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Beer wars

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We live in marvellous times. And by that I am referring to the food and beverage renaissance surrounding us. And by that I really mean the craft beer revolution. So, I guess what I'm saying is that if you like beer, as I do, we live in marvellous times.

Never before has so much quality and choice been enjoyed by so many. Boy, you might say, that must make mainstream breweries mad, eh? Actually, it has made them furious — not to mention poorer. And so, inevitably, they are fighting back, with ploys to: regain market share by making it hard for people to tell what is and isn't true craft beer; to change perception of premium beverages through stakes in beer-rating websites and local "brewpubs," and; to choke off the industry's supply chain by buying up hops farms and controlling beer distribution at the taps. But their No. 1 weapon for muddying the waters? Buying up craft breweries at an unstoppable pace.

Though happening for a while, the trend has accelerated. "Brew Studs," a craft-beer industry blog, recently published a list of brands it has cut off from self-identifying as "craft" after they were acquired in whole or in part by Anheuser-Busch InBev — the company behind dish-soap brands like Budweiser and Busch — calling on craft-beer fans and creators alike to ditch the pretenders: "Welcome to the page that keeps you informed about impostor craft beer brands, those who try to benefit from the power of craft beer, even though they are aligned with forces who are trying to tear it down."

The blog lists 14 brands, some obvious, others that might surprise suds aficionados (like myself): Goose Island was one of the first to be snapped up back in 2011, which explains why it made its way into corporate bars going back five years and brings hope that some of these other AB InBev conquests might also show up in establishments that otherwise shill only mainstream garbage: Kona, Omission, Red Hook, Widmer Brothers, 10 Barrel, Blue Point, Elysian (right?), Four Peaks, Breckenridge, Golden Road, Devil's Backbone, Karbach, and Wicked Weed. After Brew Studs published this, readers asked that a similar list of Canadian brands be so inveighed (recall Labatt's was snapped up by Belgian giant Interbrew back in 1995, which became AB InBev). They were only too happy to respond with Stanley Park, Turning Point, Mill Street, and Microbrasserie Archibald. They didn't even start on the long list now owned by Molsons Coors.

For its part, AB InBev's insists its craft brands operate unchanged, but that investment helps grow the brand. Certainly, some ex-craft brands see it that way as well. Steve Crandall, founder and CEO of Devils Backbone, took umbrage to the Brew Studs list, telling the website Business Insider: "To say our beers are 'imposter' craft ignores the intense skill, time and meticulous attention to detail that goes into making any great beer. And beyond that, our partnership couldn't be less about trying to tear down craft. It's allowed us to hire many more craft beer-loving employees, invest in our local community through new facilities, and partner with other craft breweries on things like safety initiatives for brewers of all sizes."

It sounds noble, but you can be the judge.

Perhaps a more disturbing trend is fake brewpubs like the Canadian Brewhouse, with locations in B.C., Alberta and other parts of the west but not a single drop of anything brewed in-house. How insidious is that? Well, what does it take to have tough-but-fair restaurant reviewer John Gilchrist give a Red Deer location 3 out of 10, his lowest rating in years? "They're big, warehouse-y places that are packed with booze, high tables, wall-to-wall TVs and long bars. They're very sports-oriented guy places, with servers in almost questionable outfits," said Gilchrist, before savaging the food offerings and moving on to the main distraction. "What tipped me off is the beer list (there) leans to Bud Light, Molson Canadian, with a bit of Strongbow and Rickard's Red thrown in. It's pretty dull stuff really... They don't even carry a few craft beers."

Well, the draught lines are drawn. And the bitter (sorry) battle between Big Beer and independent craft will only get uglier as the multinationals try their darnedest to kill the market that's drinking their lunch. What can you do to combat them? Why, buy local of course. Support breweries you know. Eat and drink at authentic establishments... and avoid the pretenders at all cost.

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