Got Beer? Lagunitas: Trying to Take On the World

No one likes a sellout, but in the complicated world of craft beer sometimes even the most fiercely independent beer makers look the corporate world in the eye and blink. It’s actually more common than most people realize, and you’d be amazed at the number of so-called craft beers that have major corporate ownership. Not just labels like Blue Moon and Shock Top who are owned by Miller-Coors and Anheiser Busch respectively,  but AB-Imbev recently acquired Blue Point and picked up Red Hook years ago.

Even Magic Hat, about as bizarrely independent a brewery as you can find, has been passed around corporate owners like a hot potato since being sold by Alan Newman. So while it may be common practice for independent, well-loved breweries to sell out, in part or in full, it almost always comes as a shock when it happens to the last breweries you would expect, like Lagunitas, which just sold 50% of the company to Heineken.

Of course, the twist is that this isn’t the case of Lagunitas finding a corporate beer giant at its doorstep with a club and a contract. Rather, the other way around. Lagunitas has been a rampant success for many years, producing, among other things, one of the top IPAs in the country with their Lagunitas Sucks.

Instead, founder Tony Magee approached Heineken, and according to him, this deal isn’t about money. It’s about distribution. Lagunitas needs Heineken’s help because, quite frankly, it wants to take over the world.

Or, at least, take the world by storm. Heineken can provide Lagunitas with worldwide exposure and get their inspired beers like the Brown Shugga into places such as France, Spain, Germany and even into Asian markets.

While it seems like a great deal, the one worry that craft beer nerds always have is whether the quality of the beer will suffer. Many corporate beer giants will take over a brewery and immediately change the recipes in order to cut costs. Craft beer fans have been burned before with brands suffering under the corporate rule of macrobreweries more concerned with the bottom line than the top-shelf.

The question is whether the free-spirited Lagunitas will fall to such forces. Personally, I’m optimistic that they won’t. The history of Lagunitas is one of a rabidly anti-corporate entity whose escapades have attracted police attention. In 2005, the brewery was raided due to reports of the employees enjoying marijuana during their Open House parties. Of course, Lagunitas responded to the raid in kind, with their Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale. This all paints the picture of a company that sees rules as loose guidelines and refuses to let their independent spirit be squashed. Maybe not all microbreweries can survive corporate partnership, but I don’t expect a renegade brewing operation like Lagunitas is going to start producing watered-down, flavorless pilsners anytime soon.

They’ve never let someone else tell them what to do, or what to brew. If anyone can maintain their independence while still being leashed to a corporate giant, I think Lagunitas can.

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