Sours – Big Beer’s Latest Sweetener?

This week has seen a flurry of newly-announced ‘strategic partnerships’ between small independent breweries and larger corporations. Two days ago, Colorado’s Avery Brewing Company sold 30% to Mahou San Miguel, yesterday Heineken UK took a minority stake in the Brixton Brewery – and overnight news appeared that Pirate Life in Australia had been acquired by AB InBev outright. It’s interesting that the first two of these deals are minority stakes, but to me the most interesting titbit was what AB InBev said about the buyout of Pirate Life – because it hints at a new way in which Big Beer can buy, but attempt to appease the beer fans. And it relates to sours.

Yes, craft beer’s latest magic bullet – or it was, until New England IPA arrived – could just be the carrot that breaks the camel’s back. It goes like this.

The most likely vociferous complainants about a former craft brewer being taken over by Big Beer are the beer-loving community, vocal on social media and who regularly attend Meet the Brewer nights, order beer online and generally know what’s what. Now these people happen to also be pretty much the only market for sour beer (aside from a sizeable pocket of people in the Low Countries). Like it or not, sours are nowhere near the mainstream and likely never will be. As Garrett Oliver [CLANG] told the crowd during a Brooklyn Ghost Bottle event in Edinburgh in 2016 – “Sour beers are less than one half of one percent of craft beer. But they are 95% of what craft beer fans talk about now.”*

*For 2017 replace sour beers with NEIPA and this comment just keeps on trucking

The interesting thing came partway down that press release from Pirate Life/AB InBev on the buyout. Essentially PL were in a bind having grown as much as they could with their current kit and needing larger premises. Enter the Big Boys with their oversized cheques – which beer commentators down under had been expecting apparently, due to the rapid rise in expansion Pirate Life had recently undergone. But the release confirmed the cashflow injection would be for a shiny new Pirate Life brewhouse and facility. And the existing one? It will now be used for small batch, experimental beers and sours.

If that isn’t a lightbulb moment for Big Beer, nothing will flick that particular switch. We’ve seen them acquire sour-leaning breweries before (as when North Carolina’s Wicked Weed also sold out to Ab InBev, back in March). But for potential acquirees who are sitting on the fence? Wondering about the backlash? Pondering what to do with their millions? ‘Hey guys, it’s fine. We’ll build a new brewery for your core stuff and push it to market. You can keep the old kit and go wild on it. Brew what you like! Go for IT! HIGH FIVE. NOW. HIGH FIVE US LIKE A DUDE. RADICAL!’

This could just be the new sweetner Big Beer needs for these deals. The cherry (beer) on top. They know that these niche beers are so small-scale, it doesn’t matter if they don’t sell. In fact, it’s probably better for them if they don’t. It removes a distraction from churning out their newly-gained IPA for supermarkets. And for the brewer who accepts a deal from Big Beer (either entirely or as a minority partner)? They get to let their hair down a little. Get back to brewing things that challenge them and forget about the punishing nature of building a business.

Want to take a chunk out of a smaller brewery? Don’t promise them the world – just sours.

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