After years of snapping up select craft breweries across the country, the world's largest beer company has executed its first web purchase. And not surprisingly, the craft community is up in arms.
Good Beer Hunting broke the story last week (at the hands of local writer Dave Eisenberg) that Anheuser-Busch InBev has acquired a minority stake in popular beer rating site RateBeer, a deal that's actually been cemented since October but was kept under wraps so each side could quietly put “points on the board” and prove the partnership's merits without making it public.
“What was attractive about [AB InBev subsidiary] ZX [Ventures] for us was you had people in beer, people enthusiastic about beer,” RateBeer Executive Director Joe Tucker said. “There was a tech savvy part to ZX that I really liked. There’s stability. And I think that made the choice.”
Immediately, the deal caused concern. At the heart of the matter: Is RateBeer, a user-generated rating site, a journalistic entity? And if it is, how can it retain its editorial integrity now that a massive beer corporation is part of ownership?
Dogfish Head Brewery's Sam Calagione was the first brewery owner to come out in strong opposition.
"We were troubled by the announcement last week that ZX Ventures, which is fully owned by the global conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev, has purchased a portion of RateBeer," he wrote. "We believe this is a direct violation of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics and a blatant conflict of interest."
Calagione did more than talk the talk, too -- he formally requested Anheuser-Busch InBev and RateBeer "remove all Dogfish Head beer reviews and mentions on the RateBeer website immediately."
That move was met with some criticism of its own, with some cheering Calagione for taking a stand while others saw it as more self-serving. Regardless, it drew a deep line in the sand. And other craft breweries have started picking sides.
One such brewery is Harpoon; CEO Dan Kenary responded to Calagione's tweet with one of his own.
We @harpoonbrewery agree. have sent email to Ratebeer asking to remove Harpoon and UFO ratings from the site. Cheers to true independence
— dan_kenary (@dan_kenary) June 6, 2017
"We believe in authenticity and respect for consumers. That's why we chose employee ownership to make very clear who owns Harpoon and UFO and what motivates us as truly independent craft brewers," Kenary told me of the tweet. "We have seen ABI make the argument that 'who brews your beer doesn't matter,' and we clearly believe otherwise. We are now seeing that attempt at obfuscation escalate to a clandestine attempt to control a formerly independent beer rating organization."
Local hard cider company Downeast Cider confirmed to me that they're following suit. Denver's Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales has requested its products be entirely scrubbed from RateBeer as well. Others are almost certain to do the same.
Rating sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate play a critical role in consumer decision. Oftentimes, they're the first point of education for someone choosing a beer at a bar or a bottle shop. Never heard of that juicy IPA enticing you from the tap handle? Google it, read a couple RateBeer reviews, and you'll be better equipped to make a decision. So while there's politics and money involved on both sides here, it's not insignificant for a brewery to asked to be removed from one of the most prolific rating sites based on principle.
"We think consumers deserve to know who owns their beer, and who owns the outlets that promote that beer," Kenary continued. "The conflict of interest inherent in ABI owning a site purported to reflect consumer beliefs is glaring enough, but the failure to disclose the relationship for such a long period of time is worse – and, like many of our industry friends, we just don’t feel comfortable being a part of it."