The Coast News Group

Crafting North County: Local Brewers Selling Out?

Earlier this month, international conglomerate MillerCoors announced it was purchasing majority control of St. Archer Brewing Company, a craft brewer based in Mira Mesa. While some criticized the move as selling out to Big Beer, it opens a key industry leadership opportunity for North County.

Unlike prior acquisitions of American craft brewers, few details were disclosed about the St. Archer-MillerCoors agreement. The financial condition and management status of St. Archer have not been disclosed, nor at this point are they likely to be. There is some evidence to suggest that this sale may be providing some sorely needed debt relief and personnel restructuring.

On a positive note, pay, benefits and hours are likely to increase for workers. Product quality will also certainly improve with the professional guidance and vast resources of one of the world’s largest breweries.

Historically, most corporate acquisitions in San Diego have ended up with the local company closing up shop and shipping good-paying jobs to the headquarters of the new parent company, all for cost-saving purposes.  It’s clear that that won’t happen with St. Archer and MillerCoors. St. Archer has announced it is staying in San Diego, and MillerCoors has been in the midst of a strategic corporate reorganization, relying more on their “craft” portfolio and producing less beer overall. Long term, it will be leaning on St. Archer and other acquisitions like it for growth and profitability.

Over the coming years, we can reasonably expect more craft brewers to be partnering with, or be purchased by, international beverage conglomerates, including those based in San Diego. For North County’s 30-plus breweries and brewpubs, such a move would be a major shake-up in a community that prides itself on a strong reputation for independent, artisan, high-quality brews. Lucrative offers will certainly be forthcoming.

Would a Big Beer acquisition in North County be bad for local business? It depends on who you ask. Complicating matters is that craft brewers nationwide have struggled to define what it means to be “craft.”

When a craft brewer sells their business or partners with a macro brewer, there is also no formal process to determine whether they’re still part of the craft community. Perhaps there should be one — starting in North County.

An accredited certifying agent that certifies craft breweries and brewpubs in the United States could provide both the industry and consumers some needed guidance. A rigorous review process could determine whether a brewer is craft — and when it ceases to be. Distinctive product seals could identify certified craft beers, providing important information in a marketplace distorted by “crafty” marketing and million dollar ad campaigns.

It’s important to note that one of the world’s most prominent organic food certification agencies, Quality Assurance International, has been based in San Diego for more than 25 years. A craft beer certification agency based in North County would complement the presence of major craft brewers in our backyard, including Stone Brewing Company based in Escondido, and Mother Earth Brewing in Vista.

I don’t begrudge St. Archer for selling control of their business to SABMiller. There is no singular path to success in the brewing industry. Still, the craft brewing community needs to come to terms with their rapid pace of growth, and the need to seize control of their collective craft “brand.” Otherwise, marketing dollars from their competitors will do it for them.

Vince Vasquez is a policy analyst at an economic think tank based in Torrey Pines. He is a Carlsbad resident.