Next weekend, representatives of 85 breweries from across Virginia will gather in the fields surrounding Devils Backbone’s Basecamp Brewpub in Roseland, Va., for the fifth Virginia Craft Brewers Fest. They’ll be joined by a crowd of 3,000 beer lovers, some of whom will be camping — and even “glamping” in deluxe tents — in the adjacent meadows. Three Sheets to the Wind, a yacht rock cover band, will perform.
The event has come a long way since 2012, when two dozen breweries brought 48 beers to the same location for a crowd of 1,250 to taste, and a few dozen beers were judged in the first Virginia Craft Beer Cup competition. Devils Backbone’s Schwartz Bier was named best of show, the first of the brewery’s three consecutive titles. (Talk about a home-field advantage.)
But 2016 is a transitional year for the festival: This will be the first time it won’t include the announcement of the winners of the Virginia Craft Beer Cup, which has grown to award medals in 30 categories. This will be the last time the festival will be held at Devils Backbone, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And for the first time, the brewery that helped found the festival and hosts it won’t be eligible for any awards.
That’s because on April 12, Devils Backbone, Virginia’s largest and most decorated brewery, announced it was being acquired by Anheuser-Busch, the parent company of Budweiser, for an undisclosed sum. The backlash was immediate. On the brewery’s Facebook page and in online beer forums, former fans posted screeds accusing the brewery of selling out and swearing they would never buy another Vienna Lager. (Those were the nicer ones.)
There was fallout on the corporate side, too. Devils Backbone founder Steve Crandall resigned from the board of directors of the Brewers Association, a national trade organization representing craft breweries. The Brewers Association defines a craft brewery as “small, independent and traditional,” and breweries purchased by the world’s largest brewer obviously don’t fit that bill. Devils Backbone was removed from the prestigious Savor craft beer festival, an event organized by the Brewers Association, even though it had been a paid sponsor.
After the May meeting of the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, the group issued a statement reaffirming that “VCBG membership is available to independent craft breweries as defined by the Brewers Association,” with similar requirements for entry in the Virginia Craft Beer Cup competition. The Guild also decided that the Virginia Craft Brewers Fest would move to a still-undetermined location in 2017.
Translation: Devils Backbone could host one last party but would not be allowed to compete for the Craft Beer Cup. “I would be lying if I said we weren’t really, terribly disappointed by that,” says Hayes Humphreys, the brewery’s chief operating officer. Compounding the problem, from Devils Backbone’s side: The deal with Anheuser-Busch is not yet final, so it technically remains a craft brewery.
In what looks to be both a slap at Devils Backbone and a letdown for Virginia beer fans, the competition’s awards ceremony was moved from the public festival to a private event at the corporate offices of WestRock in Richmond. (WestRock makes cardboard six-pack holders for many Virginia breweries, including Devils Backbone.) “The space is limited (for safety) to 300” attendees, Virginia Craft Brewers Guild president Brett Vassey wrote in an email. “So, we have to reserve most spaces for members, spouses and employees. We are looking at larger venues for 2017.”
(Vassey is not a brewer, but he is the president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, of which the Craft Brewers Guild is an affiliate. His office said he was traveling and not available for a phone interview before deadline.)
Devils Backbone knew there would be repercussions from the sale. The ill feeling between craft breweries and macrobrewers has been festering for a long time, but it has been exacerbated in the past few years. Craft supporters point to the apparent hypocrisy of Budweiser Super Bowl ads that paint craft beer as an effete hipster affectation while its parent company spends millions to buy independent breweries such as Elysian, Four Peaks and Devils Backbone.
“When a small brewer sells to a large company, they choose to willingly, and should expect their position in the brewing community to change and customer relationships to change,” says Julia Herz, the Brewers Association’s craft beer program director. “These companies no longer face the same issues of access to market, access to money or access to ingredients. As we have seen the number of former small brewers sell to the large brewers, that is a matter of concern to guilds in the state where these sales have occurred.”
Herz says that it’s not impossible for craft and no-longer-craft breweries to get along: Everyone from Anheuser-Busch to a local brewpub can compete for awards at the annual Great American Beer Festival, though booth space at the festival is limited to full and associate members. Top beer bars across the country still pour beers by breweries that are no longer considered craft, including Founders, which sold a 30 percent stake to Spanish brewer Mahou San Miguel in 2014, and Lagunitas, which sold half of its brewery to Heineken last year. And brewers of all sizes lobbied Congress for the passage of the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act of 2015.
At the same time, “When it comes to the localization-of-beer movement, there is an absolute desire and value to helping small and indie craft brewers thrive,” Herz says, pointing to surveys that show a majority of beer drinkers believe it’s important that the beers they order are local and independent. “In the spirit of that, the big global conglomerates are not always invited to the party. Just like at a farm-to-table dinner you are not serving Hormel, Kraft or Heinz.”
The Virginia Craft Brewers Fest and the Beer Cup will go on, and Devils Backbone is planning a new event to take its place on the brewery’s busy calendar of festivals and parties. But out of respect for the guild, Humphreys says, it will be held on a different weekend. “We’ll support Virginia craft beer any way we can,” he says.
Virginia Craft Brewers Fest: Saturday, Aug. 20, at Devils Backbone Basecamp Brewpub & Meadows. 200 Mosby’s Run, Roseland, Va. vacraftbrewersfest.com. $35.