The Cautionary Tale of Dick Cantwell and Elysian Brewing

Rebel Craft Brewing versus the Establishment

larger_brewery.jpgCraft Brewing runs in part on its hatred of macro beer (and the makers of such beer).  It gives artists and anarchists something to focus their creative energy against.  SeattleMet’s feature article on Dick Cantwell and the sale of Elysian Brewing to In-Bev is a must read for any member of the craft brewing community. In the article, “Matt Lincecum, who founded Fremont Brewing in 2008—now it’s one of the largest brewers in the state—says independent breweries are forever fighting Big Beer’s considerable lobbying and distribution clout: “To this day they actively try to kill our industry,” he says. “We’ve come up as the rebel force taking on the evil empire, and that gives us a community.”   

It is Artistry or Just Business?  

What happens when “one of your own” sells out to the large beer companies?  Are you still craft?  The case of Dick Cantwell is interesting and a good cautionary tale for anyone in the craft beverage industry.  As I am fond of saying, “This is a for-profit enterprise” so business rules must be understood and ingrained into the company’s culture.  Yet it is the creative fire of everyone in the industry that makes craft beer so compelling.  Creating a  balance between artistry and business is difficult, but it is mandatory for long-term success.  Craft beer drinkers are very discerning about the beer that they choose to drink. The branding of craft brewing ebbs and flows with the consumers perceptions of the company. Can a large expansion at a brewery disqualify it from displaying the “craft” label?  What about the private equity purchase of a minority stake in the company?  The Brewers Association classifies any independent brewery under six million barrels as a craft brewer.  Why is it that the craft beer drinker draws a much more precise definition of craft?

Figuring out an exit strategy is one of those things that very few people want to think about.  Dick says in this article, “Back then, says Cantwell, to have an exit strategy would show a lack of sincerity. Now he considers it a critical component of starting a business. He also wishes the trio had devised a mission statement for their new company, “so you have words to refer your partners to when you encounter challenges.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Knowing where you want to end up will help you make the correct decisions along the way.  If you don’t have a plan, you are going to end up in a place where you didn’t want to go.

Can Craft Brewing Culture be Defined by a Silent Partner?

Can the pain of losing the craft beer community outweigh the benefits?  There are strong arguments for selling out to In-Bev. It is well documented that In-Bev craft breweries provide better wages, health insurance, access to advanced equipment, almost unlimited access to raw materials. To date, In-Bev has left most of their acquired craft breweries alone and let their craft brewers be craft brewers.  If that is the case, then the daily life for a brewer remains relatively the same.  Yet many an excellent brewer will leave a craft brewery once the annoucement is made and the brewery is no longer considered craft.  There is a multitude of talent out here looking for a new home.  At Elysian Brewing, some of their brewing staff has already left to other breweries or to open a new brewery.  Dick Cantwell left Elysian after just a few months.  He walked away from a large settlement.  He says,”  “There were a lot of pretty exciting possibilities for someone in my position if I were a different person. I just can’t turn my stripes.”

Can a culture be defined by a silent partner?  Many a brewer would agree that it can.  With every announcement of a sale or partial sale, extremely qualified brewers start to call their friends in the smaller companies.  The idea that they would be helping the largest brewer to get even bigger, is quite a difficult pill to swallow, not to mention the idea of their recipes going to a large brewery in another state to be mass produced and sold along with  other In-Bev beer.  In-Bev considers craft a part of the “premium beer” market.  They have an internal target to reach a certain percentage of share in that market.  That is why that I’m pretty sure that In-bev is not finished with purchasing craft breweries in the United States.

Craft Brewing's Cloudy Crystal Ball

What can we learn from this story?  Is it the fact that working according to one’s conscience is as important as the paycheck?  Maybe.  I think it has to do with why people work in the first place.  If you are in it for the money, right now you will find the money.  If you are in it for the artistry, you will find fellow artists.  All I know is that the pace of change in the industry is rapidly accelerating.  We should not have been surprised.  The first craft breweries are close to 40 years old.  That is a long time for any one person to lead a company.  Once one person sells, it makes three more think about selling.  The only thing constant is change

Go to top