When news broke last month that one of the largest beer conglomerates in the world was acquiring local favorite Elysian Brewing, it caused a stir in the craft beer community. Lesser known was the debate the Anheuser-Busch InBev sale set off inside the Capitol Hill-born company.
CEO Joe Bisacca tells CHS he was thrilled to reap the very tangible benefits of a multi-million dollar buyout. But co-founder Dick Cantwell, with his roots and reputation soaked in the Pacific Northwest’s craft beer scene, wasn’t as sure. It hasn’t helped that one of Budweiser’s hugely expensive Super Bowl ads mocked craft beer for being too pretentious. Cantwell called the ad “tone-deaf” and “painful.”
Last week, even before the ad, Cantwell told CHS he was troubled by the buyout. “I have to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it,” he said. “I understand the concerns of craft brewers, and I will continue to help them.”
Along with David Buhler, Bisacca and Cantwell opened Elysian in 1996 at its 13th and E Pike location.
Before we get into what happened behind the deal, here’s what we know about the future of the Capitol Hill brew pub: it’s not going anywhere. Bisacca said the E Pike location will continue to brew beer and the restaurant will operate as usual. In fact, Bisacca said the new owners are interested in opening a new Elysian brew pub in Southern California where the company had already been planning to expand distribution.
“The people who enjoyed coming to Capitol Hill will continue to,” Bisacca said. “If they didn’t know (about the sale), there would be no difference.”
Backlash from the sale has spilled into the E Pike restaurant itself. Cantwell told CHS that several people went into the Capitol Hill location to berate staff for selling out. “I feel bad for them, having to deal with that stuff that isn’t their fault in the least,” Cantwell said.
Access to the AB piggybank could mean some minor upgrades to the Capitol Hill brew pub, like a new fermentation tank and some cosmetic improvements to the restaurant. For now, Bisacca, Cantwell, and Buhler will all be staying on at Elysian and are hoping to retain as much of their current staff as possible. Retaining their beer-nerd clientele might be trickier.
As craft beer fans took to online comments sections to lament the Elysian sale, company representatives repeatedly said Elysian should be judged by the beer that’s in the bottle. But pushback to the sale wasn’t just about beer quality — many critics saw the sale as contributing to the major disadvantages already faced by regional craft brewers. Companies like AB InBev control vast distribution networks that cutout craft brewers, even within their hometowns.
Nobody knows about that better than Cantwell, who literally helped define craft beer in the U.S. when he was a board member of the Brewers Association. After decades of advocating for craft brewers in the state, selling his brewery to a company like AB InBev was a tough draught for Cantwell to swallow. Ultimately, he said it was the Elysian board of directors that made the call. “I have to accept responsibility for how our board voted,” he said.
After the sale Cantwell says he offered to step away from his position with the Washington Brewers Guild, which advocates for brewers in the state, but he’s staying on for now.
For Bisacca, the distribution advantage Elysian will enjoy under AB was a clear benefit to selling the company, but he maintained that success will ultimately come down to beer quality. “Give the consumers a little credit,” he said.
Cutting out the less beer-focused responsibilities of running a business were also enticing. Taxes, payroll, and facility maintenance will no longer be squarely on the shoulders of Elysian, Bisacca said.
Beyond distribution, AB InBev owns hop farms and exerts considerable influence in the hop market. Craft beer fans worry that more small brewery acquisitions will lead to more homogenized crops. To ensure Elysian keeps its crafty roots, Bisacca said the new bosses are allowing the company to continue to source ingredients from the same small suppliers. Elysian will also now have the opportunity to grow its own crops, Bisacca said.
AB InBev first showed interest in Elysian when company representatives approached Cantwell at a craft brewers conference in Denver. The meeting was casual, but Cantwell said he immediately notified the Elysian board.
Before the deal was made, Elysian shopped a sale to private equity firms. While Elysian stood to profit more up front in a private equity deal, Bisacca said a “3-5 year pump and dump” didn’t bode well for continuing to make quality beer. Bisacca is confident that innovation and experimentation will remain central to the Elysian beer under AB InBev control.
“This is the most important thing InBev is doing,” he said. “Craft is growing, and people’s palates are changing.”
Meanwhile, Cantwell said he has a two-year agreement to stay with Elysian. When asked if he would stay for the full term, he said “We’ll see.”
Capitol Hill food+drink notes
- Speaking of beer… Outer Planet has set a February 20th debut for its 12th Ave nanobrewery. “The Elysian? We are tiny. They’ll probably spill more beer than we’ll make,” one founder told us last year.
- New on 15th Ave E: Sur 16 is open with Mestizo flavors in the completely transformed old Bagel Deli space.
- Also newly opened: Stout at the corner of 11th and Pine, giant, and full of bottles of beer. And, yes, one of those bottles goes for $58.
- And Omega Ouzeri on 14th Ave, too.
- Should the Chop Suey change its possibly low-taste name? Co-founder Linda Derschang said yes.
- Not far from the resurrection underway at the Chop, the Electric Tea Garden continues to rumble with small signs of activity. First came a liquor license application for the venue. Now we see the start of paperwork for a construction project filed by ETG’s owner.
- Owner Erin Nestor hasn’t revealed all the details of Two Doors Down, her new focus following the sale of Tommy Gun to a new owner planning an E Olive Way sports bar. But she did let us know that she’s planning Two Doors to complement her Bottleneck watering hole with a yet undisclosed food menu. Two Doors is under construction in the former home of Philly Fevre. The new joint probably won’t have cheesesteak and Nestor says it also won’t have cocktails, just beer and wine. “We hope nothing changes at the Neck,” she says. “We feel that it is loved. We certainly don’t want to try to fix something that isn’t broken.” As for comments on CHS criticizing the planned opening of a sports bar in the former Tommy Gun’s, Nestor said she hopes people welcome new barkeep Tracy Ward to Capitol Hill’s excellent company of female bar owners.
- Linda’s turns 21 on February 18th.
- More Linda: “A lot of the technical aspects of management can be taught, but you can’t teach warmth, leadership or hospitality. Some things just have to be learned through life experience.”
- This week in 2013, Von Trapp’s — now Rhein Haus — opened.
- At 19th and Madison, Thudsuan Kitchen and Bar is trying to stand out in a sea of Seattle Thai.
- The Kingfish Cafe folks are collecting feedback as they prepare to open new cafes.
- Here’s what gamers eat while they’re gaming — the updated Raygun Lounge menu.
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