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Labatt buying Mill Street Brewery is actually not a bad thing for craft beer fans

Labatt buying Mill Street Brewery is actually not a bad thing for craft beer fans
(Image: Dan Gaken/Flickr)

Early this morning, Labatt, one of Canada’s largest and oldest brewers, announced that it had purchased Toronto craft brewery Mill Street. Aside from an announced $10 million investment in Mill Street’s Toronto facilities, the terms of the deal are confidential— but it’s safe to assume that the exact dollar amount is in the range of one or two shit-tons of cash. And while a lot of Ontario craft beer fans are quick to cry “sellout,” it’s probably best to consider this deal with a level head. Put down the pitchforks, guys. (Where did you even get those things?)

First, this is not the only time a large brewery has purchased a Canadian craft brewery to get some leverage in the craft-brew market (see: Molson buying Creemore). This same sort of thing is becoming a trend in the United States, where craft beer has, by some estimates, 11 per cent of the market, and large breweries are desperate to find a way to stem the tide. In the last few years, craft brewers Pyramid, Magic Hat, Anchor Steam, Kona and Goose Island have all been bought up by big companies, Goose Island for a reported $38.8 million. AB InBev, the Belgian-Brazilian company that owns Labatt, has spent the past five years buying up New York’s Blue Point Brewery Co., Oregon-based 10 Barrel Brewing, and Seattle’s Elysian. By the time I finish writing this article, they’ll probably have bought someone else.

Is it even possible for a company like Mill Street to “sell out,” anyway? Mill Street has always brewed fairly approachable beers with mainstream appeal as a means of growing its business and, presumably, getting big and successful, and its beer has never been favoured by the kinds of bearded connoisseurs who swirl barrel-aged brews. The company has already been quietly distributing its products in the United States for a while. In terms of marketing and distribution dollars, it operates in a totally different league than the little brewpub around the corner from you. It’s not (or shouldn’t be) surprising that a brewery that always had its eye on financial success has accepted a (presumably huge) buyout offer.

If you like Mill Street Brewery—that is, if you actually like the people working at the company and making the beer—this buyout is clearly good news. According to the press release this morning, the company’s principals will still be at the helm of Mill Street under Labatt. Mill Street’s very talented brewmaster, Joel Manning, will still be making the beer. It’s simply that Manning and his friends who run the company are suddenly in higher tax brackets. And so good for them. There are many different ways to measure success, and having a buttload of money backed up to your front door in exchange for the company you built is one of them.

And if you really like drinking Mill Street beer, then this whole deal is a good thing for you, too. The same people who make the beer you like will still be making it, only now they’ll have access to the vast, Scrooge-McDuck-swimming-in-a-sea-of-gold levels of wealth and resources behind AB InBev, the largest beer company in the entire world. Mill Street’s brewmasters will now be able to obtain any and all ingredients they could ever dream of brewing with, the Mill Street brand will be able to grow by means of one of the universe’s most aggressive marketing machines, and the beer that Mill Street brews will now enjoy distribution across the entire country (and likely some other countries, too).

There aren’t that many places in Canada where you can’t get a Mill Street beer, but pretty soon there will be even fewer. In other words, pitchfork-wielding craft beer fan: Mill Street beer isn’t leaving us. In fact, it’s about to be everywhere.

And if I still haven’t convinced you to call off the riot, consider this: next year at the Rogers Centre, hopefully while we’re watching the Blue Jays on their way to raising their fourth World Series banner, there’s even a slim chance we might be able to do so while sipping a beer that was actually made in Toronto.

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