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Does It Matter Who Owns Your Favorite Brewery?

Illustration for article titled Does It Matter Who Owns Your Favorite Brewery?

The craft beer world has been showing signs of corporate adulthood for awhile now, with grownup stuff like trademark beefs, brewery expansions, and NPR sponsorships popping up as often as hop puns and pale ale variants did in the dumb-fun old days. It seems like sometime in the middle of 2013, every small beersmith in the country simultaneously turned to page three of the business plan, the one headlined “Stay Afloat Long Enough To Pay Back Mom’s 401(k).” This is probably for the best.

While the individual details can be tedious and ridiculous—last year Lagunitas filed (and quickly dropped) a lawsuit concerning the kerning of “IPA” on a Sierra Nevada label—most reasonable drinkers welcome this evolution away from the sloppy hippie capitalism that had too many breweries trying to position themselves as combination community centers/farmer’s markets. Beer-makers sell poison for profit; that’s a beautiful calling, but also a risky one, so it’s good that responsible breweries have started to replace Chief Karma Officers and Executive Directors of Foosball with dull shit like lawyers and licensed forklift drivers. This will help them stay in business, which will help the rest of us continue to get tastefully drunk. Everybody wins.

Everyone, that is, except the beer bloggers. I’m not going back on my claim that this racket beats the sweatpants off real work, but I will say that the margin’s narrowing. Just last week, I was having a leisurely Tuesday-afternoon lunch at a suburban Boston beer hall when my editor emailed to ask when and what I intended to write about the week’s big beer news, another lurch forward in Anheuser-Busch InBEV’s slow-motion takeover of SABMiller. Not a damn thing, I told him, as it was my wedding anniversary, and also who cares. The anniversary part was true, but the “who cares” part, that was bad. If I write about beer for a third of a living, I should probably have an opinion about the unholy matrimony of the world’s two largest brewski conglomerates. But it’s just so damn NOT FUN.


When all the regulatory hurdles have been run through and the anti-trust concerns winked at and nodded away, Miller getting Budfucked into global dominance must surely be bad, right? Monopolies, or at least serious market concentrations, hurt consumers. And it’s even worse when the companies involved are deeply committed to making cruddy beer. Oh, and now AB InBEV is being investigated for trying to manipulate distribution channels and crowd out independent craft breweries. Neat.

This shit MATTERS, which is why you should follow Jason Notte, who knows all about it. I mean that. It’s important news, and Notte is a smart dude. But he’s a real journalist, and I’m a recalcitrant good-time guy who just can’t muster the energy to embrace the Rovellization of beer media. So for the time being, the official Drunkspin stance remains, “I dunno man, sounds shitty. Drink anything good and less ethically fraught lately?”

I have! And even though I’m not the right man to explain precisely why ownership matters, I know that it does, which is why I’m so pleased that the largest brewer in my region, Harpoon, became employee-owned last year. I don’t really know the details, because, again, I didn’t come here to journalize at you. Something to do with an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), which is the same kind of deal Oregon’s excellent Deschutes Brewery has going. The breweries are pals in this and maybe some other kinky ways, so they’ve collaborated on the current edition of Harpoon’s 100 Barrel Series, a quarterly-or-so one-timer that usually commemorates this or that—say, a trip to Poland or a corporate reorganization, whatever’s going down around town at the time. It’s cool.

The new one is called EHOP Collaboration, a souped-up amber ale that comes in both Oregon- and Boston-brewed versions. I got the one made at the Harpoon facility in Boston; the Deschutes one is a different recipe, but both are big ambers brewed with sage, thyme, and employee-grown hops. Today, I’m talking about the East Coast joint. You do the West Coast one, and then we can fight.


I have to confess a slight bias against amber ales, which doesn’t make sense when you consider that Tröegs Nugget Nectar is one of my favorite beers, but does make sense when you consider that the timing and placement of my childhood put me in the path of many intimidating young women named Ambah! Still, I really like the Harpoon rendition of EHOP Collaboration, and here’s why.

It opens with a light chocolate-cherry nose, along with a forest-floor sort of piney earthiness reminiscent of healthy topsoil in which an attractive person with a healthy diet has been recently buried. The sage and thyme are present for sure, but judiciously applied; it’s not a weird stunt beer, but an honest amber ale that happens to taste a bit like good soup. This one grows on you with time, starting Fine and evolving into Very Damn Fine.


Buy either version of this EHOP Collaboration if you happen to see it. It’s no fun to think too deeply about who owns what, but it does matter, so it’s nice to be able to highly and mightily drink a beer born of a collaboration between two employee-owned outfits.

This is Drunkspin Daily, the Concourse’s adequate source for booze news, reviews, and bullshit. We’ll be highlighting a beer a day in this space; please leave suggestions below.


Image by Jim Cooke.

Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and some of his closest friends have met Certified Cicerones. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.

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