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When is Craft No Longer Craft? 

Buyout deals at Lagunitas and elsewhere give drinkers pause

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"Budweiser bought 10 Barrel Brewing in Bend, OR," wrote Lagunitas Brewing Company founder Tony Magee on Twitter last November (spelling and grammar cleaned up for this article). "Not because they love craft. Because they wanna control craft beer. Friends of 10 Barrel cheer its owners' 'success'. I can't blame them for being scared of doing it themselves; it's scary and hard going it alone. There's a storm out there, and beaching the boat on a windward shore has its benefits."

Ten months later, Magee announced that he was selling half his stake in the California-based craft-beer giant to Heineken International—making Lagunitas, at least by Brewers Association standards, no longer a craft brewery, since it's over 25 percent owned by a macrobrewery.

The Heineken partnership (which Magee wrote on his blog would "export the exciting vibe of American craft beer globally") is part of a larger trend of buyouts and investment deals among America's biggest local breweries that has "buy local" fanbases nationwide worried. The Belgian brewery Duvel Moortgat is the full owner of New York-based Brewery Ommegang and also owns stakes in Missouri's Boulevard Brewery and SoCal's Firestone Walker. Oskar Blues, of the 32-ounce crowlers and Lagunitas-style marijuana references in their beer names, is owned by an equity firm. Midwestern favorite Founders Brewing sold a 30 percent stake in itself last year to Spanish macro Mahou-San Miguel. And so on.

What's happening? Two things: Successful craft breweries need money to expand and keep up with massive demand, and never in the history of brewing have they been more valued by investors. "Anyone who does want to sell, should be selling right now," Brooklyn Brewery co-founder Steven Hindy told CNBC last month. "Valuations are out of this world. There are people swarming all of us wanting to give us money. In a two-week period, I had 17 different private equity firms that called."

For those of us not running breweries, though, what does this mean? Ten months after joining the InBev family, neither 10 Barrel's beer nor its audience has atrophied—its Beer Wars IPA Fest in August was packed to the gills yet again. But is it...different, drinking there now? Or would, say, Fresh Squeezed taste differently if Deschutes Brewery sold a stake in order to fund a new facility out East? Chemically speaking, that's very unlikely. But as craft brewing increasingly grows out of its locavore, screw-the-macros image, many drinkers are being rudely reminded that breweries, like any other business, can't run on goodwill alone.

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