Josh Noel

Beer, travel, other things.

Josh Noel is the author of "Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business" and writes about travel and beer for the Chicago Tribune.

So, about that T-shirt …

A chuckle rippled through the craft beer industry a couple of weeks ago when one of three people to accept a Great American Beer Festival medal on behalf of Seattle’s Cloudburst Brewing used his 10 seconds of fame to unbutton his flannel shirt and display a salty sentiment to the crowd, both in the auditorium and those live streaming the event at home.

In red letters, below a mischievous grin and a Seattle Mariners cap, his white T-shirt read:

FUCK

AB-INBEV

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While the identity of that scalawag made the rounds — it was Cloudburst founder Steve Luke — what slipped past most people was Luke’s background: he worked for Elysian Brewing when that brewery sold to Anheuser-Busch (the American subsidiary of the world’s largest beer company, Anheuser-Busch InBev) in 2015. He wasn’t simply a passive observer.

While Luke said he didn’t face any criticism directly for the T-shirt, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. Though Luke “seems like a cool dude,” an LA Weekly beer writer said, he couldn’t “endorse (Luke’s) taunting of the craft breweries owned by Anheuser Busch … because for me — and I hope for you — it’s about what’s in the glass, not about the corporate structure of the people behind it.” (This sentiment is vital to the success of Anheuser-Busch’s entry into craft beer, as spelled out in Chapter 30 of “Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out.”)

Luke’s T-shirt actually dates to March 21, when Cloudburst released an IPA called Built to Sell, which was one of many jabs he and his brewery have taken at both Big Beer and the breweries that sell to Big Beer. Built to Sell — a reference to breweries such as Golden Road and Wicked Weed, both bought by Anheuser-Busch and which skeptics argue were created precisely to sell — was promoted on Instagram with a deftly staged photo and a sneer at the classic declaration that “nothing will change” following any brewery sale: “Built to Sell is an exciting, new mutually-beneficial partnership of Mosaic, Citra and Galaxy (hops) that will take you into the next chapter with promises of not changing a thing while ensuring growth and access to greater networks and other hollow corporate bullshit.” That was followed by a bevy of hashtags, including #foreverindependent, #couldsomebodyonceadmittheysoldoutforthemoney and, of course, #fuckabinbev. (With 1,735 likes as of this writing, Cloudburst hasn’t had a more popular post since.)

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Luke decided the shirt’s ideal encore would be at the nation’s largest beer festival. In the days before flying to Denver for GABF, he pledged to do exactly what he did: wear it as an undershirt and display it only if Cloudburst won a medal. Of 300-plus awards handed out at the Sept. 22 ceremony, the very first brewery called, with a third-place finish in the American-Style Wheat Beer category? Cloudburst.

The rest is sartorial craft beer history.

Though I’d never met him, I knew of Luke’s connection to Elysian through my reporting for “Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out.” Elysian co-founder Dick Cantwell — who very publicly left the company after its sale to Anheuser-Busch — told me that he watched Budweiser’s infamous “pumpkin peach” commercial during a Super Bowl party at Luke’s house; the commercial was a vortex of bad form, mocking the notion of a beer made with pumpkin and peach weeks after Elysian’s sale and months after Elysian had released that very beer. (Chapter 24 largely takes up the Elysian and 10 Barrel sales.)

Remembering that, and realizing he was the guy in the T-shirt, I reached out, wondering Luke’s motivations. He nodded to many familiar gripes against Anheuser-Busch — one of which happened right in his own backyard — as well as his own experience. Our discussion was edited for length and clarity.

Q: What led you to wear a “FUCK AB-INBEV” T-shirt in front of an auditorium full of industry folks?

A: There’s no good single reason. I wish there was, but it was just this culmination of constantly seeing what ABI has done to breweries it buys after it comes in, and all the little pay-to-play games and strong arm tactics in almost every market. A statement like that, we’re in this position where they can’t really mess with us — we make 2,000 barrels per year and we’re on draft at 50 or 60 accounts I have a personal relationship with. We’re fairly insulated from any repercussions. We basically take jabs at Elysian a couple times a year, making the original recipe for Space Dust or Dayglow and naming it something similar (such as Cosmic Lust for Space Dust) that allows people to put two and two together. The local market gets it and Elyisan stays quiet because there’s really no winning to that. If they were to give us a cease and desist, we’d be out there saying, “Look at them! Giving us a cease and desist!” We’ve made fun of Lagunitas (which sold to Heineken), too — we did a beer called A Lotta Nuthin’ Nuthin’ — so it’s not foreign to us at all to call out Big Beer in general. I have lots of friends at much larger breweries that could never make a statement like the shirt even if they wanted to. Really, it’s a rally cry — kind of a tongue-in-cheek rally cry.

Q: What was the reaction to the shirt as you displayed it?

A: I have no idea. I heard some claps and hollers, but when you’re up there on stage the lights are so bright, you can’t see anyone in the crowd. Afterward it was back underneath my other shirt, but there were some high fives and a lot of people were pumped. I’ve gotten lots of email and people coming into the brewery who certainly found it amusing and inspiring. Some people asked how they can get one, but we don’t sell that shirt. Monetizing it defeats the intent. I did make one for Dick (Cantwell), but he was like, “When am I ever going to wear this?”

Q: Any negativity?

A: The only thing was 10 Barrel (a Bend, Ore. brewery that sold to Anheuser-Busch in 2014) on Twitter on Monday. I’m good friends with the brewers at 10 Barrel and still friends with people at Elysian. I’ve done a pretty good job explaining where I’m coming from and had a fair amount of conversations with the people at those breweries that I care about to explicitly let them know what I do is not personal. It’s not knocking them as individuals or as brewers or even about them staying there for their employment. Everyone has their reasons for staying at Elysian or 10 Barrel, just as I had my reasons for leaving Elysian. We opened Cloudburst with seven ex-Elysian employees and have always had a “Fuck the big guy, we’re the little guy” attitude.

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Q: It’s interesting you say that about being “the little guy” because there’s this quote from Felipe Szpigel, who runs Anheuser-Busch’s craft portfolio, that made it into Chapter 30 of the book, where he very directly refutes that notion: “The concept of big versus small in craft is both old and unrealistic. There have never been so many beer options available to consumers, and that’s great. Consumers, just like retailers and wholesalers, have options. From our perspective, our focus is on celebrating, and amplifying, the beers, brands and cultures we have in our craft portfolio to provide great options to enjoy. We welcome all the brewers and cider makers that are focused on consumers and sharing amazing beers, ciders and experiences, as we are.” What do you make of that — the idea that there’s no such thing as big and small craft breweries competing anymore?

A: It shows me how scary good they are at bending the truth and blurring reality. A lot of what Felipe says, especially the second half of that statement, is a shared sentiment with small, independent craft brewers. But the story and reality of big versus small is alive and well, and will be forever. As a giant, ABI has the financial resources, the scales of economies, the vertical integration of ingredients, and the deepest of distribution networks that no small brewer will ever have. With those advantages, ABI has the ability to undercut every player in craft beer at a moment’s notice — and they do! They do this in every market, on the shelves and in bars. Their focus behind scenes is on choking out the beers, brands, and cultures of craft brewers — not celebrating and amplifying them.

Q: Are those feelings about Anheuser-Busch the reason you left Elysian after the sale? Why not stay and work with all those newly-available resources?

A: I was already pretty much working toward starting my own thing and everyone at Elysian knew; I told Dick I’d done everything I wanted to do there and if I didn’t try to open my own place then, I might never do it. After the sale happened, I tried to reach my capital goal to get out of there as quickly as possible. I stayed for five months while getting this brewery off the ground and saw just how inflexible they made things. I’m a creative brewer who never needed approval for anything and suddenly I needed six signatures to get something done. They came in and said, “We’re not buying the equipment here or the beers — we’re buying you as people.” It just came off so bad. It was like, “We weren’t for sale; the brewery was for sale.” It started off so rocky.

Q: And while you were still there, the infamous “pumpkin peach” commercial happened, while watching with a bunch of Elysian folks at your house?

A: You could hear a pin drop after that commercial. Dick had to leave the room for a while. The rug had already been pulled out and this was rubbing our faces in the dirt after that. What they later told Elysian was that pumpkin-peach was a crazy combination they never thought anyone would actually do. If that’s true, then no due diligence was done. That commercial was so ill conceived and tone deaf.

Q: What does it feel like to see beers you created, such as Space Dust, becoming a national play for Anheuser-Busch and now even made by Anheuser-Busch itself as the company becomes a dominant force in American craft beer?

A: It’s a double edged sword. Most of the capital I raised to start Cloudburst came from people who were like, “You made Space Dust and Dayglow? I love those beers!” It would have been a lot harder to raise the money if those beers hadn’t done so well. At the same time you feel like a pawn; they were attractive to be bought by ABI, and then they blew them up. I’ve had Space Dust made by Anheuser-Busch and I think it tastes nothing like Space Dust from the early days. That’s why I still make a Space Dust clone every year, so people in Seattle can remind themselves of what it once tasted like. Now I have friends on the East Coast who are like, “I’m drinking Space Dust! I can get your beer out here!” I’m like, “Why? Don’t do that. You could be drinking something from someone small and local instead.” It will forever have mixed feelings for me.

Q: Anheuser-Busch has tried to position itself as a vanguard of all craft beer, and made the argument that if it does well in craft beer, everyone else will, too. Do you see any value in that argument?

A: No, I don’t at all. Then why are your distributors undercutting pricing in local markets? I think they’re trying to be this wolf in sheep’s clothing, hoping people stop paying attention to where their beer comes from and what the intentions are behind breweries. One thing we pride ourselves on is that you know our intentions. We don’t have crazy aspirations to keep growing and take over local markets; I think transparency as craft beer grows is going to be more and more important. I don’t buy the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats thing. We’re all friends with bar owners who are offered two-for-one kegs from AB or Seahawks tickets or whatever. They’re not changing anything for the better.

Q: Most important — what’s the future for the T-shirt?

A: It certainly got more of a response than I thought it was going to; we ended up winning a medal at the Fresh Hop Festival right after GABF and the guy on stage was like, “Why aren’t you wearing the shirt?!” I told him I can’t wear it to every festival. I won’t be wearing it on stage at GABF next year, either. It’s kind of a one-and-done. But that doesn’t mean I won’t buy a bunch more iron-on letters and make more of them for friends.