Fireman's Brew

Fireman's Brew featured in Fortune

Craft brewers wrestle with selling — without selling out

For some craft brewers, a sale makes sense – and when ImBev or MillerCoors is on the doorstep with bags of cash, it can be hard to say no.

It happens every time a craft brewer is sold to a macro brewer: Fans groan. Select other brewers grumble. And the beer, no matter how beloved it was just a few weeks before, loses some of its cool factor. That’s, in part, because of the fiercely independent nature of the craft community—drinkers and brewers who feel they’ve helped revolutionize the beer industry in America (and they have). But because the craft beer world is still so immature, many supporters—and brewers—haven’t starting thinking long term yet.

It’s relatively easy to start a brewery these days — certainly much more so than five or 10 years ago. And few craft brewers have reached a level where they’re thinking about what happens to the brewery when they decide to retire. Some have, of course. In 1999, Full Sail Brewing became an employee-owned facility. New Belgium followed suit, moving from 41% employee-owned to 100% in late 2012. And last year, Harpoon Brewery hopped on the employee-owned bandwagon.

For others, it’s a family affair. Bear Republic Brewing, for instance, is split four ways amongst the Norgrove family – mother, father, son and daughter-in-law—and the owners plan to keep it that way moving forward. “Our purpose was not to open the business to sell it,” says CEO Richard Norgrove Sr.

Still, for other brewers, a sale makes sense — and when ImBev or MillerCoors is on the doorstep with bags of cash, it can be hard to say no. “I would be interested in having the conversation,” says Sara Brand, co-founder and co-owner of Austin’s (512) Brewing. “I’m not sure my husband [who’s the brewery’s other co-owner and brewmaster] would be. With that sort of cash to spend, we could do some interesting things. … If we could maintain certain creative rights, we would take that seriously.”

In some cases, the founder’s long term plans are secondary, since investments from venture capitalists or private equity investors require them to consider an offer. California’s Fireman’s Brew, for example, has raised over $1.8 million so far through private stock offerings. In March, it launched another round seeking $5 million. And chief operating officer David Johnson says if an opportunity to sell to a macro brewery presented itself, he’d ‘certainly’ consider it.