We’re currently in an era of tectonic shifts in the beer industry. A couple new breweries open each day, very few close, and quite a bit are being injected with millions from private equity. Many others are being outright snapped up by larger breweries for hefty sums. We could debate whether or not these acquisitions are a good or bad thing for you, the craft beer drinker, or we could look toward the past for a worse case scenario.
A worse case scenario as in some Grinch stealing your favorite brewery only to shut it down for good.
Mega-breweries buying beloved local institutions are nothing new in this country. In fact, it’s been going on for decades, if not centuries. Sometimes, the purchasing conglomerate has been almost benevolent, taking a brand from regional sensation into the national, if not international consciousness. You could say that’s occurred so far in the cases, of say, Ballast Point and Lagunitas, who are much better known today than they were when Constellation Brands and Heineken acquired them respectively several years back.
Other times in the past, however, the big breweries have been real Grinches, only acquiring a small brewery (often an emerging rival) so they can gut it for parts, exploit the brand name for every last cent, and ultimately shutter its facilities. That has yet to happen even once in this modern age of craft brewery acquisitions, but it might be inevitable that it eventually will.
With Christmas coming, we thought we’d take a look at several key moments in beer history, where a Grinch stole your favorite brewery.
The rise of “lite” beers around that time, however, is what eventually relegated Schlitz to the “bargain buy” shelf.”
P. Ballantine & Sons Brewing Company (Newark, NJ)
Grinch: Falstaff Brewing Corporation
Founded by Scottish immigrant Peter Ballantine, the brand first began at a brewery dating back to 1805, before opening its own space near the Passaic River in 1850. As early as 1897, the brand was double the size of Anheuser-Busch, eventually large enough to necessitate a second brewing location in Newark.
By pivoting to maple syrup production during Prohibition, they managed to survive the era, though the Ballantines sold the company in 1933. Remarkably, Ballantine, the brand, became even more successful in the 1940s and 50s, while prominently placed as the first TV sponsor for the Yankees.
Nevertheless, by the 1960s the brand was in decline and eventually forced to sell to Falstaff Brewing Corporation who immediately shuttered it. Falstaff, then Pabst, would continue to brew some of Ballantine's portfolio, though with different recipes. Like many once-prominent “nostalgia” brands, Ballantine is currently owned by the Pabst Brewing’s holding company – Blue Ribon – who, in 2014, attempted to release a recreated version of Ballantine's once-famed IPA.
Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company (Milwaukee, WI)
Grinch: Stroh Brewery
This brewery was founded by German-American restaurateur August Krug. Following his death in 1856, his protege Schlitz took over brewery operation and added his eponym (he also married Krug’s widow!). By 1902, Schlitz was literally the largest producer of beer in the U.S., and even until the 1950s was going toe-to-toe with Anheuser-Busch.
Becoming a mere “Beverage Company” during Prohibition enabled it to survive and remain the number two brewer in America as late as 1976. The rise of “lite” beers around that time, however, is what eventually relegated Schlitz to the “bargain buy” shelf – with Schlitz even losing their original recipe around this time. Eventually, Stroh would acquire it and then shutter it. Today, it is owned by, yes, Blue Ribbon Holdings.
It’s now some pretty slick office space.”
Stroh Brewery (Detroit, MI)
Grinch: Pabst Brewing Company
Sometimes even the Grinch gets Grinched. The Strohs were brewing beer in German as early as the 1700s, but immigrated to America during the German Revolution, opening their first stateside brewery in 1850. Their Bohemian-style pilsner was a hit (duh) and by the late-1800s the beer was nationally distributed via refrigerated rail cars.
During Prohibition, Stroh’s produced near beer and soft drinks and by 1964 the company was powerful enough to start acquiring rivals – like across-the-street neighbor Goebel Brewing. Further acquisitions would follow – Schaefer, Piels, Schlitz, Old Style, Old Milwaukee, and more. Ultimately, even they couldn’t compete with the true mega-conglomerates and sold to Pabst. In 2016, Pabst tried to revive the original Stroh’s Bohemian-Style Pilsner, to decent reviews.
Rainier Brewing Company (Seattle, WA)
Grinch: Pabst Brewing Company
As early as 1854, Washington Brewery (Seattle’s first brewery) and then Seattle Brewery was brewing at the spot that would eventually see Rainier being brewed there in 1878. With Prohibition in Washington starting four years earlier than it did for everyone else, Rainier was briefly brewed in San Francisco until 1920.
Post-Prohibition, the brewery was purchased by Canadian breweries and continued to undergo name changes, even as Rainier became the “official” beer of Seattle. In 1977 the brewery was sold to G. Heileman Brewing Company then eventually to Stroh’s in the 1990s, then to Pabst Brewing Company who owns it today and contract brews it in California. The Seattle brewery location was closed by Pabst in 1999 and sold. It’s now some pretty slick office space.
Pearl Brewing Company (San Antonio, TX)
Grinch: General Brewing/Pabst Brewing Company
Originally the site of the J.B. Belohradsky Brewery and then the City Brewery, in 1883 Pearl was purchased by an investment group run by businessmen already involved in the nearby Lone Star Brewing Company. Then becoming the San Antonio Brewing Company, it was Pearl beer – first created at the German Beck Brewery – which became their breakout star. The name came from what the beer’s nice round bubbles were said to look like.
While Prohibition shuttered Lone Star, Pearl was able to survive by producing “near beer” (and, it is said, some real beer for the black market). By 1952, Pearl had so overwhelmed the rest of production that the brewery name was changed to it. Financial struggles would follow and the brewery was soon passed between various other breweries, businesses, and holding companies. Today, Pearl is owned by Pabst and brewed by Miller. Meanwhile, the former San Antonio brewery has become a centerpiece of San Antonio's downtown, housing various businesses and facilities.
Latrobe Brewing Company (Latrobe, PA)
Grinch: AB InBev
Founded in 1839, it would be another 100 years before Latrobe would start brewing their most famous beer, Rolling Rock. The straw yellow lager in a green bottle became a local sensation and soon had national distribution. It was purchased by Labatt Brewing in 1987, then by what would later become InBev in 2004. Two years later, the brewery was shuttered, and Rolling Rock moved to an Anheuser-Busch facility in Newark. The current brewing location in Latrobe is now used by Diageo to produce Red Stripe and Guinness Blonde.