April 10, 2020
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What happens if Big Beer steps into Maine?

PORTLAND, Maine — When beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev one year ago bought the Seattle brewery Dick Cantwell co-founded, he resigned.

As Maine’s beer industry matures, Cantwell and others at the New England Craft Brew Summit in Portland Friday said it’s inevitable that the country’s largest breweries, such as AB InBev, will fish in Maine or New England waters for an acquisition.

“I’m certain that AB is looking for a brewery in the region,” Cantwell said. “When they were trying to get me on board with that whole plan, they said, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to do that in every region.'”

AB InBev, the brewer of Budweiser, Stella Artois and many others, isn’t the only big brewer looking for acquisitions, but it has been on a buying spree. In December, it announced purchases of three craft breweries within five days.

In early 2014, AB InBev acquired the Long Island brewery Blue Point, which has been distributed in cans in Maine.

“They will move east, for sure,” said Cantwell.

Meanwhile, AB InBev has played off the expansion of craft beer to boost its own brand. U.S. Sen. Angus King, speaking during the summit Friday, played a Budweiser 2015 “macro beer” ad that ran during the 2015 Super Bowl.

“There’s no better evidence of your success than when one of the giants tries to squash you,” King said.

In other parts of the country, that competition has meant not only fighting the flagship brands of major breweries, but also acquisitions such as Goose Island in Chicago and Elysian Brewing Co., the brewery Cantwell founded in Seattle with two partners in 1995.

Cantwell, who is now the quality-control ambassador for the craft beer industry’s Brewers Association, said such an acquisition typically means tougher competition all around.

“Suddenly this brewery that was independent and doing all of it on its own is part of a much bigger entity and has a whole lot more muscle,” Cantwell said.

That includes better access to the market through distributors, more leverage and options for buying raw materials, the ability to lower prices to try and gain market share “and all of the things that economies of scale bring.”

Luke Livingston, the founder of the Lewiston-based Baxter Brewing Co., echoed Cantwell’s sense that an acquisition in the region or state will happen, “but I don’t know who,” he said. He’s heard no specific rumblings, but said that kind of move “would definitely shake things up” in the relatively small state and tight-knit brewing industry.

Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, said that acquisition is a “hot topic” now in the industry, but that it doesn’t change the need for craft brewers to focus on quality, which he said “needs to remain the top priority for all brewers.”

Cantwell and Livingston also said they’re uncertain whether an acquisition would change much from a beer buyer’s perspective.

“Often, there’s a bit of a flap initially among beer enthusiasts but the average customer walking down a line of beers in the store really doesn’t know,” Cantwell said.

The impact beyond access to market, pricing and raw materials, Cantwell said, is that “it makes brewers sad.”

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