Last month, in big news, beer behemoth MillerCoors struck a deal to take a majority stake in Terrapin Beer Co., the popular Athens craft brewery. This month, the transaction was completed.
Terrapin was founded in 2002 by Brian “Spike” Buckowski and John Cochran. The partners sold a minority interest in the company to MillerCoors’ craft brewing division, Tenth and Blake Beer Co., in 2012.
That deal was controversial among beer geeks. But it kept Terrapin within the definition of an “independent” craft brewery, defined by the Brewers Association as “at least 75% owned or controlled by a craft brewer.”
Now, Terrapin can no longer be defined as independent or craft. And the geeks have gotten really angry.
A commentary by beer writer Jim Vorel in Atlanta magazine with the headline “This is how Terrapin quietly sold out to Big Beer and betrayed its fans” summed up the outrage of many.
I must admit, my feelings were and are much more mixed.
Since I started writing this column, some 16 years ago, I’ve been an unabashed advocate of craft beer. And for most of that time, Buckowski has been one of my best friends in or out of the beer business.
I was in Denver in 2002, when Spike and John won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for the very first beer they ever brewed, Terrapin Rye Pale Ale. And I was there in 2012, when the beer company they built was nearly wrested from them, and they turned to Tenth and Blake to save it.
Under the new MillerCoors deal, Buckowski will stay on as Terrapin’s vice president of brewing development. Cochran decided to take a buyout and leave the company. He’s since purchased a small brewery and restaurant in Asheville, N.C., dubbed UpCountry Brewing.
With all that’s been going on, I wondered how Buckowski was feeling. So I called him. Here’s some of what he had to say.
Q: So the deal is done?
A: The deal is done. We went from majority owner to minority owner. But Terrapin is still its own separate entity under Tenth and Blake. So it’s business as usual, and we hope to sell more beer through the MillerCoors distribution network.
Q: What’s your response to the notion that you betrayed your fans?
A: I don’t know if we betrayed anyone. What I did is put my brewery on a secure footing. I made decisions to prolong our business and secure our place in the brewing industry. As you’ve seen over the past few years, the industry has changed, and brewers are making decisions to get more capital and try to grow their brands.
Q: You’ve gone through some really perilous times with your business, haven’t you?
A: We’ve been going down this path for a long time. What I tell people is that we’ve been holding hands and walking down the aisle with Tenth and Blake for five years, and we finally got married. They loaned us the money to buy out our original investors when we needed it. They helped us out of a jam.
Q: What’s the plan for the future?
A: We want to integrate our beer with their systems so we can sell more. That’s the bottom line. I want to get Terrapin into as many people’s hands as I possibly can. It’s my dream that someday everybody in the United States can go to their grocery store and pick up a six-pack of Terrapin. But that certainly won’t happen overnight.