a bit since then, A-B has still acquired three more breweries since – Devils Backbone in in April 2016, Karbach in November 2016 and Wicked Weed in May 2017.
That most recent purchase created serious backlash in the craft brewing community with brewers openly abandoning their professional relationships with Wicked Weed and lambasting Anheuser-Busch InBev in public statements. Whether all that bad press resonated in a way that has led to this apparent new direction for The High End is extremely speculative, but an interesting possibility. However, it's also very possible that with ten brands, nine of which were acquired in the past three years and all of which were targeted regionally to cover most of the country, A-B really is at maximum craft beer capacity for the time being.