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98. Bad News Continues to Be More Ubiquitous in Craft Beer Than Hazy IPAs
Seems we're really losing the brewery that started it all; plus tarot for barreling through your roadblocks.
RIP Anchor Brewing
Something happened this week that, unfortunately—because it’s more often than not bad news—has happened a few times over the life span so far of this newsletter. I had the whole issue ready to go, and then we got a reveal in the beer biz that would feel ludicrous to ignore. This time, of course, it’s the Anchor Brewing news.
As he did with the news just a month ago that Anchor would be ceasing production of its beloved Christmas Ale and pulling back distribution to just within California, Dave Infante broke the news overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday: Anchor Brewing is fully shutting down. His detailed and continuously updated coverage is over at VinePair.
My immediate takeaways before even getting into big-picture stuff? The same-old-tune reasons given for this closure are fair enough—economy and market being what they are—but I think anyone reading about this has reason to believe some past and present employees that Sapporo ran this operation into the ground. This happens time and time again with different mergers and acquisitions, across industries: the big, sleek corporate entity coming in with the dollars doesn’t even understand or fully appreciate what it’s buying. Which makes you wonder what the appeal was in the sale all along. Anchor Brewing was never and was never going to be some mass market lager machine. The whole point lived in its history, both as a San Francisco institution and as the first true American craft brewery (127 years!), and in beers that reflected that history.
You could argue there’s just no place in our capitalist hellscape for brands to exist based on history, which has its own subsequent set of sad state-of-things think pieces that could be written. You could also argue that even if there was a place for just a few legacy brands, Anchor would be able to fill one of those limited slots, and the sad twist of fate is that a corporate buyer will just never get and honor that legacy. I think both are true.
I could very well be missing something or just proving just how little business expertise I have, but I also can’t wrap my head around last month’s canceling Christmas and going Cali-only, considering how close it was to the end. If C-suite honchos have known that the ship has already made contact with the iceberg for some time, which they have, and were making ham-fisted attempts to stave it off (again, without any real understanding of the brand), how did they reach those June decisions when the grim reaper’s arrival was only a month out? Aren’t those June decisions like…year-out plans? You see how 2023-2024 goes with those costs you swear no Christmas Ale will cut, and with sales just within the state, and then the future becomes clear? As Dave reports, much of the ingredients for the pricey-to-produce ale were apparently already purchased, which is wild because it flies in the face of the whole supposed goal of its noble sacrifice.
And as Kate Bernot reported in June for Good Beer Hunting, most of Anchor’s sales happened in California anyway, so the move was not as shocking as many initially thought, and could actually be a totally smart and logical move. One that would even pave the way for other regional breweries, who could benefit from some more nimble distribution and perhaps some value in exclusivity. But only a month later, and so, really not long enough to see any results of these moves in either direction, here we are.
The simplest thing to say here is that this is fucking sad. Anchor Brewing is one of the reasons we’re all here in the first place, considering its pivotal role in shaping American craft beer. Its beers had a unique legacy and real history. They were good! And hell, even if you only drank them sometimes for nostalgia’s sake, well…we all have that friend that we know we have nothing in common with anymore, but you’d better believe we’re going to close down our hometown bar with them at Thanksgiving because who else knows all those secrets and stories from the good old days?
It’s also fucking sad, obviously and most importantly, because of the loss of jobs. Additionally—again, see Dave’s reporting—it doesn’t sound like any of this has been handled particularly well. The press release from Anchor paints this as something employees have been aware of, when in reality, it seems they’re finding out from these press releases, news coverage that just shares the press releases without bothering to see what employees think, and even texts from Dave about the announcement. It’s shitty, full stop.
As for that big-picture stuff…this is nothing too brand new in beer. Hell, it’s nothing too brand new in the garbage-ification of every commodity we once held dear. Whoever reminded tech dudes and finance bros they could reach outside their industries, conquer every other business and gut it in a mad cash grab where, if something doesn’t immediately shoot off on an endless profit growth trajectory, you just blow it up and move on to the next? Congratulations, you’re destroying everything from media to entertainment to, yes, craft beer. Streaming services scrap multimillion-dollar movies when they’re already fully complete for tax write-offs; studio execs want to replace writers and actors with AI or at least pay them peanuts so badly, they’re running to
daddy the federal government to mediate their stand-off with the unions; and overlords like G/O Media also cling to AI in naked designs on streamlining vital journalism outlets in an updated revival of the time all media tried a “video pivot” and imploded.
Craft beer is all grown up now, and just as vulnerable to this as any other industry. I’ve discussed a number of times here in this newsletter that for several reasons—from potentially shaking out our number of breweries to only leave ones who make truly good, high-quality beer to doing the same but leaving only breweries fully dedicated to improving this industry’s culture—except the big one that is people losing jobs, I don’t think slow or no growth and some shrinking in craft beer is such a bad thing. The sad, frustrating, exasperating reality, though, is that much of those changes will inevitably continue to come in the form of bumbled M&A jobs, failures to appreciate the true value of many breweries, and other maddeningly avoidable blunders. This will exacerbate something else I’ve noted when talking about a stabilization of growth and perhaps slight uptick in closures, which is that this isn’t going to be neat, tidy, or satisfying. We’re going to lose good breweries, breweries we love, and we’re going to get to keep—lucky us—breweries that are shit, from their beer to their values.
My conclusion for now sounds lazy in its triteness but it’s the simple truth: this is all complicated. I can’t deny I’ve got a nagging desire to just stop paying attention for maybe five years and then check back in, so I don’t have to watch the aggravating missteps in real time. But, of course, that’s not going to happen; I’ll be here (almost) every week, continuing to commiserate on all of this with you.
This week, I pulled The Chariot.
The Chariot blazes forward with determination, self-control, and action—toward successful results. This card arrives when you’ve already come to some conclusion about your path forward or next steps in life: you are going to take that job in a totally different city, you are going to go back to school, you are going to give that relationship a chance, you are submit that essay or that homebrew to that competition. Now the gates are open and it’s full speed ahead. No more second-guessing yourself or your plans. The Chariot says, “Let’s fucking do this.” And, also, “You can fucking do this.”
Now is the time to put your heart and soul into whatever goal you’ve got going on. Channel all your confidence because the universe is telling you that you do indeed got this. And if that’s what it takes to remind you you’ve got every reason in the world to believe in yourself, so be it. You may even have to buckle down on that, because this is life in the 21st century, so there will be challenges, roadblocks, and haters. Not only can you not let those slow you down—because it would be stupid to let other people’s thoughts or a little extra hard work stand in the way of what makes you happy—but you also must remember to not take them as signs you’re not meant to have this or achieve this. That’s just the world being the world. You’re the one in control of your destiny.
I stumbled upon a French brewery called Brasserie de Sutter that has a whole line called Trois Chariots—Trois Chariots Brown, Trois Chariots Amber, Trois Chariots Blonde IPA, etc.
“In 1307, the Templars were arrested by order of the King of France, the Temple treasure was then evacuated from Paris using three carts. This treasure should have embarked for England but it disappeared before reaching the Normandy coast… Legend has it that it would still be hidden under the castle of Gisors!” says the website in regard to the range’s name. To honor this history, the beers are traditional styles, unpasteurized and bottle-conditioned to highlight traditional flavors.
This Week’s (Technically Non-/At the Very Least, To Be Read with Moderation, Wellness, and Self-Awareness in Mind!) Boozy Media Rec
There’s a pretty good chance that, by now, you’ve read Mark LaFaro’s “Tapped Out — The Problematic Culture of Overdrinking When You Work in Alcohol” for Good Beer Hunting, but I’m still highlighting it here because: frankly, the collection of this newsletter’s reading recs would simply feel very lacking without it; if there is any single person out there who hasn’t read it yet, let’s change that; and, it’s just so good, and so essential. If only when you decided to enter the beverage alcohol industry in any capacity at all, there was one magical, centralized office where you’d get your initiation, à la “The Good Place.” In that office, they would you have read this piece. In it, Mark unpacks real, urgent issues in this industry, which all seem just bonkers we’re not openly and thoughtfully discussing them all the time, and he does so with much vulnerability and care. I think many of us in various sectors of this community are grateful for this story!
Ex-BEER-ience of the Week
There was no newsletter last week, and the last two weeks have held many exciting ex-beer-iences. The week before last, I was lucky enough to get invited to a beer pairing dinner at Black Tap NYC, the beer provided by Threes Brewing. It really blew my expectations away—I expected fantastic lagers from Threes, and I was not disappointed, but the dishes from chef Stephen Parker struck a perfect balance between creative and comforting in the way that everything was exactly what you want to eat in the summer. And, he incorporated the different beers in completely unexpected, innovative ways—my personal favorite was salt made from IPA.
We also got up to Beacon and checked out the new Pillow & Oats Brewing, which is making some killer hazies and lagers, and visited one of my all-time favorite beer bars in the world, Draught Industries. An ex-beer-ience roundup here would not be complete without mentioning we also got back to Oktoberfest, an absolutely iconic beer shop a few blocks from the beach in Brighton Beach. It is tiny and satisfyingly very old school, and the beer selection moves seamlessly from classics to hype offerings to under-the-radar ones to imports you won’t find many places. You can also enjoy a draft at the one table inside or at one of the benches outside, which is a perfect post-beach tradition, especially well-complemented by a snack you secure there or in the area, like chechil.
Until next week, here is Darby at Pillow & Oats.