Hopslam: How Big Beer Is Trying to Stop a Craft Beer Revolution

A long-brewing fight between big beer and craft brewers is spilling over to Capitol Hill.

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"[We] have opposed any effort to dismantle or weaken this system precisely because it has worked so well," McClain wrote in an E-mailed statement. "Our position is that a healthy three-tier system requires balance between the tiers, meaning that brewers and importers maintain some oversight, within federal and state regulatory codes, over how their beer is marketed by distributors."

But some of the lines of the three-tier system have begun to blur. Several smaller craft brewers are lobbying for the right to self-distribute. Both Anheuser and MillerCoors own their own distribution companies. And Anheuser recently signed distribution agreements with two craft brewers, the Seattle-based Red Hook Ale Brewery and Hawaiian Kona Brewing Company. It has also taken steps to possess its own craft breweries, with the most high profile acquisition happening in May 2011, when it bought Chicago-based craft brewery Goose Island for $40 million.

More acquisitions may be coming. Tony Magee, who in 1993 founded the craft brewery Lagunitas, which is known for its irreverent labels, recently wrote on Twitter that he believed Anheuser-Busch was interested in his company. But he also made it clear he wouldn't sell.

"Selling one's brewery is selling all of one's best friend's careers, their hearts, the portion of their lives they spent working for you," he wrote.

Anderson believes not every craft brewer will be able to resist acquisition.

"In three years [craft brewers] will have 10 percent of the market. When it hits double digits, that's when it starts getting really intense," he says. "You wont see [Anheuser-Busch] Inbev trying to buy Modelo deals. You'll see ABI trying to buy every independent craft brewer they can... and for as many guys as there are like Tony who have no real interest in selling their companies, there are going to be guys who will see offers they can't refuse."

The Fight Spills Onto Capitol Hill

There is one fight that may bring big beer and craft beer together in 2013. Both say they will be fighting this year to lower the federal excise tax on beer, which has been around since the Civil War. Both sides believe they pay more than their fair share.

"Nobody is going to win by fighting with each other," concedes Koch. "The bigger prize is if we can work with one another and regain the share of alcohol consumption that we lost." Although Americans currently name beer as their preferred drink over alcohol and wine, beer is not as favored as it was two decades ago.

But while the two sides might hold hands on the excise tax, another policy fight may break them apart once again.

Legislation is expected to be reintroduced in Congress that would give tax breaks to breweries with an annual production of 6 million barrels or less—much higher than the 2 million barrels to which a tax break currently applies. The move would protect the bigger craft brewers, like Koch's Boston Beer Company or Calagione's Dogfish Head, even if they were to double in size. Those breweries argue it's a way to keep all craft brewers—big or small—in the fold.

Republican Pennsylvania Rep. Jim Gerlach, who introduced a similar Small Brew Act in previous years, may introduce the bill again. A number of craft and small brewers sit in Gerlach's district, including Victory Brewing Company, whose brands are distributed in 30 states. Gerlach's spokesman Kori Walter said the congressman's intention is to "help small brewers compete on a level playing field."

The Beer Institute, logically, opposes the tax break legislation. Thorne says the current break has "served [craft brewers] well" since it was enacted in 1977, and points to the record growth in the number of small breweries as proof.

Beyond Capitol Hill, it's likely that 2013 will also see this fight move to court. Anheuser-Busch InBev responded to the Justice Department's anti-trust suit with a promise to fight for its Modelo merger.

"We remain confident in our position, and we intend to vigorously contest the DOJ's action in federal court," it said in a released statement.