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Anheuser-Busch strategy prompts craft brewers to fight back with humor

The St. Louis Brewers Heritage Foundation says almost 60 breweries are operating or planning to launch in the St. Louis area.
File Photo | Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
A well-enjoyed glass of Schlafly Optic Golden Ale

St. Louis could become one of the next fronts in the battle between large and small beer companies.

A nonprofit group representing independent brewers is trying to slow acquisitions by larger corporations, like Anheuser-Busch InBev, which has been on a purchasing binge of the past few years, buying several prominent craft beer companies including Goose Island, Breckenridge and Wicked Weed.

"With the increased acquisition of independent breweries by big beer, including Anheuser-Busch InBev, we're seeing these small and independents get pushed off the shelf or restaurant menu in place of these newly acquired brands," Julia Herz of the Brewers Association said.

She added that craft beer producers account for 98 percent of the country's 5,700 breweries but only have 13 percent of the market share, and that is shrinking.

"In the first half of 2017, we've seen double-digit growth from previous years slow to 5 percent by volume," Herz said.

"So, this cooling off of growth is definitely a sign of what we're talking about here has merit and is worth attention."

The effort has centered on a tongue-in-cheek campaign for association members to raise $213 billion through a crowdfunding initiative to acquire AB-InBev. More than $3.5 million has been raised so far.

Even though buying AB-InBev probably isn't realistic, the campaign has received national attention and helped highlight the issue of the small players being squeezed out. The association said so-called Big Beer also controls many distributors, making it tougher for craft brewers to get their suds to beer drinkers.

St. Louis has a unique beer landscape. The North American headquarters of AB-InBev is here, along with a healthy craft sector with high-profile businesses like Urban Chestnut, Schlafly and O'Fallon.

"It's been super fun to see St. Louis evolve and continue to become a destination," Herz said.

It's not known if any of the smaller operations in the area will end up under the Anheuser-Busch umbrella. But the attractiveness of craft brewers around the world has prompted the conglomerate to set up a specific business unit called The High End.

Beer storage at the Urban Chestnut Grove Brewery and Bierhall in St. Louis.
Credit Wayne Pratt | St. Louis Public Radio
Urban Chestnut is one of several independent brewers that have carved out a spot in St. Louis' competitive craft beer sector.

AB-InBev established the division more than two years ago to give the company's craft and European brands "autonomy and support for growth."

In specifically responding to the Brewers Association campaign, which was launched this year, Anheuser-Busch tried to take a more serious tone.

"We will keep focusing our donations on giving back to communities across the country," the company said. It also highlighted its efforts to help in disaster areas with a donation of more than 2 million cans of water to Florida, northern California, Texas, Puerto Rico  and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

But AB-InBev also seemed to appreciate the humor involved in a potential takeover by the crowdfunding effort.

"We can take a joke," the company said in a statement.

Follow Wayne on Twitter: @WayneRadio

Wayne Pratt is the Broadcast Operations Manager and former morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.