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.

OctFest or ABIFest?

OctFest, which unfolded this past weekend in New York City, touted itself as "a one-of-a-kind beer, music and food festival."

In addition to the sounds of Vince Staples (big with the kids), Jeff Tweedy (big with the non-kids), Yo La Tengo (best band ever) and The Flaming Lips (do you realize they've played every festival ever??), 86 breweries and cider companies poured their goods across two days on Governors Island, just off the southern tip of Manhattan.

While perusing that list of 86 breweries and cider companies, something kept nagging at me: a lot of them seemed to be affiliated with Anheuser-Busch InBev. That unto itself was no surprise. OctFest was "presented by" Pitchfork ("the most trusted voice in music") and October ("a leading beer culture website"). But as has been made clear here before, where Pitchfork and October are involved, the interests of Anheuser-Busch usually follow close behind.

So I wondered: to what degree was OctFest an Anheuser-Busch InBev marketing vehicle?

One of the common gripes against Anheuser-Busch InBev as it transforms itself from craft beer onlooker to craft beer juggernaut is a lack of transparency. And so it was with OctFest. You'd barely know from looking at the festival's website that Anheuser-Busch InBev (or its American subsidiary, Anheuser-Busch) had anything to do with the event. The lone bit of acknowledgment that I saw sits on the OctFest ABOUT page, where it says in a particularly tiny font, "AB InBev is an investor in October through its venture capital arm, ZX Ventures." That's meaningless word salad to most people, and conspicuously avoids the two most relevant words to American beer drinkers: Anheuser-Busch. But let me interpret for you: Anheuser-Busch InBev owns October. (Whether it's full or partial ownership isn't clear; either way, it's clearly their vehicle.)

By funneling OctFest through October, few are able to discern Anheuser-Busch InBev's role in the event. Most media was sucked into the desired narrative, including the venerable The New York Times: "For the second year in a row, the music website Pitchfork and its spinoff 'beer culture' site October are hosting a festival that combines their areas of expertise ..." 

Even at least one brewery had no idea. New York's Sixpoint Brewing had initially agreed to take part in last year's inaugural OctFest. Once informed by beer writer Andy Crouch that it was largely an Anheuser-Busch InBev undertaking, Sixpoint backed out. “The team was not aware of the insidious nature of ZX Ventures, or ABI’s infiltration into media, beer-rating sites, and now (apparently) events as well,” Sixpoint founder Shane Welch told Crouch. Welch said he would rather pour "at a real beer fest." (Other breweries, as Crouch noted, saw value in pouring beer at OctFest. Others, which were aware of the Anheuser-Busch connection, declined to attend, according to an East Coast brewery owner who did take part in the festival.)

Since Anheuser-Busch InBev still isn't doing much to tout its role in the festival, I wondered: what else is being obscured? The 10 American craft breweries that Anheuser-Busch has bought since 2011 were all part of OctFest. How many of the other breweries and cider makers were also part of global juggernaut? With the help of Google, I found out:

 

Brewery                 Anheuser-Busch InBev?

4 Pines                   YES

10 Barrel                 YES

Austin Eastciders    NO

ABK Beer                NO

Archibald                YES

Balter Beer             NO

Barfuss Cerveza     NO

Bogota Beer Co.    YES

Bira 91                    MAYBE[i]

Birra del Borgo      YES

Blue Point              YES

Bocanegra             YES

Boxing Cat             YES

Braven                     NO

Breckenridge          YES

Brickworks Cider    YES

Bronx Brewery        NO

Bosteels                 YES

Camden Town        YES

Cape Brewing         NO

Circa Brewing         NO

Cisco Brewers        YES[ii]

Collective Arts       NO

Colorado                YES

Cerveza Cucapa    YES

DC Brau                  NO

Devils Backbone    YES

DeKroon                 NO

Elysian                   YES

Fifty-Fifty                NO

Firestone Walker    NO

Flying Dog              NO

Founders                NO

Four Peaks             YES

Gainsbourg            NO

Ginette                   YES

Golden Road          YES

Good George         NO

Goose Island          OBVIOUSLY

Hand and Malt       YES

Hanging Hills         NO

Hertzog Jan           YES

Jack's Abby            NO

Jolly Pumpkin         NO

Jopen Bier              NO

Karbach                  YES

Keegan Ales           NO

Kona                       YES[iii]

La Casa di Cura      NO

Laugar Brewery      NO

Lamplighter            NO

La Virgen                YES

LIC Beer Project     NO

Live Oak Brewing   NO

Lohn Bier                NO

Lord Hobo              NO

Mela's Craft Beer   NO

MIA Beer Co.         NO

Mill St. Brewery     YES

Monkless               NO

Narragansett         NO

Newlands              YES

Nicaragua Craft     NO

Ommegang            NO

On Tour                  NO

Patagonia              YES

Pirate Life              YES

Playground             NO

Pratinha                  NO

Radeberger            NO

Rogue                     NO

Sand City                NO

Springdale Beer     NO

Stanley Park           YES

Sunday Beer Co.    NO

Taihu Brewing        NO

Shop Beer Co.        NO

Cerveza Urbana     NO

Veza Sur                YES

Virtue Cider           YES

Wals Cerveja         YES

Wedge Brewing     NO

Wendlandt             NO

Wicked Weed        YES

Wild Beer Co.        NO

Zero Gravity          NO

 

Final tally: Anheuser-Busch InBev has a stake in 35 of the 86 breweries and cider makers that poured at OctFest — 41 percent. That included whole ownership of 33 of them.

So, yes. OctFest was very much Anheuser-Busch InBev's party.

OctFest makes a few things clear. Among them: Anheuser-Busch InBev has penetrated craft beer deeply and it has penetrated craft beer broadly. Of its 33 breweries and cider companies at OctFest, nearly every one was acquired during the last four years. They span 13 nations. Here they are, along with their home countries and dates of acquisition:

 

Brewery                  Country                   Acquired

4 Pines                    Australia                 Sept. 2017

10 Barrel                  USA                        Nov. 2014

Archibald                 Canada                   Apr. 2016

Bogota Beer            Colombia                May 2015

Birra del Borgo        Italy                        Apr. 2016

Blue Point                USA                        Feb. 2014

Bocanegra               Mexico                    Aug. 2015

Boxing Cat               China                      Mar. 2017

Breckenridge           USA                        Dec. 2015

Brickworks              Canada                    Dec. 2015

Bosteels                  Belgium                   Sept. 2016

Camden Town         England                   Dec. 2015

Colorado                  Brazil                      July 2015

Cucapá                    Mexico                     Aug. 2015

Devils Backbone     USA                         Apr. 2016

Elysian                     USA                         Jan. 2015

Four Peaks              USA                         Dec. 2015

Ginette                    Belgium                   Oct. 2016

Golden Road           USA                         Sept. 2015

Goose Island           USA                         Mar. 2011

Hand and Malt        South Korea             Apr. 2018

Hertzog Jan            Belgium                   (Acquired by Interbrew, 1995)

Karbach                   USA                         Nov. 2016

La Virgen                 Spain                       Jan. 2017

Mill St.                     Canada                    Oct. 2015

Newlands                South Africa             Oct. 2016 (via SAB Miller deal)

Patagonia                Argentina                (Founded by Ambev)

Pirate Life               Australia                  Nov. 2017

Stanley Park            Canada                   Nov. 2015

Veza Sur                  USA                         (Founded by Anheuser-Busch)

Virtue Cider             USA                         Sept. 2015

Wals Cerveja           Brazil                        May 2015

Wicked Weed          USA                          May 2017

 

(And this doesn’t even include all recent international acquisitions; at minimum, the list is missing Cerveceria Tijuana and Cerveceria Mexicana, Mexican craft breweries acquired in 2015.)

In addition to transparency, another common gripe from Anheuser-Busch InBev skeptics is that the company's forceful move into craft beer creates an "illusion of choice"; by snatching up so many breweries, then continuing to trade on them as the same brands they were before their acquisitions (which, granted, is the point of buying them), the world's largest beer company is clouding a consumer's ability to differentiate between small and local businesses and the breweries that funnel back to billionaires.

For instance, how was anyone at OctFest supposed to know that Cerveza Cucapa was owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, but Cerveza Urbana was not?

The guess here is that they weren't supposed to know that at all.

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[i] Bira reached out to Anheuser-Busch InBev for financing in 2016. So the actual state of that relationship is anyone’s guess.

[ii] Cisco Brewing is involved in a “strategic partnership” with the Craft Brew Alliance, which is 36 percent owned by Anheuser-Busch, and which Annheuser-Busch has an option to buy in the coming year.

[iii] Kona is owned by the Craft Brewers Alliance, which is 36 percent owned by Anheuser-Busch. It is also an important brand across the Anheuser-Busch distribution network.