Beer Mergers Brew Disaster

In the late 1800’s there were 4,000 breweries. By the 1970’s, just 40 companies operated 89 breweries. ILSR’s Ron Knox explains how the beer industry is now dominated by just a few large conglomerates who control distribution and present challenges for craft breweries. He showcases how when mega-corporation, Budweiser, bought SABMiller they promised efficiencies, that were never fulfilled. On the second half of the episode, Amanda Wright, Chief Operating Officer at Blaker’s Brewing details the unique charms of being an independent brewer.

 Reggie Rucker: Hello, and welcome back to this brand new season of Building Local Power. I’m your co-host, Reggie Rucker. And on this season, we’re tackling the issue of mergers and industries from internet service providers to electric companies, waste management, banks, grocery stores, and more that all have a direct effect on your individual ability to thrive in life and also your community strength and vibrancy.
On this season that we’re calling How to Get Away With Merger, we’ll talk to specialists in these industries to unpack how are these companies able to avoid deeper scrutiny and get past regulatory agencies despite the harms these mergers pose to their respective industries and ultimately the harm to communities and customers. And we’ll also continue to share the stories from folks on the frontline who are perhaps the most affected by these mergers. It’s going to be a great season. First up, we’re going to have some fun and talk beer. And to get into it, let me toss it over to my co-host, Luke Gannon, who makes every hour a happy one. What’s up, Luke?
Luke Gannon: Thank you, Reggie. We have a great lineup of mergers this season. Today, we are talking about one of the largest beer mergers in history when AB InBev bought SABMiller for over $100 billion. Leading up to this merger, and for the years after, the beer industry has experienced wave after wave of consolidation. Let’s jump into the show.
Ron Knox is the senior researcher and writer for the Independent Business team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He loves drinking beer, and I know this because he had an anti-monopoly happy hour, and every time we’ve been at a team retreat together, he’s asked me what the best local beer is. And he has also written extensively about concentration in the beer industry. We’re so happy to have you here today on the show, Ron. Thanks for joining us.
Ron Knox: Thank you, Luke. Nice to be here.
Luke Gannon: All right. So Ron, can you tell us about the beer industry? Who are the big players? And how much of the market do they control?
Ron Knox: Since the 1990s or so, the two big brewers in the US and that’s Budweiser. They’re called AB InBev. That’s the corporate name, but everyone knows [inaudible] as Budweiser and Molson Coors, this other conglomerate that used to be called MillerCoors, they collectively dominate the beer industry. At one point, they sold two out of every three beers in America. And if you combine them with a company called Constellation Brands, which imports all the big Mexican beers like Modelo and so on, you’re getting close to three-quarters of the entire beer market that is consumed by just three companies.
 Reggie Rucker: Wow.
Ron Knox: So I know. It didn’t used to be this way, right. Before alcohol was banned by the 18th Amendment [inaudible] prohibition, beer was mainly this local regional product, right. There were more than 4,000 breweries in the US in the late 1800s in every corner of the country, right, at local breweries dated back all the way to colonial times, and they produced every kind of beer you can imagine, including super weird stuff that doesn’t really exist today, like molasses beer and beer brewed with fermented pea shoots and so on. Weird wild stuff, right.
And then, after prohibition ended, there were many hundreds of breweries across America, mainly making beers for a local audience, right. Transportation wasn’t great, refrigeration wasn’t everywhere, so beer was a local concern. But then, by mid-century, things started to change mainly through these kind of waves of consolidation that created and cemented the big beer oligopoly that we see today, and that change was like remarkable. It was transformative to the industry. So we go from 4,000 breweries in the late 1800s all the way to still kind of healthy 800 or so in the post-prohibition years to just 89 breweries that were operated by 40 companies in the late 1970s. And by then, Budweiser was fully the king of beers, and Miller Lite alternately tasted great and was less filling.
And basically the banality and uniformity of American beer really took hold. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the antitrust agencies did at some point try to step in the 1950s and the 1960s, and they tried to stop all of the mergers that were happening in the industry, the consolidation. They were a little bit late to the party, right. The industry had already kind of taken shape by then, but they did stop some beer mergers with the help of the Supreme Court, including one very famous case involving Pabst Blue Ribbon. But again, by the 90s and the 2000s, the antitrust agencies clearly stopped believing in blocking mergers, and the big beer companies saw that they had the green light to get even bigger.
 Reggie Rucker: Okay. So that’s a great summary of how we get to more sort of modern-day in the beer industry. I’m going to pull the curtain back a little bit for our listeners. We were preparing for this episode with Ron, and we kept asking sort of like, “What’s the one merger that we could really anchor this episode with?” And Ron kept coming back with, “I can’t really do this topic justice if we talk about one merger. It is a series of mergers.”
So we’re going to let you dive into that. But first, Ron, going to have you take us back to that sort of… that first big one. What was that first big merger in the beer industry that really set the stage for what we see today? And we’ll talk about the merger and what precipitated it. What were the factors in the market that made these companies really believe that [inaudible] merging was their best or only way forward?
Ron Knox: I think of one merger in particular as the first domino to fall that then led to this whole chain of mergers and takeovers in the industry. So again, I mean the scene setting, right. 1970s, we saw the decline of these big regional brands like Pabst and Schlitz, and then, eventually, you had this three-way monopoly between Budweiser and Miller and Coors. And at some point, they controlled like 80-plus percent of the industry. And the rest of that fragment that was left over was mainly imports and a handful of craft beers that had started to emerge on the national scene. And we will, of course, talk more about those a little later.
So to set up this big merger, the first domino that fell by the mid 2000s, the big three that I just mentioned, had all been bought by foreign companies, right. Anheuser-Busch got bought by InBev, which was this Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate. Miller was bought by South African Breweries, and Coors was bought by the Canadian brewer Molson. And it was still just the big three had all these takeovers, but that didn’t really change the makeup of the market. The thing that really changed the makeup of the market was a deal that happened in 2007. It was the first really monumental merger to hit the headlines. Miller wanted to strike a deal with Coors and move that consolidated or would consolidate the industry from the big three to the big two, like a true beer duopoly.
And what those companies said at the time this deal was floated was that it was all about efficiencies, right. The company said that, by striking the deal, they would cut down on their shipping costs. They could consolidate manufacturing. They could brew each other’s beers and the other one’s plants, and so on. And all of these efficiencies, quote-unquote, efficiencies would allow the companies to better compete with Budweiser that, at the time, control about half of the entire industry. And they said, “Look, if Bud has half, we want the other half, and then we can really compete in this kind of duopoly market.” It was this classic bigness begets bigness argument, and ultimately, the company said that it would lead to lower prices.
 Reggie Rucker: Imagine that regulators at the time weren’t having this, “Oh, yeah, you take 50, I take 50.” What was their response to that argument about whether these companies should be allowed to merge or not?
Ron Knox: Yeah, the regulator said that sounded like a good deal to them. So the Justice Department reviewed the deal, and they said that they believed the arguments of Miller and Coors, and what their analysis showed was that Miller and Coors didn’t really compete with one another, that they actually both just competed with Budweiser, which to me, a beer drinker, feels like a bizarre conclusion to reach as if drinkers never decide between a Miller Lite and a Coors Light when they’re at the bar or the store. They’re always just picking between one of those two and then Bud Light.
I don’t think that’s how it works, but that’s just my intuition. But that’s what they said. And so that’s what the government said. And so they thought that the deal would have no impact on prices, no impact on the greater competitive landscape of beer. So they cleared the deal unconditionally, and the whole investigation took eight months, which is nothing in the grand scheme of regulatory approval. And so, by 2008, Molson Coors and SABMiller operated as if they were one company.
Luke Gannon: Wow. Yeah, that is really quick. As I’m starting to learn about the regulatory process, eight months is nothing. So, in 2007, these two conglomerates merge. So now they have about, if I’m understanding, half the market, and Budweiser has about another half the market, approximately. What happens after this? In this 15 years now, 15 plus from 2007 to present day, what’s going on? Is there another series of mergers? What? Are these companies now just dominating the industry?
Ron Knox: Yeah, so that deal did seem to trigger this kind of new wave of consolidation in beer. So the first thing that happened is that AB InBev went on this buying spree, and this is largely, I think, a reaction to their competitors being allowed to get together or to its competitor. Its two competitors being allowed to get together and consolidate their businesses. So a few years after that, Budweiser bought Modelo, the biggest brewer in Mexico and the maker of some of the most popular Mexican imports into the US, including Modelo and Corona, Pacifico, and others.
In that deal, Constellation Brands got the rights to the Mexican imports. That was a deal brokered by the Justice Department. Now, in the Obama Administration, it was quite a different response from the kind of nonchalant clearance of the merger between Miller and Coors. But all it really did was preserve the status quo in the industry, and that was kind of the line that the Obama Administration Justice Department took. You can do these deals as long as nothing changes. That doesn’t mean it’s more competitive or that it’s not a monopoly situation. It’s just not necessarily getting any worse. So you had the Modelo deal, and then…
Speaker 4: Breaking news, a mega beer merger is [inaudible].
Ron Knox: Bud announced that they were going to buy SABMiller for a $100 billion, which still, today, sounds like a lot of money. [inaudible] a decade later, it’s a lot of money. And the deal would create not just the largest brewer in America but the largest brewer worldwide. It seem-
Luke Gannon: Wow.
Ron Knox: You’re so right. So you hear about that, and you go, “Holy.” So this is… It’s a remarkable thing, right. And no other industry that I can think of, has the second-largest company been allowed to buy the third-largest company, and then the largest company be allowed to buy the number two company.
So the Justice Department looks at it, and they did okay. Good not great result, right. They allowed the mega-merger to happen. They allowed the deal to close, but they essentially forced the companies to keep the status quo intact again and spin-off MillerCoors into its own standalone business, which is now known as Molson Coors.
Luke Gannon: So Ron, I’m trying to wrap my head around this. It seems like the monopoly problem in beer is as present now as it has ever been. Yet, when I search breweries in Minneapolis, there are a number that come up, and I’ve gone to quite a few here, and seems like the case in every town. So how do you sort of level this, that there is a massive amount of concentration, yet I can go to breweries all over the country?
Ron Knox: Right, right. It’s a great question, and it’s the question that I think befuddles a lot of observers of the industry and a lot of regulators as well. So it’s where the story gets interesting. Yes, you’re definitely right. I mean, there are, once again, thousands of breweries in America, more if you count brew pubs and so on. There are more breweries than there have ever been, and that’s amazing news. But sadly, it hasn’t meant the end of Big Beer. Instead, what Big Beer said was, “If you can’t beat them, you got to buy them.” So in the 2000s and into the 2010s, the rise of craft beer really did put a dent in the market share of AB and Molson Coors, right. Their market share dropped from around 70 or 75% of the market to around 60, 65% of the market.
That’s a significant shift, and a lot of that shift went towards the craft brewers. Suddenly, the bigger established regional craft brands like Goose Island in Chicago, Anchor Steam in California, New Belgium in Colorado, and so on, they were expanding. They were reaching into other markets around the country. And then this whole new generation of regional and local craft beer brands were rising up behind them and getting established in their own places all around the country. So, by the late 2000s, Bud had taken notice, right. Budweiser said, “We are literally losing market share in a way that Bud hadn’t in a half a century or more, right.”
So Bud said, “Okay, we have to get involved here.” So in the early 2010s, 2011, 2012, Bud made a play for Goose Island, and this was an earth-shattering acquisition for the craft beer community. This little segment of the beer world where independence was treasured, localism was treasured, right. These were the kind of fabric that made up the craft beer world. And suddenly Budweiser steps in and says, “No, you’re coming with us now.” So Bud buys Goose Island in 2012 and shakes up the entire industry. And then there was a cascading series of acquisitions both by Bud and by what was then known as MillerCoors, now known as Molson Coors. So the Budweiser craft beer, quote-unquote, craft beer portfolio grew from just Goose Island in 2012 to more than 20 beers a decade later. It changed the entire landscape of the beer industry.
Luke Gannon: You’re getting at sort of the flip side of my last question, which is when I go into a liquor store, and I see all of these different brands, it’s actually sort of this illusion of choice. It’s actually a lot of those brands are owned by the same company. Can you talk about this?
 Reggie Rucker: Actually, hold up. Ron, actually, before you get into that, your response to that, I just want to note that it sounds like Luke is spending a lot of time at breweries and liquor stores, and I mean, having a good time clearly.
Ron Knox: [inaudible]-
 Reggie Rucker: Go ahead. Go ahead.
Ron Knox: There’s some of the greatest places on earth [inaudible]-
 Reggie Rucker: Yeah.
Ron Knox: … so I can’t blame her, really. So it’s funny. I was thinking about this the other day. I saw a post on Instagram from the Teamsters, and the Teamsters were asking folks to boycott Molson Coors products because they were in a contract dispute with one of the breweries, right. And so these posts were telling people what brands to avoid. Like, “Don’t buy these brands.” And the list was literally like five entire Instagram slides long, like every Molson beer variety, Coors, Miller, the obvious ones. Then Blue Moon, Atwater Brewery, Fosters, Hamms, Keystone, Terrapin, literally on and on. It felt endless.
If you really wanted to boycott Miller, you had to show up to the liquor store with a list in hand because you wouldn’t really know which ones were owned by Miller and which weren’t right. And then with AB InBev, the list is just as long, if not longer. Obviously, Bud, Bud Light, Michelob, Busch, we know those. But then, between InBev’s international beers, it’s imports. And then the craft acquisitions, the list for AB InBev includes Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Kona, Shock Top, Goose Island, Elysian, Golden Road, Breckenridge, on and on.
So it’s like I said, the problem with the big brewers massive portfolio of beers, including the imports and the craft beers, is that for the beer distributors and the retailers, those distributors sell to, the big brewers can now push their brands without asking most beer drinkers and most bars to sacrifice the types of beer that they and their customers like to drink, right. So, if you’re a bar today, your customers are going to want you and expect you to have a few different kinds of things on tap, right. You need the big domestic brands. But then you also probably need like an IPA. You probably need a stout. You need a couple imports mixed in there that people want and so on.
With Bud and Miller owning all of these different brands, including imports and craft, it drastically reduces the need for distributors to carry a bunch of other independent beers, right. It doesn’t fully eliminate the need to carry those other things because most bars are going to carry the one or two really big local brewers. They’re going to have a couple taps for those that’s… It’s in those communities. In Kansas City, that’s Boulevard, and maybe a couple others. And then, maybe you get a Sam Adams, or you get a Lagunitas. But that’s pretty much it. I love examples, and I always think of, I go to a local bar here in my neighborhoods. It’s called Fric & Frac.
If you’re ever in Kansas City, you should go there. They have good burgers, and they have $1.50 tacos on Saturdays. That’s pretty cool. And they have maybe eight or 10 taps. And those taps, I pay attention to these things. The taps are Bud and Bud Light. The things you’d expect. A couple from Boulevard. But then the rest of the taps look like craft, but they’re actually beers brewed by Golden Road and 10 Barrels, both of which are owned by Budweiser. It’s this illusion of choice for the customer. They can get an IPA if they want one, right, or something similar. But the majority of those traps are… those caps are controlled by Bud and its distributor.
 Reggie Rucker: Okay. So Ron, before we move into, you kind of hinted at the challenges that these independent brewers are facing now. Do want to go back to sort of we were talking off-air and this idea that in a lot of mergers, you can’t… you don’t know precisely what happens as a result of the merger. You can make some good, educated assumptions and inferences based on the data out there. But here we have a pretty good sense. So can you walk us through what we know about what’s happened following this MillerCoors merger?
Ron Knox: Yeah, sure. We do know this, thanks in part to some great research about the effect of that first domino merger, right, the MillerCoors merger on beer prices using supermarket scanning data, which is pretty reliable and easy to analyze. So the thing that happened is exactly what you would expect to happen when there’s a merger like this one between-
 Reggie Rucker: Right.
Ron Knox: … two of the most dominant companies in an industry, and that’s beer prices went up. That’s not just the price of Miller and Coors products, interestingly, but the price of Bud beers went up as well. So that means either one of two things happen. It either means that the efficiencies the, quote-unquote, efficiencies that Miller and Coors said would come about as a result of the merger never actually took place.
 Reggie Rucker: Shocking.
Ron Knox: They just ended up… and it’s shocking. And they just ended up with this additional power to raise prices so they did it. Or even more shocking potentially, is that the efficiencies actually did come about through better transportation infrastructure between the different breweries or whatever, what have you. And they did actually lower their costs as a company, but they still just raised prices because they could.
 Reggie Rucker: Yeah.
Ron Knox: So one of those two things actually took place, and this speaks directly to the struggles of some independent craft beers. The other thing that happened, it’s important to kind of track this, is that again, the country was left with this true beer duopoly where AB InBev, MillerCoors, now Molson Coors collectively controlled more than 80% of the beer market with that other 20% fragmented between everyone else.
And what that means, and what’s important for the independent brewer, is that these two big brewers could do what they actually wanted to do, which was to exert near total control over their distributors, who were then, at that point, almost entirely beholden to either one brewer or the other. And this meant that the brewers gained this kind of stranglehold on which beers could actually reach the bar taps and the store shelves.
 Reggie Rucker: So, Ron, you keep teasing us with a little bit of the independent brewers and the challenges they’re facing. And so, on the next half of this episode, we’re going to talk to one of these independent brewers. From the research that you’ve done, tell us a little bit more.
Tell us that story of what are the challenges that these independent brewers are facing today as a result of all these mergers and the consolidation in the market. And then, if you can, sort of spin it forward, look into your crystal ball, and tell us what the future of the beer industry looks like.
Ron Knox: Yeah. So the challenges all stem from the distribution issue. So just a quick background for folks who don’t know much about the beer and alcohol industry. In most states, there is a tier system, right. So you have the brewers. You have distributors. You have retailers. And the three layers there are never meant to really intertwine. That’s in most states. It’s just kind of state-by-state thing. So in most states, distributors are totally independent companies, but of course, they have to distribute the beer that’s out there.
And when you have two companies that is Bud and Miller, MillerCoors, who are responsible for nearly 70% of all beer sales, you end up with either mostly… you end up with distributors who are either mostly or entirely reliant on those companies to make their businesses run, and the beer companies know that. So when they push their distributors to shelf certain beer to make sure that certain beers are on the taps in their local bars, it’s at the expense of the independent companies who don’t have that same power, that same leverage to exert over the distributors, right.
Okay. So what does this look like in practice? I had a conversation with an employee for one of the local AB InBev, one of the local Budweiser distributors, as he was filling the shelves at a supermarket wherever shopping, and we’re just chatting. And I just asked him out of curiosity, “What about incentives to sell certain beers or to push certain beers onto the retail level as opposed to others?” And he said, “Yeah.” He said, “At the end of every year around the holidays, employees at the distributor where he worked got a cash bonus on their paycheck if 90% of the beer they distributed over the past year were Budweiser products.” 90%.
Okay. So the challenge then for the independent brands, for the craft brand, is how do you get to be that other 10% if that’s your distributor? Okay. Especially when that other 10% probably includes imports. It includes the major national craft brands like your Sam Adams or your Yuengling. Okay. How can you possibly find your way onto the shelves and onto the bar tabs if the distributors are actually incentivized to not distribute your beer?
That is the problem with, again, these kind of cascading domino effect acquisitions, where suddenly these… the big beer duopoly have what they’ve always wanted, which is almost total control over the distribution system, and now the portfolio of craft brands to satisfy the taste of most beer drinkers in America. It’s a system that, for an up-and-coming craft brewery, it’s almost impossible to navigate, and it’s almost impossible to grow if that is indeed your ambition to grow beyond the super local level of just distributing in your own city or state.
 Reggie Rucker: And then crystal ball, you see any of this changing?
Ron Knox: I don’t know. Look, I think it’s really… This is such an interesting time to do this podcast because just a couple of weeks ago, AB InBev announced shockingly out of nowhere that they were selling a bunch of their craft brands to this third party called Tilray, which is this Canadian cannabis company, and they own the rights to a couple other craft beers, including SweetWater, which I think is pretty widely distributed and so on. So Bud said, “Okay, we’re going to… we’re selling them the likes of Breckenridge, 10 Barrel, Widmer Brothers, and Shock Top.
Shock Top is [inaudible] really big brands, and they’re clearly taking a step back from the craft brew scene. Now, this is… Bud’s just trying to roll with the shifting tastes of the American drinking public, and I think maybe they think that craft is on the downswing. If you look at the statistics, it’s not. I don’t understand the logic there necessarily. Craft is growing even as the overall beer industry retracts a little bit from its pre-pandemic heights. So what happens? So Bud sells these brands, and there is, I think, maybe the potential for things to change for the better for other craft beers because of this.
If Bud has less of an incentive to push its own craft brands into stores and onto bar taps because it simply doesn’t own as many. It simply doesn’t have the big robust portfolio that it once had maybe that’s a window for other regional or local beers to get on the store shelves to get in the taps. Maybe it’s a way for distributors to not have such a stranglehold on their business from their largest client, which is always Budweiser.
 Reggie Rucker: This is great. As always, Ron, love having you as a guest on the pod. So welcome back anytime, but now this is a really fun story to tell so glad you’re able to kick this off for us. Thanks for the time, man.
Ron Knox: I’m happy to kick it off with beer anytime, man. Thank you, Reggie. Thank you, Luke. Appreciate it.
Luke Gannon: What a wealth of knowledge. You can find Ron’s extensive research on consolidation in the beer industry linked in our show notes. For the second half of the show, we are hearing from a brewer out in California. But before we jump into that, I’m going to pass it over to my [inaudible] co-host, Reggie Rucker, for a quick break.
 Reggie Rucker: Thanks, Luke. So what I love about the conversation we just had with Ron was, yeah, it was definitely a little bit of policy, history, economics, all of that. I mean, anytime you hear efficiencies, you’re talking about business and economics. But at the foundation of all of this, and what I hope you heard over and over again in that conversation, are the basic principles of freedom and choice. The freedom as an entrepreneur and small business person to create and produce and deliver something of value to their communities and for members of those communities, these customers, to have a real choice in the products and producers they want to support.
Freedom and choice go together in this way, and both are denied when large corporations are allowed to get even larger through this process of merging. And that’s what we explore all season long on this season of Building Local Power. So if you’re a fan of freedom, a fan of choice, and, of course, a fan or a student of policy, mergers, business, and community development, bring more people into this conversation by sharing this episode.
Invite someone into a conversation about how mergers aren’t always a sign of some business winning as much as a warning of some communities losing. Take a moment right now if you’ll forget and share this episode and set up that conversation over a beer if that’s your thing. And coming up next, Luke takes you through the story of a burgeoning brewing company and brewer that is the essence of the freedom and choice we need to foster in our communities. Stick around.
Luke Gannon: Mergers and consolidation of the beer industry is not just an academic debate among economists and researchers. It involves and impacts the lives of real people. One of these people is Amanda Wright, a brewer and chief operations officer at Blaker Brewing in Ceres, California, a small city in the Central Valley region. Today, Amanda walks us through her journey of becoming a brewer and a community institution. Here’s Amanda.
Amanda Wright: I come from a small town, Linden, California, really, really small town. It’s kind of by the Stockton area. So I come from a really small, tight-knit place. I mean, I went to the school with the same people from pre-K until the end of high school, and my grandmother was like my librarian in high school. Well, elementary, high school. She kind of just followed me around. Grandma was always around, and your neighbors know who you are. You don’t lock your doors.
I remember moving into Stockton. The first thing that was a shock to me was when I was checking out a college out there, my friend reminded me to go lock my car, and I don’t do that in my hometown. And I was like, “Why would you do that?” Sure enough, guy got his car broken into. But that’s the tight-knit community that I’m from. Everybody does good for each other. Everybody looks out for each other.
Luke Gannon: Early in her career, Amanda worked in billing in the oral health world. By 26, she realized that the medical dentistry path was not for her.
Amanda Wright: I think when I decided to stop with the medical dental stuff was getting… I was a regional manager, so I was getting up into a lot of numbers. A lot of the one thing that I hate the most AR/AP. So I’m going in, and I’m having to talk to families that are having troubles and telling them, “I’m sorry, but I got to send you to collections.” There are still aspects that I miss a lot from that, working in that industry, of having the medical, the 401 benefits in general. I do miss that part.
But I think it was when I started having to reach out to families and be the bearer of bad news constantly that I decided to get out of it. It just wasn’t making me fulfilled in any way. And so I went back to bartending, which I happened to know how to do. And so I did that for quite a few years and until I knew what I was going to plan on doing next, and I started getting into tap houses and realizing I really just enjoyed not only the beer and trying new beers, but the conversation it brings.
Luke Gannon: People come together over beer. They engage in conversation. They laugh, smile, toast, and create a sense of community. That’s what first drew Amanda in.
Amanda Wright: I could easily be sitting at a table, and I’m not the most sociable person. I’m not a person to strike up a conversation but with a beer in their hand and I could be like, “Hey, what’s that?” It starts a conversation instantly. Everybody can come together over a beer. So it’s kind of when I started going into tap rooms, and my best friend used to work at the company that I currently work for, and she actually hired me on. And originally, I was a beer tender, and then I went to lead beer tending. And then the one thing I found was when I find a career or passion, I don’t really stop, and I will just keep climbing as best as I can.
So a couple of years later, I was… COVID hit, gave me an opportunity. Everybody unfortunately had to be laid off, but they needed help back there. So I started doing the grimy, dirty stuff, and one thing led to another, and I’m watching the guys, and I’m like, “Man, I could do that. I can make that. I would really like to share with somebody. I want to make something that a whole table can have a conversation about.” And so just kind started slowly, and I realized I loved it, and I realized that there’s so many more people like me, women especially. There’s only 7% of our industry are women. Of that there’s only 2% that are actually business owners.
So what I’ve realized is my place in this industry is really important to show other people, not only just women, whether older, younger, different colors, different orientations, different backgrounds, if you really, really like to do something, I want to be that person to give you an opportunity. Let’s figure out what you like to do. And so that’s when I fell in love with brewing was when I found out how versatile it is. You can go anywhere. You can go into marketing. You can go into ownership. You can go into sales. There’s so many horizontal movements that I realized, “Okay. Well, I know I love brewing, but let’s find out everything else.” So then I became the COO, and so now I do operations.
Luke Gannon: When Amanda started brewing, it opened up her inner creativity where she could practice both science and art.
Amanda Wright: I think the component that makes me the most surprised is the, not necessarily craftsmanship but that creativity. I was never a kid that could play an instrument or sing you a ballad. I can’t paint anything. I can’t really write you anything really super great.
But the one way that I found that I connect the best is when I start making beer, and I get to play around with those flavors and use a creativity that I wasn’t really used to as a kid. So I think going into brewing, actually, even though I didn’t have any foreshadowing in my childhood, it kind of brought alive that inner child.
Luke Gannon: Blaker Brewing is a farm-to-pipe brewery that uses fruit from nearby farms to brew the beer. It’s an homage to her community roots and home base that she treasures. Amanda also finds the tight-knit brewing community, especially among women in the industry, is much like the area where she grew up and is one of her favorite parts of the job.
Amanda Wright: It was really important to me that when I found brewing, I realized that that community is just the same tightness. We might brew internationally, and we might brew all around the world. I belong to a society called a Pink Boot Society, which is an all-women’s fermentable beverage society where we create support and help build scholarships for anybody in the industry, and we’re international, but it’s still such a small community inside the fermentation that it feels just like home. It feels like Linden just now we get to make beer.
Luke Gannon: Every brewer has their own style and philosophy. Amanda’s is centered on inspiring people’s flavor palettes.
Amanda Wright: When it comes to creating, I don’t know if it’s on purpose, but what I have noticed is a lot of my creations tend to be on the lighter side. They tend to be styles that are more [inaudible] to the mass, and it’s not necessarily for a marketing or sales reason. It’s simply because I’ve met a lot of people that say, “I don’t like beer.” And I’m like, “Hold on, hold on. Let me have you just taste a few things. You might not like copy beer. That’s okay. There’s so many other cool kinds. Let’s go towards ESBs. Let’s go hit up some… You can hit up some stouts. Do you want a porter? Maybe even try something sour.
But if you go into sour that has so many other small [inaudible] little areas you can go.” So I would say with my philosophy is I try to make sure that it’s something that is going to be easy for anybody to at least want to try. I just want to make something that’s going to inspire somebody. So when they taste, it’s going to make them think of, “Man, I want to share it with these people.” Or they’re going to taste it, “Man, this would taste good with this kind of food. Or, “This is going to be really good if I go on this adventure.” So I want to just kind of pair with everybody’s excitement, whatever makes them happy. I want to be there [inaudible].
Luke Gannon: With women making up just 7% of the brewing industry, it’s a must that women stay connected and empowered. Amanda and her fellow brewers in nearby Sacramento, Brittany, and Paulina, have woven a network of women brewers to provide mentoring and foster self-empowerment.
Amanda Wright: I think that now that as I’m growing in my career and I’m learning, sometimes, as a woman, you have that imposter syndrome, right. And so once that kind of goes away a little bit, and you allow yourself to be your awesome self where you are capable of so many great things, you realize that whatever you’re going to put out, make sure it’s content that you want out. Make sure it’s something that you want your name to make sure it makes somebody happy and smile, and somebody’s going to enjoy it if it’s going to be out there.
I think I’m still figuring out where my place is and where it can go as far as my effects on the community, but people that I really look up to, there’s a lot of really great women in Sacramento. There’s a woman named Brittany, and she works over at OPB or Oak Park Brewing, and she has created a brand where it’s all about… it’s called HER World, and it’s all about helping women, mentoring women to become the best. And that’s kind of… it’s a great model to look after. So I’ve seen her. I know that Paulina… Paulina, she is out in Sacramento, and she works for Drake’s, and she’s very active in our Pink Boots.
She’s very active in helping people. If somebody needs a job, she will go find you a job. If you need to find a scholarship, she’s willing to help you figure out a path to it. So it’s I want to be a person… Where those people inspire me the most is I want to be a person that shows you opportunities or helps you to an opportunity, but mostly, I want to lift people up in the community. I just want them to feel like they are invincible. I want them to feel like they can build whatever they want. So I don’t know what that looks like yet, but I’m well on the path to it.
Luke Gannon: Despite having this strong community network, sometimes massive brewing conglomerates who can dominate distribution networks with pay-for-performance programs and other forms of leverage make it hard for places like Blaker Brewing to thrive.
Amanda Wright: I do always say brewing is a community, not a competition, right. So we want to help each other and teach each other. If I learn something cool, I want to share it with you so that way you can do something cool. So if you do something cool, I’m going to do something cool back, and that’s how we grow. But you’re seeing these large breweries kind of come in and buy out these smaller ones, and either they keep it going and running or they shut it down, and that’s part of the beast that’s part of business, so I accept it as it is.
But I think the one that I feel the most is when you’re in distribution, trying to stay relevant in everybody’s portfolio. Trying not to get buried underneath everybody else who are those big, they do those big PFPs, or they just have big visibility, and people want to push their products. So what I want to do is I want to make sure that our products are as fresh as possible. I want to make sure that they are versatile. I want to make sure that they still have a place that maybe even if it’s a new place, which is a hard sell.
Of course, if you’re in marketing, you would know. It’s always hard to be like, “Okay, but trust the style. I know that no one has it yet, but trust it.” But trying to do things that hopefully will stand out because it is very, very easy to get very buried under it. And it’s sad as a smaller brewery to put in so much work, and you’re not seeing it on the shelves, and you’re not able to share it with everybody.
Luke Gannon: Despite making products that are new and unique, larger companies will often find a way to bury them. Getting shelf space as a smaller brewer is nearly impossible, but breweries like Amanda’s have to innovate and find ways to survive. And for Amanda, it starts with tapping into the community.
Amanda Wright: I would say for us to stay ahead of the game or relevant with these big companies, we’ve been doing these large events, and you get to have your beer there, right. So we make a beer specifically for that, and everybody does get to enjoy the beer. But what it mostly does is it brings people from all around. So the only way that I have found that, yes, Blaker will be on a shelf, and people will see it, and they know that we’re a brewery.
But the only way for people to really experience it is getting them into the taproom. And I think that’s what we need to do moving forward is either more tap rooms, just try to space out, or make sure that we’re big enough and we are well-prepared enough to have more people come in. Because I think that when people set foot onto a place, even though we’re small, when people set foot onto a place or into a tap room, and you can genuinely tell that there is a passion, people will want to drive that further than I possibly could.
Luke Gannon: Before we let Amanda go, we had to find out her recommended read.
Amanda Wright: I think when I first went into brewing, I had zero experience except for maybe a handful of home brews. So I was really nervous. And like I was talking about that imposter syndrome, I really wasn’t sure if I could do it, and I didn’t want to stop myself from myself. That would be so sad, especially when you find something that you’re so passionate. Not a lot of people do find a passion and get to stick with it other than maybe a hobby outside. So the fact that I get to do it on a daily basis. I wanted to make sure not to screw it up. And so there was a book called You Are a Badass by Jen… Sincero, and sorry, Jen, for screwing up the name.
But that book, while reading, it just constantly made sure that I was checking myself, my negative talk. How did I make myself feel good? What did I point out that I did positive today? And that book made me realize that that negative talk is just the only thing weak about me. And I think that not only as women just as humans, we have a lot of doubt all the time. And sometimes you’ll find something that was completely unexpected. I had no idea I was going to go into brewing, and it was the best choice that I ever could do to make that negative self-talk stop and say, “Go get your to work and show yourself that you can do it.”
Luke Gannon: Thank you so much, Amanda, for telling your story on the show today. If you’re in the Central Valley, please stop by Blaker Brewing and grab a cold one.
 Reggie Rucker: And one last thing before you go. If you like this podcast, please share with even just one person you think will enjoy it too. Let’s get these listens up and have everybody talking about how mergers are affecting their communities. And if you’re not a subscriber to the podcast yet, make sure to hit that subscribe button so you know when every new episode drops. And, of course, your donations are essential to help us keep this podcast going and support the research and resources that we make available on our website for free.
We truly welcome and appreciate it all. And one last thing, promise, send us an email. Send an email to buildinglocalpower@ilsr.org and tell us about your favorite brewery in your community. We’d love to share these on a special mailbag episode one day. We’ll keep an eye out. This show is produced by Luke Gannon and me, Reggie Rucker. This podcast is edited by Luke Gannon and Andrew Frank. The music for this season is also composed by Andrew Frank. Thank you so much for listening to this brand new season of Building Local Power.

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Music Credit: Andrew Frank

Photo Credit: Em McPhie, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Podcast produced by Reggie Rucker and Luke Gannon

Podcast edited by Luke Gannon and Andrew Frank

Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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Luke Gannon is the Research and Communications Associate for the Independent Business team.

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As Communications Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Reggie develops communications strategies and leads campaigns to build public support for ILSR local power initiatives. Contact Reggie with media inquiries.

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