The real howls of rage came one week later, during the Super Bowl. Anheuser-Busch InBev had just announced it would acquire Elysian Brewing, and here was the international beer conglomerate’s own Budweiser with an ad deriding craft beer as “fussed over.”
The commercial showed manly Budweiser drinkers clanking bottles while effete mustachioed craft beer drinkers bunny sniffed wee taster glasses. The ad sneered, “Let them have their pumpkin-peach ale.” Which is exactly what Elysian did at its most recent pumpkin beer festival, pouring a pumpkin-peach brew called Gourdgia on My Mind.
“Do you guys think we’re stupid?” chastised one commenter on Elysian’s Facebook page. “Buying your beer puts money in the pockets of your owners who sold out to a company who mocks us, and you.”
The deal began as Elysian’s three founders (and the company board) discussing potential succession plans for their 19-year-old brewery, an arrangement that would preserve Elysian’s name and—just as importantly—its tradition of experimenting with everything from blood oranges to dried jasmine flowers to build an arsenal of impressive beers.
When Anheuser-Busch InBev first came casually calling in early 2014, on the heels of acquiring regional breweries in New York, Oregon, and Chicago, Elysian’s founders didn’t find the idea of bedding down with Budweiser especially enticing. But neither were the multiple offers from private equity firms, most of which wanted to grow the business like crazy for a few years, then sell it to the highest bidder.
Some of those firms offered Elysian more money—way more—than AB InBev. Elysian CEO Joe Bisacca says the conglomerate’s execs talked about giving Elysian resources to keep brewing adventurous beers. As more drinkers reject mass-market lagers, the AB InBev team is building a brain trust to help them learn how to make beer for people with craft tastes. “They want to set us up in a box and stand back and watch,” says Bisacca. “They don’t really want to tell us what to do.”
In the end Dick Cantwell—cofounder, head brewer, and maybe the most revered name in Washington beer—was the lone vote against the acquisition. But as part of the deal’s terms, he, Bisacca, and fellow founder Dave Buhler had to sign contracts and stick around for a year or two.
When the purchase was announced, rumors abounded: Would the brewpubs close? Would the new corporate overlords make brewers use cheaper ingredients? Would AB InBev use Elysian to undercut prices and bogart store shelf space? Elysian still sets its own prices, and thus far Bisacca says life as an AB InBev subsidiary means better employee benefits, upgraded equipment, and retaining quirky facets of Elysian’s culture, like its practice of designing its label art by committee.
The only downside is…working for the very company most of its brewers went into the business to subvert.
What happens after the founders’ commitments are up is anyone’s guess, though Bisacca says the new owners want them to stick around as long as possible. Right now he wants to reassure the skeptics: “Give it 180 days and go in the restaurants, taste the beer, and tell me if anything is not as good.”
As for that Super Bowl ad, Bisacca looks on the bright side: Budweiser parent Anheuser-Busch reports to a team of executives keenly interested in craft beer. “If you’re the Bud guy, you just shit all over that project. I don’t want to be the Bud guy. He’s sort of fighting for his existence.”
This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.