Big beer, little beer, craft beer

Pabst BrewingInteresting weekend in beer news, and I’m not just talking about the Firestone Walker and Duvel Moortgat acquisition/merger/investment news or the just-wrapped Beer Bloggers Conference (next year’s BBC location: Tampa, Florida). What I’m also thinking of is one piece of news that may have gone unnoticed and unremarked-upon, but which I think is significant: Pabst Brewing will be opening a “microbrewery” and tasting room at the site of its historic brewery, shuttered for nearly 20 years.

That particular news was reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and picked up by several other outlets and I actually think it’s just as significant as the Firestone Walker news: not only does it further blur the lines of that nebulous term “craft beer” but it strikes me that as we see the continued acquisitional growth consolidation of these smaller breweries, this Pabst news seems to be going in the opposite direction—a macro scaling down, if you will. From the MJS article:

The brewery and tasting room, with around five to 10 employees, will be on the building’s ground floor. A restaurant and tavern, operated by Milwaukee restaurateur Mike Eitel, will be on the second floor, said Michael Mervis, spokesman for Blue Ribbon Management LLC, which is buying the building and will lease space to Pabst and Eitel.

Pabst plans to have the brewery operating by summer 2016, said Eugene Kashper, chairman and chief executive officer. The long-vacant building’s redevelopment, which will include an addition, will amount to an investment of roughly $3 million to $5 million, Kashper and Mervis said Wednesday.

The company will use the brewery to experiment with Pabst recipes for discontinued brands such as Old Tankard Ale, Kloster Beer and other beers made before Prohibition. There are old recipes in Pabst archives at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Golda Meir Library and at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, Kashper said.

“It’s very exciting for us to have this innovation laboratory, and to be back in our hometown,” Kashper said. “There’s so much loyalty and passion for the brand.”

Pabst might also use the brewery to create some new brands, he said.

(No mention that I found of the size of the brew system they are planning.)

I think part of what makes this interesting to me is that, for the past couple of decades, Pabst has been a contract brewer (or a gypsy brewer, perhaps?) without their own brewery, so the idea of establishing a brewery to be used as an experimental test bed for old and possibly new recipes sounds very, well, craft-beer-like. So does that make them “craft”? Or “crafty”? I don’t know, but I do know I’d be very interested in checking out that brewery and tasting room when it’s open and brewing.

On the other side with Firestone Walker and Duvel, I don’t have much to say—though this is the kind of thing I’ve been telling people will be happening in this new era of post-AB InBev buyouts. The biggest of the small/craft breweries will continue to grow and expand, and among some, consolidation is inevitable and it’s only going to speed up. In this way craft beer resembles “big” beer, especially if you remember the history of the post-World War II years in American brewing from Maureen Ogle’s excellent book Ambitious Brew.

I think the best comment on the FW/Duvel sale I’ve seen was a comment on Twitter (unfortunately, I don’t recall the provenance) to the effect of, “Any questions you would ask Andy Goeler of Anheuser-Busch [head of the division buying up the likes of 10 Barrel, Elysian, etc.] should also be asked of David Walker.” Absolutely, objectivity is key and you can’t lob the easy underhanded pitch to a craft brewery if you’re going to come down hard on the bigger one.

And speaking of questions, here’s one to ponder: is Duvel considered “craft” by the Brewers Association? If not, does that mean Firestone Walker is no longer “craft” by the BA’s reckoning?