You order a tasting flight of five one-of-a-kind ales at a historic brewery in downtown Toronto. Every one is a gem. Nice! At home, you want to find out more about this new craft brewery, but a couple of Google searches reveals they’re owned by—gasp—Molson! How can that be?
Allow us to explain. Bummed by flat sales of their easier-drinking, ice-cold lagers, the world’s biggest brewers have begun sweating small suds in a big way. For at least a decade, beer sales have been losing ground to wine, from 52% market share in 2000 to 45% last year. However, sales of “craft beer” have lately been enjoying double-digit growth.
So is it any surprise big brewers are making a practice of either buying microbreweries outright (as Sleeman did with Quebec’s Unibroue in 2004, only to be swallowed by Sapporo in 2006) or, more recently, by launching their own “craft breweries” (as Moosehead did when it launched Brampton, Ont.–based Hop City in 2009).
“Thirty years ago, people had one beer as their go-to,” explains Ian Freedman, president of Six Pints Specialty Beer Co., a.k.a. Molson Coors Canada’s craft beer division. “Now, thanks to more adventurous palettes and more craft beer companies giving consumers more choice, people are reaching for a wider circle of brands.”
Six Pints’ division has a “much more craft-beer-like culture than Molson,” says Freedman, noting that being small and nimble allows them to launch new products quickly. The division houses its microbrewery acquisitions—Ontario’s Creemore Brewing Co. and Vancouver’s Granville Island Brewing Co. among them—as well as it’s very own teaching microbrewery, the Beer Academy, in downtown Toronto.
But, like other “big craft” brands, Six Pints’ corporate roots aren’t disclosed on its website or its bottles. (Indeed, the home page suggests it’s “a group of beer enthusiasts on a mission to promote the love of beer across Canada.”) So here’s the real question: Should consumers be outraged? Charlie Papazian, president of the U.S. independent Brewer’s Association, thinks so. In a newspaper editorial, he called out big brewers for marketing their “faux-craft beers” as though they were from locally owned breweries.
Meanwhile, Liam McKenna, brewmaster at St. John’s YellowBelly Brewery, has a more zen-like position: “All beer is good beer,” he says. “Size does not dictate passion. I’d rather have my local brewery owned by another brewery than a bank.”