At a December event held at the New America Foundation in Washington, Calagione spoke passionately about the negative impact of big beer's influence as several Department of Justice anti-trust lawyers sat in the audience.
"The success or failure of a beer should depend on how great that beer is… instead of artificial restraints to distribution," said Calagione. He also said he had "grave concerns" about the Modelo deal because it would give "more control and more power" to the two biggest beer companies.
The New America Foundation released a report that day agreeing with Calagione, and warning that big beer was using its power to "squeeze independent beer distributors" and "marginalize craft beer makers"—hurting both brewers and beer drinkers in the process.
The result, according to craft brewers: independent beers get squeezed out of liquor store and grocery shelves, restaurants and bars, and sporting venues and airports.
The Space Race
Both Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors employ "category space analysts," whose job is to visit a store like 7-Eleven and consult them on the optimal placements of beer on the shelves.
"They are doing the sets, they [say to a store]: 'We can do that for you,'" says Koch. "And then they can take my beer from eye level to the top shelf, which drops my sales rate in half."
With thousands of small breweries in the works, beer buyers and brewers say the battle for shelf space may only get worse.
Koch says he has also seen Samuel Adams beer pushed out of airports and sports venues—two places where consumers do a lot of sampling. "We work very hard to get our beer into a sports venue, and then when the big brewer realizes we got in there... they buy out the bowl, and then we're gone."
During Super Bowl XLVII, Anheuser-Busch InBev was the only beer company to get advertising time, spending more than $20 million on ads that introduced a sophisticated new beer called "Black Crown."
Nick Anderson, a prominent beer buyer at neighborhood liquor store Arrowine in Arlington, Va., says the ads were another indication that big beer wants a piece of the action surrounding craft beer.
"They're calling it 'Black Crown' golden amber lager. To me, that just smacks of putting a bunch of buzzwords in a bin and pouring it out. They're thinking: 'What will people just discovering beer respond to? Let's just call it that,'" he says.
The Beer Institute—acting as the voice for the big beer conglomerates—says craft brewers' complaints are ironic because they're doing so well.
Data released by the Beer Institute last month shows the number of brewers in the U.S. has reached a historic high of 2,751—and more than half of the new breweries are craft.
"Beer drinkers have more choice than at any time in American history. Where's the evidence of their argument?" says Thorne. "Ultimately, this is a time to celebrate among young brewers because we have so many choices."