Recently, on a trip to the southern shore of the Georgian Bay in Canada, I found myself in the small town of Creemore, Ontario. Creemore is the platonic ideal of a small town in the sparse wilderness of North Ontario. While only a few square blocks, it's clean, well-kept, and chock full of artisan coffee shops, galleries, and general stores tucked into charming, restored historical storefronts. It's a rural town with the indicia of urban sensibilities, and it has a brewery capturing that same "oh-this-is-such-a-cute-town" vibe.
Creemore Springs Brewery is a quaint, but thoughtfully designed retail shop and tasting room with a sign that proudly boasts that this brewery is "100 years behind the times." The tasting room at Creemore Springs fronts a brewery that is visible, but not accessible and it is full of the trappings of artisan brewers: an old mechanical cash register, exposed brick, old wooden barrels, Edison bulbs, and, as a focal point, a decommissioned copper brewing kettle, inscribed with what one presumes is Creemore Spring's creed:
1987: We direct fire brew our beers in small batches as it was done centuries ago. We use our own pure spring water, the finest malted barley, specialty hops and select yeast. Our brewers take no shortcuts and make no compromises. Each batch is crafted by a team dedicated to producing the perfect beer.
True artisan stuff, right? A claim to a first-wave craft beer origin story in the 1980s, a dedication to centuries-old methods, a promise that they source their very own spring water and use only the finest "specialty" ingredients, one small batch at a time.
Overwhelmed by the small-town charm and the beautiful space, you’ll vow to quit your big-city job, move here, work in this small brewery, and fight the powers of big corporate overlords by dropping out, tuning in, and living the simple life of an artisan brewer in Northern Ontario.
You'll be brought back to reality when your paycheck comes from Molson-Coors, which acquired Creemore Springs in 2005.
To be clear: Creemore Spring's inscribed brew kettle isn't B.S. John Wiggins, a Creemore local, founded Creemore Springs in 1987 as a lager brewery using spring water from an artesian well on his nearby property. Over time, Creemore Springs began experimenting with darker malts and direct fire, and ultimately branched out beyond its original all-lager model. It took pride in its unfiltered and unpasteurized products, and it grew in its small town for 18 years, until Molson-Coors, one of the two largest breweries on earth, purchased it.
Despite initial fears within the company, the brewing processes have remained largely unchanged since the acquisition. The spring water is still trucked to the brewery for each brew, now at a whopping 10,000L (60 barrels) per trip. Creemore Springs still doesn't pasteurize its beer. And that beer is still perfectly fine.
So, what's the problem? They make the same product. Why is Big Beer ownership troubling if the small beer product remains unchanged?
Creemore Springs and its employees don’t see the problem. As its director of marketing, Karen Gaudino, said in a 2016 interview:
When we were acquired, people had a fear of what it would change. How it would change us. Let's be honest here, we all did. It was a fear of the unknown and how the future would unfold. But, true to their word, [Molson-Coors] kept their hands off of us.
We were bought to help us grow, not to change us. We still get comments and you know what? They are to be expected and we can't change that. But what we can change, or at least try to, is people's perceptions of us. We tell these people that ownership does not define who we are. We are still the same great people, making great beer and that's not changing.
Nothing changed. Well, except the three-fold expansion of Creemore’s production volume in a brand new brewing facility behind the original brewery, the canning operation and mass distribution center in the town down the road, and, perhaps most importantly, the overnight access to every Ontario beer store's prime shelf space. Other than that, it's just the same old small town brewery that is "one hundred years behind the times."
Today, Creemore Springs makes roughly 125,000 barrels of beer a year. Its cans, which beat its craft competitors to market in 2006 shortly after Molson-Coors acquired it, are pervasive on Ontario shelves with prominent placement in the "craft and local" sections. In 2016, Creemore Springs opened a restaurant in an upscale Toronto neighborhood under a sub brand called "Batch," which sells an ale-focused selection of "Batch" branded beers as well as Creemore Springs branded lagers to go alongside its $20 burger and $17 grilled cheese sandwiches.
Nowhere on Creemore Springs' or Batch's websites do they disclose their relationship with Molson-Coors.
On June 8th, 2016, with the enthusiastic support of many craft breweries, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed Act 39, the largest overhaul of the Pennsylvania liquor code since Prohibition. The Act provided a number of benefits to Pennsylvania consumers and restaurant licensees, allowing licensed restaurants and grocery stores willing to pay for additional licensing fees to sell bottles of wine to go.
But the most notable changes from Act 39 applied to Pennsylvania’s alcohol manufacturers: its breweries, distilleries, and wineries. Act 39 gave Pennsylvania alcohol manufacturers the ability to sell other alcoholic products that they did not make, so long as those products were made elsewhere in Pennsylvania. For instance, a Pennsylvania distillery can now sell Pennsylvania-made wine and beer. A Pennsylvania brewery can now sell Pennsylvania-made spirits. That was a big change. Previously, a brewery would have to purchase a restaurant license (which, in Allegheny County costs roughly $85,000; in Butler County, roughly $300,000) to offer those products. Now, it can sell those products without additional licensing, provided that they are made in Pennsylvania. And “made in Pennsylvania” has since come to encompass spirits “made,” for most intents and purposes, outside of Pennsylvania, but passed through Pennsylvania “producers” to create the required Pennsylvania nexus.
Under Act 39, Pennsylvania breweries can also, for the cost of a $30 permit, sell their products at an "exposition" -- a term broadly defined to include just about any event – for up to 12 hours a day, where they can sell their products by the glass or in packaging to go. Additionally, for the cost of a yearly $250 permit, breweries can sell beer to-go at unlimited farmers’ markets around the Commonwealth, including at multiple markets at the same time. By comparison a Pennsylvania restaurant must pay $500 per year for an “off-premises catering permit,” which can be used 52 times, but only up to 5 hours per day.
Finally, a 2017 judicial opinion following Act 39 and a related bill, Act 116 of 2016, interpreted the bills in tandem to allow every Pennsylvania brewery to license up to two "storage facilities.” These storage facilities would be able to sell the same products that breweries are able to sell at their manufacturing locations under Act 39, including Pennsylvania-made wines and spirits. What do the storage facilities actually have to “store?” In practice, only the beer, wine, and spirits that they intend to sell by the glass there.
These were enormous gains for Pennsylvania breweries and distilleries (the latter of which can have up to five storage facilities, all selling Pennsylvania-made beers and wines alongside their own spirits). The law significantly expanded PA manufacturers’ ability to sell alcohol throughout the Commonwealth without having to make additional capital investments in equipment or in license acquisition. And, manufacturers are able to avoid much of the red tape that restaurant licensees have to navigate. Storage facilities aren’t required to post bright orange PLCB placards inviting public comment or protest before they can open. They don’t have to be in the same county as the brewery; they can be anywhere. And they don't have to serve food like bars and restaurants with liquor licenses do; they can just serve alcohol so long as it’s Pennsylvania “made.”
These changes gave Pennsylvania manufacturers competitive advantages over bars and restaurants, but they were passed with good intentions: to boost our Commonwealth’s alcohol manufacturing and to hopefully create jobs as a result.
In January of 2019, just two-and-a-half years after the passage of Act 39, Cleveland-based Platform Brewing Company announced its plan to open a 10-barrel brewery and tasting room in Pittsburgh's Garfield neighborhood. Taking over an 8000 square-foot space on the 4800 block of Penn Avenue would put the brewery in striking distance of the hip neighborhoods of Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Shady Side, and East Liberty along with the many hospitals and new residential developments in that rapidly developing area. To prime the market, Platform released a collaboration beer with a beloved Pittsburgh bakery, Prantl’s. The beer, which they called "Torte," was a blonde ale flavored with Prantl’s Burnt Almond Torte, Pittsburgh's most celebrated pastry. Platform had already entered the Pittsburgh market several months prior to announcing its expansion plans, distributing beer through Millvale's Vecenie's Distributing Company, and had beer on tap and shelves throughout the city in grocery stores, beer distributors, and bars. Torte, which was put in cans and kegs, was no exception, putting Platform's brand front-and-center and right next to a trusted Pittsburgh brand for beer drinkers around the city. And the move worked. The beer received wall-to-wall press coverage and created high demand.
Platform opened in 2014 in Cleveland. It's notable for the sake of comparison that Pittsburgh-area breweries Grist House, Brew Gentlemen, and Hitchhiker opened that same year. By 2016, Platform had already opened a 60-barrel brew house in Cleveland, along with a taproom in Columbus. Earlier this year, Platform opened "Locoba," a tasting room and restaurant, in Cincinnati, continuing its expansion throughout Ohio and sending a shot across the bow of another rapidly expanding Ohio brewery, Cincinnati-based Rhinegeist Brewing.
To say that Platform has expanded quickly is an understatement. In 2017, it was the fastest growing regional brewery according to Brewers' Association metrics, ranking number one in the country in percentage growth of barrels produced. In 2018, it produced roughly 27,000 barrels. By way of contrast, Grist House (which had grown quickly by Pittsburgh’s standards) produced roughly 2,200.
Platform's rapid growth didn't go unnoticed in the craft beer industry, nor did it go unnoticed by Big Beer. On August 7, 2019, Platform announced that it had been acquired by Anheuser-Busch – AB for short – the largest brewery in the United States.
Following its acquisition, Platform will join Anheuser-Busch's "Brewers Collective," an assortment of 13 “craft” brands AB has acquired since 2011. They include Seattle's Elysian, Oregon's 10 Barrels, Chicago's Goose Island, Asheville's Wicked Weed, Colorado's Breckenridge, Virginia's Devil's Backbone, New York's Blue Point, Tempe's Four Peaks, LA's Golden Road, Houston's Karbach, Miami's Veza Sur, Michigan's Virtue Cider, and now Cleveland's Platform.
The Brewers Collective does not appear to have a website, but AB’s website mentions the Brewers Collective through various press releases expounding on its good deeds (and they are legitimately good deeds, including its pushing for fair wages and racial and gender equity in brewing). AB’s website also identifies Marcelo Michaelis as the President of “the Craft Business Unit,” and he has identified himself in various interviews as the President of the Brewers Collective.
As such, Michaelis’ bio may be the closest that AB’s website comes to describing what exactly the Brewers Collective is intended to do, stating that Michaelis “leads the charge to grow our craft breweries while staying true to the cultures that made them so successful in the first place.”
Upon acquiring Platform, Michaelis said in a press release that AB was “inspired by [Platform’s] experiential mindset” and that AB looks forward to “supporting their growth plans as they continue to push boundaries through their intrinsic craft values of education, connection and collaboration. It’s this growth that will give beer drinkers access to even more choices in today’s competitive and dynamic beer market.”
Dropping the corporate jargon, he explained the acquisition to Cleveland.com, saying that it all started three months ago, when he just happened to try two of Platform’s beers he found at a store:
Platform caught my attention. I felt intrigued by it and bought two different beers, and I really loved the beer… I was amazed that a craft brewery was doing great lager, doing sours … it was ‘Man this is very diverse.’ Then later on I figured out they have barrel-aged beers, they have white IPAs, and they have a very dynamic batch on the shelves.
Michaelis makes it sound like he was attracted to Platform because of the “diversity” of their beer selection, which he felt provided the consumers with “more choices.” This rationale is out-of-touch at best, and disingenuous at worst. It is far more difficult to think of a craft brewery that is not making lagers, sours, barrel-aged beers and white IPAs. Cleveland’s Fat Heads makes those beer styles. Rhinegeist does too. Just about every brewery in Pittsburgh makes all of those styles of beer. Even Great Lakes, Ohio’s biggest craft brewery makes all of those styles of beer.
If it is really about the beer for Michaelis, then perhaps it is the stand out quality of the beer that led BA to acquire Platform?
For the beer drinkers that I know who’ve had Platform’s product, that’s a difficult sell too. Platform’s beer isn’t bad by any means. It’s not great either. Platform’s beer is good enough and is largely comparable to most other craft breweries of its vintage: a mix of strikes and gutters, with plenty of stuff for everyone in between.
And that seems to be the consensus among Untappd users too. Platform has a 3.73 average on Untappd. That’s roughly the same as Great Lakes, which scores a 3.71. Fat Heads comes in at 3.86. Rhinegeist also has a 3.73. Some smaller breweries in Cleveland fare better. Masthead, for instance, scores a 3.99. And, of the three Pittsburgh-area breweries that opened the same year as Platform, none has a score lower than 3.91.
The notion that AB acquired Platform because it believes they make great beer is about as likely as Michaelis discovering a few cans of Platform and buying the brewery a few months later.
For their part, Platform’s founders seem to have an auspicious outlook under their new corporate overlords. Platform co-founder Paul Benner told the Cleveland Scene:
In speaking with the other craft brewery founders in the Brewers Collective, we know partnering with Anheuser-Busch means we will have the resources and the autonomy to bring our vision for Platform Beer Co. to life. … Being able to continue leading the day-to-day operations was an important factor in our decision and we have no doubt that this partnership will benefit our loyal staff and passionate customer base.
As it was when Molson-Coors acquired Creemore Springs, this is the promise of the Big Beer acquisition: sit back, relax, take our money. Nothing will change, you’ll maintain control, and we’re just here to help. However, true control, while it can be contractually negotiated for a time, always rests with ownership. And if the deal is as it was reported – a 100 percent acquisition of Platform – then those guarantees can only take its founders so far.
When Act 39 took effect, I winced a bit. It makes sense that a brewery could sell its own products for consumption on their own premises. No reasonable person would argue with that. I was more conflicted by the proposition that breweries and distilleries could sell other Pennsylvania-made products. Of course, I wanted to see small Pennsylvania manufacturers support other small Pennsylvania manufacturers, but when some local manufacturers started selling Yuengling – Pennsylvania’s largest brewery and the sixth largest brewery in the country with a checkered history of labor practices – I’ll confess that I had mixed feelings.
What I flat out do not like is that manufacturers can open up shop in other towns and cities across the Commonwealth, serving alcohol in places where they don’t even make beer (allowing them to poach business from the brewery that’s making beer right down the street). That’s an unfair giveaway, not a boost to local manufacturing.
Businesses were quick to exploit this portion of the law. For instance, a restaurant opened in Lawrenceville without obtaining a restaurant license, instead acting as a storage facility for a very small production facility that it had in another county. When I visited shortly after it opened, it did not serve a single drop of alcohol that it had manufactured, but it did serve plenty of Straub beer and Eastern-PA produced spirits (many of which were bottlings of spirits manufactured in Indiana and Kentucky).
Despite my misgivings, however, I remained largely silent. Most of the beer that our restaurants carry is locally made. The breweries we work with weren’t exploiting the laws, and I was happy to see them sell more beer, even if it was in “storage facilities,” farmers markets, or using an “exposition license.” These breweries were working on all the same things that I thought were good and right, and I was happy at their gains in a state that not long ago wasn’t a particularly fertile ground for craft beer. Fundamentally, I could rationalize even the parts of ACT 39 that I found to be unfair as “good for local beer and good for the local economy.”
But one thought did haunt me. I wondered whether Act 39 was a Trojan Horse that Pennsylvania craft brewers had just let through the gates. The law was intended to help Pennsylvania breweries. But what if a big national brewery learned to look like a little Pennsylvania brewery? What if that was the strategy all along?
Earlier this year Goose Island, the first craft brewery AB acquired to form the Brewers Collective, opened the Goose Island “Philly Brewhouse” in Philadelphia. To do so, it obtained a Pennsylvania brewery license under the name Fulton Street Brewery, LLC. Research that corporate entity, and you’ll find that Anheuser-Busch LLC is its sole member. Research further and you’ll note that Fulton Street Brewery, LLC holds a “Farmers Market Permit,” the permit created by Act 39 allowing breweries to sell beer and provide free samples at farmer’s markets.
In short, there’s nothing stopping Goose Island from going to every Pennsylvania farmers market, selling its PA-manufactured beer to go, and spewing the backstory that it’s a small craft operation from Chicago that just opened a location in Philadelphia. And the average consumer, not unlike me when I visited Creemore Springs, will buy it. They’re at a local farmer’s market, they’re serving beer, they have a place nearby, and they’d just love it if we stopped down to check them out. That same average consumer will go to the grocery store or beer distributor and see Goose Island cans (occupying prominent shelf space in the “local” section), and they’ll channel that same feel-good “local” experience from the farmer’s market, and buy a six pack (overlooking the Yards or Conshohocken cans on the shelf below). Budweiser can’t get away with that. But Goose Island can.
That is Big Beer’s new strategy to combat the rising tide of small, local breweries. After decades of attempts to diminish craft breweries, deride craft beer, and steer consumers away from it, Big Beer has learned that it is better to join the craft movement. To blend in. It can still attack craft beer from the outside with its marketing pushes (“dilly, dilly”), but it can also manipulate the craft market from within by acquiring craft breweries, then hiding behind their brands, using well-intentioned state laws to help them do so.
Since announcing its intention to open a Pittsburgh brewery and collaborating with Prantl’s to make a Pittsburgh-themed beer, Platform has done very little to get its Garfield space open, leading many Pittsburgh-area insiders to believe that the project was dead in the water. After announcing its acquisition by AB, Platform told the press that it still intends to move forward in Pittsburgh, and that the project will be bigger and better than initially planned. Regarding Platform’s proposed space in Pittsburgh, founder Paul Benner told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“The partnership [with AB] now is going to allow us to make it a more creative, interesting space than we would have pre-annoucement. … the highest quality of everything – equipment, finishes, entertainment. Now we can really let our creative juices go nuts in there.”
Ambitious talk like that, paired with the fact that Platform made very little progress on the space in the six months before the acquisition, makes you wonder whether Platform and AB knew of the possibility of an acquisition long before a mere three months ago, when Marcelo Michaelis claims he tried his first Platform beer. Could it be that AB was precisely interested in acquiring Platform not just because of its presence in the Ohio market, but also because of its fledgling presence in the Pittsburgh market?
Platform is the perfect front for AB’s quiet invasion into Pittsburgh’s craft beer market. It’s a fairly new brewery. Most Pittsburgh consumers don’t know much about it, but they’ve seen it, and they remember that “they made that Prantl’s beer.” Additionally, Platform has a touch of craft beer credibility in this market. To many in the craft beer community here, Platform was the “cool” brewery in Cleveland, because it was newer and edgier than Great Lakes and Fatheads, both of which had already been in the Pittsburgh market for decades. That cool, edgy, regional kinship is what AB believes that it can bolster and exploit, to pass off as a “pretty-much-local” brand here in the Pittsburgh market. They’ll have the added advantage of a Pittsburgh-based brew house and the laws that come with it to do just that.
Mark my words. When Platform opens here, it will put itself everywhere – at farmers’ markets and festivals, at sporting events and concerts, and on grocery store and distributors’ shelves. When it does, it will portray itself as a local brewery. It will try to be active and collaborate. But, regardless of how many times its owners-turned-founders invoke the word “partnership,” remember, Platform will be 100 percent owned by Anheuser Busch.
And that’s the rub. That’s how AB wants to slip this one by you. They say “partnership” instead of “ownership.” They will tout how well they pay their employees compared to their local craft competition. They will sell beer at cheaper prices. They will try to woo you. Then, after the memory of the acquisition announcement fades in the next news cycle, they will try to make you forget who they really are. Platform will be everywhere. They’ll be charitable. They’ll have a beautiful space. They’ll employ local artists and bands. They’ll be doing everything the right way. They’ll be hip and they’ll employ hip people. And when questioned, they will point to all of these things, and say, just like Creemore Springs, “we’re just the same as we were before.”
But they aren’t. They have AB money. They have more capital than every other craft brewery in the area combined. They can take long-term losses for longer-term gains. They don’t need to make money here. They can afford the things that your actual local breweries can’t. They just need to make you like them.
And don’t believe for one second that the things they do are the products of good intentions.
AB’s goal in entering the craft market isn’t to join the fun and support the movement; it’s to take back the market share it lost to craft beer over the last three decades. That means driving small, independent craft breweries out of business. And it’ll use the craft breweries that it acquires, like Platform, to do so. Along the way, it will keep acquiring and consolidating. One by one, it’ll put small breweries on the ropes, then buy them when they have no choice but to sell. AB will use their brands, but they’ll move production elsewhere. That means closing breweries. That means putting people out of work. That means harming the main streets and neighborhoods that craft breweries have helped rehabilitate here in Pennsylvania and around the country.
What gives me license to make these dire predictions? Because it’s exactly what Big Beer did to the market last century. Between 1940 and 1980, the five largest breweries in America grew their market share from 19% to 75%. And as they consolidated the market, they put breweries out of business in droves. In 1940, there were 684 breweries in America. By 1980, there were 101. Those 583 breweries that went out of business represent lost jobs, lost dreams, and lost neighborhoods. And they didn’t go out of business because America stopped drinking beer. In fact, the average American was drinking more beer in 1980 than in 1940. As Americans were drinking more beer and spending more money on it, Big Beer systemically shuttered smaller breweries around the country and took their share of the market.
That consolidation continued on a global scale into the 2000s. Anheuser-Busch is now itself a subsidiary of AB-InBev, a multinational drink and brewing company based in Belgium with main offices in Sao Paulo, New York City, London, St. Louis, Mexico City, Bremen, and Johannesburg. AB-InBev realized sales of $54.6 billion in 2018, and holds 28 percent of the global market share of beer sales. More than one out of every four dollars from every beer sold world wide goes into AB InBev’s pocket. And while AB InBev touts the jobs it creates and its charitable contributions, the fact is that money flows in one direction: up – to the top of a pyramid comprised of precious few people.
That, my friends, is what craft beer is really about. It’s not about hazy IPAs, fruited sours, or bourbon-barrel-aged stouts. “Craft beer” is about something far more important. It’s about reversing the carnage that big beer has wrought on cities and towns in America over the course of the last century. It’s about fighting back against the multi-national consolidation of an entire industry and the income inequality that follows.
And that’s why craft beer is so dangerous to AB-InBev. It’s not because craft breweries have the secret to making better beer. It’s because, collectively, independent, craft breweries want to turn back the clock on Big Beer’s century-long consolidation of wealth and power.
Acquiring craft breweries has never been about the beer for Big Beer. AB-InBev can make a perfect beer of any style it wishes. It has the technology, the ingredients, and the know-how. It doesn’t need Platform’s equipment. It doesn’t need Platform’s recipes. It doesn’t need its people.
What AB-InBev needs is Platform’s skin. It wants to wear the skin of the small breweries that it acquires so that it can masquerade as something it is not. It needs their skin so that it can blend in, right before your eyes.