Commentary: No, Heineken is NOT Anheuser-Busch

Frankly, I had hoped to be well past the point of talking about acquisitions and buyouts and the like by this point in time. But the beer world had other ideas, as hot on the heels of Wednesday’s Wicked Weed news and fallout came word Thursday that Amsterdam, Netherlands-based Heineken B.V. purchased the remaining portion of California’s Lagunitas Brewing Company. Heineken now completely owns the brewery after purchasing a 50% stake in 2015. (Report courtesy Brewbound.) Of course, this immediately spurred reaction comparing this transaction with the Wicked Weed/A-B InBev acquisition news that had taken the beer world by storm the previous day. There is some fair sentiment about buying American-owned beers, if that’s what is important to a person. But it would be a blazing overreaction AND oversimplification to equally react to these two transactions.

It is important to keep in mind that Lagunitas is no novice of the craft beer world. They have spent nearly a quarter-century in the game, and are the 9th-largest brewery in the United States, according to The Brewers Association. While ABI has a couple of craft beer long-timers in their High End group, most notably original High Ender Goose Island, many of their acquisitions have been around for roughly a decade or less. Wicked Weed pushes this issue, having only been in business for about five years. In my view, the group at Lagunitas has put extreme levels of blood, sweat, and tears into their brewery, and it shows in the nationwide success of their brand. They obviously see major backing as a necessary next step for their goals, such as opening a European brewery, as mentioned in Lagunitas founder Tony Magee’s letter on the matter. After 24 years, I believe Lagunitas has earned the right to see where this next step takes them. Wicked Weed can make no such claim, having only been in the craft beer industry for a handful of years.

Additionally, unlike the Wicked Weed news, this is not an out-of-left-field partnership. As mentioned earlier, Heineken acquired the first half of Lagunitas in 2015, and instead of feared homogenization, Lagunitas has continued in their eccentric ways, releasing beers like Aunt Sally and The Waldo’s that ARE out of left field. The leaders of Lagunitas already know what to expect from their new bosses at Heineken, and vice versa, because the breweries have already been working together for nearly two years! Had there been any consternation about this partnership, it likely would have shown itself by now, and the next step of this purchase would not have happened.

Finally, quite simply, Heineken IS NOT ABI! When I look at Budweiser, I don’t really see Elysian, Goose Island, or now Wicked Weed all that much. I see the pale lager-led bullies that use their immense financial resources to turn state laws in their favor and bribe their way into more and more shelf space at your local supermarket. While I may not be a big fan of Heineken beer, it IS a major global brand, having their claws in major world entities like Formula 1 racing and UEFA Champions League football (soccer), as well as partnering with major media opportunities. But their non-Lagunitas beer portfolio consists of all international brands (Amstel, Tecate, and more) that, while adequately-represented in the United States, have not assimilated the beer industry like ABI has. That makes the Lagunitas news much easier for me to swallow.

Read the full press release on the news here.

The Lagunitas-Heineken pairing...

Last fall, I got to spend close to a month in Amsterdam, The Netherlands on a work trip. I had only a few days off during the trip, but I made the most of them, playing tourist and enjoying the sights and sounds of Amsterdam. Even more important, of course, was the food and drink of Amsterdam. Frankly, this aspect of the trip was somewhat disappointing, as most restaurants in Amsterdam are fairly American-ized. I had a few of the local delicacies, such as bitterballen, which is an oddly-textured beef croquette. The food scene probably would have gone better if I had had more time to explore the guts of the city. I expect, given such an opportunity, the beer scene would NOT go much better.

With the exception of The Beer Temple, an honest-to-goodness American craft beer bar, the Amsterdam beer scene was similarly disappointing--an endless collection of pale lagers and weak dunkel-style dark beers. The beer scene is led, of course, by a titan of Dutch industry: Heineken.

As you are probably aware, Amsterdam has been home to Heineken for well over a century. While I would never cop to being a big Heineken fan, there certainly was the Guinness-in-Ireland sort of effect--whether a result of freshness, a question of who is producing it in the U.S., a mere illusion, or some other reason--the Heineken IN Amsterdam DOES taste better--a slight hint of sweetness early on that I never recalled tasting here in the States.

Regardless, based on my time in Amsterdam, and my general experience with the Heineken brand, I never expected to see "Heineken" and "American craft beer" cross paths.

Until now.

Earlier today, Heineken announced a 50% ownership stake in California's Lagunitas Brewing Company. This seems to be a bit of surprising announcement in the craft beer world, especially from a brewery that seemed to have a fairly singular presence in the pale/light lager category of beer. But according to today's announcement, Heineken is, indeed, seeking to change their reputation, claiming "Lagunitas provides HEINEKEN with the opportunity to build a strong foothold in the dynamic Craft Brewing category on a global scale, with the category growing in popularity almost everywhere now." The agreement utilizes Heineken's distribution and production resources (some 180 breweries) to expand Lagunitas' on a global scale, a reach that will only be furthered by the 2017 opening of their 3rd brewery in Azura, California (joining existing facilities in Petaluma, CA and Chicago, IL).

In a quote to the Santa Rosa/Sonoma County, CA Press Democrat, Lagunitas owner Tony Magee says the new union "would not change the soul of or diminish the quality of its beers." History seems to support that statement. While some craft beer consumers continue to bemoan macrobreweries' continued acquisitions of microbreweries--such as AB InBev's purchase of Goose Island in Chicago, among others--there is no evidence that such acquisitions result in declines in craft beer quality. In fact, the AB Inbevs of the world acquire breweries because they want to ACQUIRE THAT CRAFT BEER QUALITY! A declining product would only be a waste of their investments. Now, part of continuing that quality is making sure you retain the people, and Magee and the Lagunitas work force are apparently going to remain. Thus, while keeping an eye on things, I see little reason to expect a loss of quality from Lagunitas' impressive beer line-up.

Though, it would be nice if Heineken made sure they didn't make ads bemoaning craft beers, like our friends at Bud Light did.