When Craft Beer Goes Corporate
Is a brand a sell-out if it’s owned by a large corporation?
Rising Houston craft beer star Karbach Brewing wasn’t interested in selling when beer behemoth Anheuser-Busch started courting them more than a year ago. Karbach, named after the street it’s located on, was four years old, still a start-up, with an independent employee culture and brand identity to preserve. But the more Anheuser-Busch flirted with the craft brewery, the more it seemed as if each parties’ strengths and weaknesses might play well off each other and that a partnership could be mutually beneficial.
Anheuser-Busch, known mostly for Budweiser, the “King of Beers,” was delving into the craft beer market through its High End division, a line featuring eight breweries it had acquired since 2011, including Goose Island, in Chicago, Elysian Brewing, in Seattle, and Golden Road Brewing, in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Karbach, regarded for its German-style beers and hoppy ales, came to the conclusion that its suitor’s wealth of resources and experience was key to reaching the next level.
“We looked at the partnership through the lens of ‘How can we take our brand and make it stronger and continue to grow our brand and grow our sales and grow our employee base and continue to create a fun environment and have great jobs and keep our employees engaged?’” said Eric Warner, Karbach’s co-founder and head brewmaster.
When the deal was announced earlier this month, groans of “sell-out” surfaced, as if a favorite rock band had licensed one of its songs for a lowly car commercial. But who doesn’t want to get paid? Plus, partnerships in the world of craft beer are becoming the norm. In June, Independence Brewing, in Austin, made news when Petaluma, California–based, Lagunitas invested in it. Figures were not disclosed—nor were those in the Karbach/Anheuser-Busch deal—but to provide some perspective, last November, San Diego’s Ballast Point sold to Constellation Brands, an international producer and marketer of Corona and Modelo, for a reported $1 billion.
“I say judge us on the quality of the beer,” Warner said. “A-B has breweries all over the world that we can learn from. So my expectation is that the quality of beer is only going to get better. I would urge people to—if for some reason they believe the quality of our beer isn’t improved—you know, call us out on that.”
Get a dose of what Karbach tastes like now during North Texas Beer Week. This Friday, at the Omni Dallas Hotel, Karbach will be at the Brewer’s Ball, a night of food and drink with more than forty craft breweries present from across the country. Warner said he will be pouring the fourteenth release in the F.U.N. series, Roll in the Hay, a light, refreshing, white-wine-barrel-aged saison, as well as the fifth release in the Bourbon Barrel Hellfighter series, a big, strong porter aged in Old Forester and Jack Daniel’s barrels. These beers represent Karbach’s ability to execute a wide range of beers, including Belgians, lagers, ales (traditional and American), and barrel-aged beers, with an eye toward sours.
“That’s what’s great about craft brewing in America right now: the boundaries of traditional styles are being challenged,” Warner said. “I think it leads to innovation and more choice ultimately for the consumer. We can’t innovate enough. That’s kind of our philosophy right now.”
Warner has entered this wild territory equipped with the traditional brewing methods the Bavarians taught him. Spending his junior year abroad in Germany suited him, a German major at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Oregon. He wanted to get back to Germany after graduation but wasn’t sure of the capacity in which he could do it. During his senior year, he enjoyed cold ones at Widmer Brothers, Portland Brewing, and BridgePort—pioneers in the craft beer movement—and had an epiphany.
“I kind of looked at that and was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool,’” Warner said. “I wanted to learn more about it and figured out that I could go back to Germany and get a degree in brewing science for free because in the German university system there’s no tuition.”
Warner would wind up getting his degree at Technical University of Munich at Weihenstephan, a three-year program that included an internship at Brauerei Widmann, a now-defunct brewery just outside of the city. Back in the states, he brewed beer in Colorado. First he worked with German-style beers, including a mean unfiltered, Bavarian-style hefeweizen, at Tabernash (since merged with Left Hand). Next he focused on ales at Flying Dog (since relocated to Maryland). Around 2008, Warner teamed up with Ken Goodman and Chuck Robertson, founders of the College Station–based craft beer distributor C.R. Goodman, whose Texas division Ben E. Keith, the food service and beverage distributor, had just acquired. Goodman and Robertson were looking to start a brewery but needed a brewer so the three of them joined forces, along with five other founders, and opened Karbach’s doors three years later.
Today they find themselves in the corporate world. But that doesn’t mean the brewery has to go straight. In fact, Anheuser-Busch wants Karbach to keep experimenting and intends to invest in more pilot brewing to hybridize new styles, Warner said. This comes at a time when there are 189 craft breweries in Texas, according to the Brewers Association. That might seem like a lot, but there are nine other states that have numbers in the hundreds, four states with at least 200 or more, Washington has 305, and California boasts a whopping 518. That could mean there’s still a lot of room for growth in the Lone Star State.
“I think good beer is here to stay,” Warner said. “One of the craft brewers here in the Houston area, Southern Star, its owner, Dave Fougeron, has a great quote: ‘I’ve never met an ex-craft-beer drinker.’”
Omni Dallas Hotel, November 18, 7 p.m., ntxbeerweek.com/#/brewers-ball
Other Events Across Texas
Meat eaters, put down the brisket and direct your attention to Cochon Heritage BBQ, a celebration of the pig, wherein thirty chefs transform 1,500 pounds of pork into an array of international dishes, highlighted by a competition between five pros—including Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine, in Austin, and Timothy Rattray of the Granary, in San Antonio—who will have had the week leading up to the event to prepare a 200-pound whole hog.
Four Seasons, November 20, 3 p.m., http://cochon555.com/2016-tour/austin-bbq/
Six years and multiple stages later, composer Jake Heggie’s operatic adaption of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, commissioned by the Dallas Opera to open its 2010 season, will return to the stage it inaugurated, at the Winspear Opera House. What’s even more impressive than condensing a six-hundred-page novel into a sixty-page libretto is the vocalists’ ability to sing full-throated for three hours straight.
Winspear Opera House, November 4, 6, 9, 12, 18 & 20, dallasopera.org
Light Up the Sky
Not even a deeply fracturing election can deny the bonding quality of a good campfire outdoors under the night sky. At Lantern Fest, participants are equipped with a lighter along with a lantern that they can set off into the ether at the appointed time simultaneously. If that doesn’t achieve perfect harmony, then the s’mores kit that’s included with the price of admission should do the trick.
Texas Motorplex, November 19, thelanternfest.com/location/dallas/#233
Texas isn’t technically the South, but when it comes to hip-hop, Texas has played a major role in the birth of what’s known as Southern hip-hop, especially in Houston, where “chopped and screwed” was invented and where the Geto Boys and UGK reigned supreme. This will be on display at the Legends of Southern Hip Hop tour, featuring Scarface, of the former, and Bun B, of the latter.
Verizon Theatre, November 18, 8 p.m.; NRG Arena, November 19, 8 p.m.; hiphoplegends.com
Pride in Porsche
Chances are, if you own a Porsche, you are very proud of it. Feed your ego at Tejas Treffen (“treffen,” in German, loosely means “to meet”), celebrating music, food, art, and, of course, fine German auto engineering, with more than eighty sweet rides said to be on display.
Spring Street Studios, November 19, 3 p.m., tejastreffen.com