By: Matt Giles
On April 1, 2011, Blue Point Brewery sent out a press release that seemingly heralded the end of the bastion of craft beer on Long Island’s south shore.
The Patchogue-based brewery had sold out, negotiating a buyout with MillerCoors.
Expecting craft aficionados might throw up their arms, preparing to unleash vitriol without noticing the date, the April Fool’s prank, which was published on the brewery’s web site, ended with the tongue in cheek statement, “Blue Point Brewing Company would like you to have a happy April Fools’ Day! Blue Point Brewing Company – independently owned with no corporate ties. Ever.”
Fast-forward nearly three years, and the brewery – founded in 1998 and famous for its Toasted Lager, Hoptical Illusion, and annual cask ale festival – put out a similarly worded release that wasn’t a prank this time.
Purchased by Anheuser-Busch InBev for a reported $24 million last February, Blue Point joined the beer giant’s ever growing craft stable, including Goose Island, 10 Barrel and Elysian. “Life changes,” says Mark Burford, Blue Point’s co-founder and brewmaster when recalling their April Fool’s declaration. “At that time, it was just a joke. I would suggest people not read too much into our jokes.”
The brewery, which remains in Patchogue, has been busy this past year ramping up production. Blue Point is synonymous with craft beer in Long Island and New York City – there isn’t a bar or bodega that doesn’t stock at least one Blue Point six-pack – but since the brewery now has the resources of a conglomerate with revenues approaching $50 billion, Blue Point has significantly boosted its profile.
“The past year has been a transitional one for the company,” explains Burford. “We are just now starting to take advantage of InBev’s resources, like contracting with InBev’s breweries and using certain hops if I need something I can’t get.”
Blue Point has expanded and upgraded its main brewing facility, decisions that helped the brewery’s market growth. “Obviously we are an east coast brand,” says Burford, “but we’ve now filled in the pieces we couldn’t before in a more pre-organized way.” Soon, South Carolina and Kentucky will be able to purchase Blueberry Ale and Sour Cherry Imperial Stout, and Blue Point will begin shipping to Maine and Tennessee by the end of May.
“We’ve been at this a long time, and we went from the point of trying to find anyone to carry the beer to now being in the InBev network and put into places where we didn’t exist before,” says Burford.
While the amount of barrels Blue Point annually produces will certainly rise – at the time of the sale, Blue Point was around 60,000 annual – Burford believes the brewery is still very much craft. “Come to Patchogue and watch us make beer,” he says. “If you don’t think that is craft beer, well, that’s a decision for you to make.”
He continues, “I deal with the brewers at InBev, and they are, at the end of the day, still brewers. Even though they make beer in vast quantities, and in different tanks, they are still brewers.”
This kind of talk is, of course, different from Elysian’s Dick Cantwell. After AB InBev purchased the Seattle-based brewery a few months ago, Budweiser spent a few million to release a 60 second ad – called ‘Brewed the Hard Way” – during the Super Bowl. The ad mocked the craft movement and beer that is “fussed over”, which included a ‘pumpkin peach ale’ (Elysian brewed a Gourdgia on My Mind Pecan Peach Pumpkin Amber in late 2014).
Cantwell, who indicated he voted against the sale, later ranted to the Chicago Tribune, “I find it kind of incredible that ABI would be so tone-deaf as to pretty directly (even if unwittingly) call out one of the breweries they have recently acquired, even as that brewery is dealing with the anger of the beer community in reaction to the sale.”
Burford says he personally wasn’t offended by the ad, but notes he would be angry if one of his beers was mocked, adding, “I felt for the guys at Elysian. They had just been announced, and then that weird coincidence with the beer they used in the ad.”
“For us,” Burford says, “the nasty emails have subsided.” He observed, “For there to be a Super Bowl commercial that discusses craft beer, whether it is positive or negative or anything, that’s a sign of things to come.” Buford concludes, “As far as I am concerned, that was craft beer’s first Super Bowl commercial.” The irony is that it was paid for by the world’s largest brewer.
While Blue Point no longer possesses the independence they celebrated in 2011, the transition was one Burford felt necessary to make to ensure the brewery’s continued success: “I am still bullish on the craft industry, but with this move, there is much less uncertainty now, and the quality of the beer won’t change.”