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Brew Talks Colorado 2016

March 22, 2016

Ft. Collins, CO

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Brew Talks Colorado: M&A, Pay-to-Play and the Threat of a Bursting Bubble


A trio of Colorado’s most recognizable beer industry leaders joined Tuesday’s Brew Talks meetup, hosted at New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colo., to discuss the state of their industry.

Odell Brewing co-founder Wynne Odell joined Left Hand Brewing co-founder Eric Wallace and New Belgium CEO Christine Perich to address a myriad of issues impacting the U.S. craft landscape, including mergers & acquisitions, the influx of capital in craft, increasing competition and ongoing distribution challenges.

“I think things are shifting around us pretty significantly and I think we’re all trying to get our feet under us and figure out what is the opportunity in it all,” Perich told a crowd of more than 100 industry professionals.

Indeed, the craft category has changed dramatically in the last five years

. Production of craft beer, as defined by the Brewers Association, has more than doubled since 2010, to 24.5 million barrels. At that same time, the number of breweries has also grew from 1,758 in 2010 to more than 4,200 in 2015.

That growth has attracted investments from large international beer companies and private equity firms who view craft as a growing segment rife with opportunity. But it’s also created a number of challenges, as both new and established brands struggle to capture wholesaler, retailer and consumer interest during the most competitive time in the beer’s history.

Here are some of the more notable sound bites from Tuesday’s conversation. Complete video of the talk can be viewed below or on the Brewbound YouTube Channel.

On M&A Activity:

Odell explained why so many craft brewery owners are opting to sell all or parts of their businesses, highlighting the need for capital, access to market as well as a desire for liquidity and succession planning as the driving factors.

“Depending upon what an organization is looking for, they are going to have to take all of those things into account,” she said.

Wallace, meanwhile, recalled a moment in the “90s,” when things got “really, really, nasty and ugly,” and how his company went down the path of employee ownership in order to stay afloat.

“The craft “fad” or micro fad as it was called back then was really not doing much,” he said. “Getting the employees involved early on was really important. Now that everything is booming, and now that we are once again hearing people say ‘I am getting into the business so I can get rich,’ really makes me shiver.”

For her part, Perich said she wasn’t sure what impact the flood of new capital would have on marketplace dynamics, but expressed some concern over the distribution leverage that newly-acquired craft brands gain when they’re sold to larger entities like A-B InBev or MillerCoors.

“When you look at some of the deals that have been done, you can flip a switch and some of those breweries have access to distribution in a way they didn’t before,” she said.

“I think we’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop and see where things go,” she added.

On Future Transactions:

Odell said she was worried about the “future health” of new companies and the long-term growth potential for private-equity backed brewery businesses.

“I really wonder with some of these transactions if people aren’t just assuming that by having enough money to do whatever they want, they are going to make really solid decisions,” she said. “A lot of them, I believe, are going to go bad.”

Wallace, too, believes that a “second round of reckoning,” is on the way and he wonders who will be “standing there with a big catcher’s mitt,” to buy the private equity-funded rollups.

“Have all of you noticed that there’s more and more of us doing this and that we are all growing as a group but not all of us are growing as quickly as we once did?” Wallace asked.

“If your projections are off, and you have covenants to maintain, and you’ve got venture or family or big brewery capital behind you — they’ve got marching orders for you. It might not become evident in the first year, but it will eventually come to bear because they have to turn that money,” he added.

Perich, however, said it would be a lack of strategy combined with easy access to capital that will force some breweries out of business.

“If you have money and you have no strategy, you just throw things out there,” she said. “I think the people that are going to struggle are the people that don’t have a strong strategy to back it up or they get a little too far out over their skis, they built too much capacity, their projections are not realistic, whatever the case is.”

On Distribution Challenges

The group also explained that an increasing number of SKUs at a time when wholesalers are consolidating is making it more difficult to gain mindshare from distributors and retailers.

“How are distributors going to handle all of the SKUs and all of the breweries?” Perich asked. “How are they going to manage the inventory, the retailer relationships and all of those things? That is the bigger issue for craft breweries.”

So how do you cut through?

“It’s not easy,” said Wallace. “Ultimately, you’ve got to make impact on the marketplace. If you are selling copycat beers, without any reason to exist other than the fact that some other people are selling the same kind of beer, you are going to have a really tough road.”

On the Threat of a Bubble:

Odell and Perich both suggested that a market correction is likely while Wallace, in what is believed to be the first use of a polenta metaphor to describe a bursting craft beer bubble, also said he thinks a shakeout is likely.

“When you are stirring it, and it starts to get really thick and it starts to heave a little bit and bubble up. You don’t get these big bubbles on top. You get these bubbles underneath. It lifts up and goes ‘psssssh.’ I think we are going to see some ‘psssssh.’ It is not going to explode.”