Brewery Buyouts Follow Me to Santa Barbara: Epic Bought Telegraph

I remember when AB-InBev bought Goose Island, but that wasn’t terribly shocking since Goose was already part of the Craft Brew Alliance family, which itself was minority-owned by ABI. I remember when the house of Budweiser bought 10 Barrel out of tiny Bend, Oregon and THAT felt like a big deal. I was surprised that such a behemoth in the beer world was interested in an upstart crafty company in a remote pocket of Oregon. As the wheel keeps turning, we’ve seen major acquisitions (Lagunitas, Ballast Point) and some less earth-shattering ones (like when Heineken-owned Lagunitas bought minuscule but mighty Moonlight Brewing or Green Flash bought infinitesimal but incredible Alpine Brewing). So it is with today’s breaking news that Utah’s Epic Brewing, which already has a satellite brewing in Denver’s booming River North District, has agreed to purchase Telegraph Brewing based right here in Santa Barbara.

When I went to school here at UCSB in the mid-nineties, Santa Barbara Brew Co. opened during my senior year. The Brewhouse was a couple years from opening when I graduated. Heck, even Firestone Walker, which in 2015 was folded into the Belgian-owned Duvel-Moortgat, hadn’t started slinging its pale ales (to say nothing of its 805 blonde ale juggernaut). In other words, the last time I lived in this tropical oasis, it was a beer desert. As the Prodigal Gaucho returns, I have found a quaint little brewing scene (keep in mind I moved here via Portland a.k.a. Beervana). SB is home to six breweries (Telegraph, founded in 2006, being the third oldest and arguably the best). North a bit in Goleta there are four good breweries. Down in fire-ravaged Ventura there’s a mini boom going on where the eighth, Leashless, just opened. This reminds me, I hope the unfortunately-named Smoke Mountain Brewery is okay!

Having said that, it’s not exactly like California’s Central Coast is even a burgeoning beer Mecca. The Golden State’s already got San Diego and the Bay Area. Russian River put Sonoma County on the map while even late-to-the-table Los Angeles is now charging ahead as a boomtown. Heck, even East Coast centric BeerAdvocate is hosting its first Extreme Beer Fest-LA this weekend (that I hope to attend but those aforementioned wildfires will likely keep me from being able to make it). So one of the things I’ll be diving into in upcoming coverage is how, exactly, Utah’s four-time GABF winning brewery that produces 27,000 barrels a year singled out Santa Barbara’s six-time GABF winning tiny brewery. From a recent phone conversation with founder Brian Thompson—who I first met when I ambled unannounced into his fledgling brewery in 2006—I gathered he was feeling the heat of today’s beer industry logistics. But when faced with a rumor that his was the brewery listed on an industry board as being for sale, he shot down that notion! Perhaps hearing his name in the rumors got his own wheels turning. Stay tuned for more. And if you’ve never tried any Telegraph Beer, go out and buy some and see what Epic is already hip to.

Here’s the release sent out today:

 Epic Brewing Completes Purchase of Santa Barbara’s Telegraph Brewing Co.

Salt Lake City, UT— On December 6 th Epic Brewing purchased Telegraph Brewing Company, Santa Barbara’s first and original craft brewery, and has announced investment plans to expand Telegraph and broaden the brewery’s reach as an additional brand in the Epic family.

Telegraph Brewing has been operating in Santa Barbara since 2006 when Founder Brian Thompson opened his dream brewery, focused on high-quality, Belgian-inspired, uniquely-Californian beers produced with local ingredients.

“So much has changed in the craft beer world since I started Telegraph, back when hazy beers were just called unfiltered and there were fewer than 1,500 brewers nationwide,” Thompson said. “Today, with the number of breweries approaching 6,000, the craft brewing landscape is radically different. We are extremely proud of what we have accomplished, but the increased competition from the likes of AB-INBEV’s “crafty beers” as well as new startups is requiring everyone in the industry to recalibrate their plans for the future. Earlier this year I began looking for ways to strengthen our legacy, and entering into a transaction with Epic was the right fit, both strategically and culturally. This partnership will allow us to nurture our deep California roots, retain and expand our amazing staff, and continue to develop our brand in new and innovative ways. My team and I are excited that Telegraph Brewing will remain a small, independent craft brewery and at the same time have the support and drive provided by one of the nation’s most creative, fearless, and fastest-growing brewery.”

With Epic’s investment, Telegraph will not only continue brewing its well-respected beer, but will begin expanding its brewing operations. There are immediate plans to increase the production capacity and offer new packaging options, including several new 12-ounce cans under the Telegraph brand. Epic will also move seven of their foeders—large wooden vessels for aging sour beer—from their Denver brewery to Santa Barbara, enabling Telegraph to produce more of its award-winning sour beers. California locals can also look forward to a new series of modern IPAs including some juicy and hazy styles, which will be sold fresh from Telegraph’s brewery.

“It’s a long-term dream come true” says Dave Cole, Co-founder of Epic Brewing. “I fell in love with craft beer living in California and that love didn’t diminish when I moved to Utah despite the beer scene at the time. I feel like I’ve come full circle. We have been actively looking for great breweries to purchase for the past 18 months and bringing Telegraph Brewing into the Epic family is exciting. We are investing in the future of Santa Barbara and are thrilled to have a direct and local connection to the amazing California craft beer community, where we share so much history. To be part of such a well-regarded brewery like Telegraph is something I’ve always hoped to do and now it’s finally a reality. It provides us an avenue to combine our teams and build on Telegraph’s portfolio with our innovative vision. This couldn’t be a better fit – including some advantageous distribution overlaps that create opportunities to expand both brands across California and beyond.”


Epic Brewing Company, LLC was opened in May of 2010 in Salt Lake City and expanded to Colorado in 2013. Epic is 100% independent and family owned and is known for its innovation of style and wood aged beers, currently producing over 27,000 Barrels a year. Epic is distributed in the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, New Jersey, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Virginia & Washington D.C., Washington, Wisconsin, & Wyoming.

Telegraph Brewing, Santa Barbara’s original craft brewery, sold its first kegs in 2006 and specializes in brewing uniquely American and Belgian-inspired beers. Telegraph uses 100% domestic ingredients and as many local ingredients as possible, capturing in each sip the unique culinary and agricultural traditions of Santa Barbara and California’s Central Coast. Since 2011, Telegraph has won six Great American Beer Festival medals and two World Beer Cup awards.

Too Much Beer!

Photo: Shannon Monson, c/o Girl & the Goat

In this op-ed for FSR (Full Service Restaurant), I tackle the topic of overly long draft lists.  From 31 flavors of ice cream to–more to my point–99 bottles of beer on the wall, consumers want what they want—so, why would any bar manager or restaurateur limit their patrons’ options? And yet, not to throw the good folks at places such as the Yard House under the bus, but the Irvine, California–originated chain with some 60 locations offers between 130 and 250 beers on its tap lists. Typically, no fewer than 30 of them are IPAs. And while bright, fruity West Coast IPAs are miles apart from chewy, richer imperial IPAs, I think the customer becomes bombarded by options and stands a good chance of not being able to zero in on the beer that best suits the meal. Put in idiomatic terms: Sometimes less is more.

How Firestone Walker Learned to Stop Over-serving and Ban the Bomber

bravo_12ozbottle_boxKudos to Firestone Walker Brewing! I just received a release (pasted at bottom) announcing, yes, the return of Bravo Imperial Brown Ale, but more importantly, the announcement about their decision to abandon the bomber and embrace smaller packaging. Publicist Sean Christopher Weir calls this, “The upside of downsizing.”

Brewmaster Matt Brynildson said, “It’s something that a lot of people have been clamoring for, and we decided to finally pull the trigger.” The primary benefit of such a move, the release added, is “the ability to enjoy a high-gravity, barrel-aged beer without committing to consuming a full 22-ounce bottle.” In conclusion and in Brynildson’s words, “The per-bottle price point becomes more palatable, and we can spread the same amount of beer farther so that more people can try it. It also makes it easier to drink one now and age another for later.”

This is EXACTLY what I first preached in the print pages and the webpages of All About Beer (beginning here. here,, and here in June, 2011 and with In Support of Small, AAB Vol. 32, Iss. 2 from May, 2012). Nips (or pony bottles) are a subject also covered by Punch Magazine’s Megan Krigbaum last August and veteran beer scribe Lew Bryson online at The Full Pint just a couple weeks ago. They’re even one of my silly Twitter handles: @WeLoveNips.

Now, Firestone’s move sees the company abandoning 22-ounce bottles for regular 12-ounce bottles, akin to downsizing from 750s to “splits” (375-ml). As the release notes, “A 12-ounce bottle is perfect for two reasonable servings.” While I’d personally love to see this movement lead to the full mini-monty—meaning traditional third-liter nips or between 166 and 250 ml—even the move into 355-ml like a twelve is a victory. It will result not only in more people actually being able to afford beers like Bravo and their stellar anniversary beers, but more people actually drinking them since we no longer will have to wait for just the right moment when just the right people are over to crack and enjoy it. After all, you are the right person and this move makes it feasible to enjoy with the best person you know: yourself.



Paso Robles, CA: For the first time since its brewing inception more than a dozen years ago, Firestone Walker’s “Bravo” imperial brown ale is finally finding its way into the bottle, with a limited release set for early February across all Firestone Walker markets.

Along the way, Bravo ($9.99) launches the transition of all Firestone Walker Vintage Reserve barrel-aged beers from 22-ounce bombers to individually boxed 12-ounce bottles in 2017, to include longtime stalwarts such as Parabola and the annual Anniversary Ale.

Bravo: Back to The Future

Bravo was the first beer matured in retired spirits barrels by Brewmaster Matt Brynildson in late 2004, during the experimental stages of what would become Firestone Walker’s inaugural Anniversary Ale.

From day one, Bravo has epitomized Firestone Walker’s approach to barrel-aged beers. “At the time, most barrel-aged beers veered toward the sweeter side,” Brynildson said. “We wanted to make something more dry and lean that would really allow the true bourbon barrel character to pop.”

Bravo has remained one of the driest beers in Firestone Walker’s Vintage Reserve series of barrel-aged beers, and since day one has been considered a vital component in the annual blending of the Anniversary Ale, balancing out some of the stickier components.

“Coming out of stainless steel, Bravo is pretty bracing,” Brynildson said. “But when it goes into the barrel, it really mellows out, and the barrel character comes to the forefront.”

Another signature of Bravo is a lively malt quality that is maintained through Firestone Walker’s cold-storage of its barrel-aged beers. “It has this malt character that is surprisingly fresh,” he said. “There’s a ton of barrel character, and a lot of toffee and caramel. It has the flavor of things sweet, but without being cloying or oxidative.”

The Upside of Downsizing

Henceforth, all beers from Firestone Walker’s Vintage Reserve line of barrel aged beers will be bottled in the 12-ounce format, although total production of each beer remains the same.

“We’ve been thinking about doing this for a while now,” Brynildson said. “It’s something that a lot of people have been clamoring for, and we decided to finally pull the trigger.”

Brynildson noted that the primary benefit is the ability to enjoy a high-gravity, barrel-aged beer without committing to consuming a full 22-ounce bottle.

“With beers like this, a 12-ounce bottle is perfect for two reasonable servings,” he said.

He added, “The per-bottle price point becomes more palatable, and we can spread the same amount of beer farther so that more people can try it. It also makes it easier to drink one now and age another for later. It’s just a lot more flexible.”

# # #

Draft: Craft Lightens Up

Funny where inspiration will hit. For me, it was at a G. Love concert at a music venue that serves beer from such dirty tap lines I’d vowed never to drink there again. Until I made a valuable discovery. Actually, it was a $2 discovery.

For an industry defined by its antithesis to cheap, macro light lagers, does its growth hinge on emulating that model?

Lush Life: Tiny Wolf and Portland’s Nanos

I’m forever deliberating over the impact nanobreweries can or do have on a city’s beer culture. For every Commons (nee Beetje) brewery in Portland or Hess in San Diego, there are seemingly a dozen more that think they can emulate that level of success. To find out what these nanobrewers want to get out of the brewing industry, and what they think can have to contribute, I went straight to the teensy-tiny sources in my August turn at the Mercury’s Lush Life column.

The Session #107: Are Breweries Your Friends?

sessionAs a precursor, to put this briefly, I’ve been a bad beer blogger. And when it comes to The Session, if I were Catholic, I’d type something like “Forgive me Father, it’s been 30 Sessions since my last participation.” (Click here if you care to see old contributions from my initial blog, Red, White, & Brew) My New Year’s resolution is to be better.

For the 107th ed. of The Session, Dan Conley of Community Beer Works in Buffalo NY asks, a bit self-servingly (wink-wink foreshadowing), “Are breweries your friends?

I say self-servingly because his blog is his brewery’s blog. And it worked. I really wanna try Community Beer Works beer now. And drink their beer and be a part of their community at least for the day. The topic, and hosting this Session, makes them seem, well, friendly. Conley expounds:

“To be in business nowadays you pretty much have to have a social media presence. This is especially true in the beer world, where some breweries have basically built themselves on their personality. And yet, at the end of the day, we’re selling you something.”

Conley continues, “Do you want your feeds clear of businesses, or do you like when a brewery engages with people? …As the person who does our social media…I struggle with this problem.”

My answer is: No.

Breweries are not our friends. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself and should say breweries are not my friends. But unlike Mitt Romney who famously said, “Corporations are people, my friend” (thanks in part to Citizens United), brewing companies are companies and therefore incapable of playing air hockey with me, taking me to a Portland Timbers game (except I suppose their sponsor Widmer Brothers Brewing could), or giving me a card that makes fun of my age for my next birthday. These are things friends do. Friends buy me beer. Breweries make the beer. And even then, what we love about craft beer is that brewers make the beer and, in the best of cases, we know their names and faces. And if you’re lucky, you’re friends with your local brewer(s).

Friendship is a relationship. Indeed, we have a relationship with the breweries that make the beer we choose to drink. And no doubt we have emotions surrounding breweries. In the case of local ones that we support, that emotion may be love. We are passionate about their beer. Given that most of us will never even have a beer from thousands of the 4,300 breweries that exist in the US alone, the emotion we feel for them may be indifference or lack of emotion. And in a few cases where folks feel they’ve been betrayed when a brewery sells out to ABI, a darker emotion courses through their bloodstream. Think about this: would a friend ever sell himself to the house of Bud and leave you high and dry (not that any of us would give up drinking beer altogether, mind you).

Heck, to Conley’s point, we “like” breweries on Facebook, and we delight when we see shiny new fermenters delivered just as we dote over actual friends’ newly delivered bouncing babies. But ultimately, no, breweries are not our friends. They are places we go with our friends. They are places that provide us beer to enjoy as part of our friend rituals. And to succeed, they need to have friendly service. But in the case of social media, I think it’s weird when they have actual personal profiles instead of business pages. I am on the fence about when I see a local brewery’s FB page “like” my pictures. But I’m still happy to tag them by checking in when I’m drinking at them with my friends.

Elysian Sells to AB-InBev: Success without Succession

By now every beer blogger, tweeter, consumer, and curmudgeon has volleyed barbs at Seattle-based Elysian Brewing, founded in 1995, via every channel of social media to voice their dissatisfaction with today’s announcement that the Emerald City’s biggest little brewery has sold out, in toto, to Big Bad Bud (NYSE:BUD). By tomorrow we should all shut up about this and continue doing whatever it is we do to further the cause of good brewing either by making great beer, serving it, covering it, or the way that matters most, buying and enjoying it.

This image is blowing up the int-beer-net: Elysian's collab beer with indie label Sub Pop). Ouch.

This image is blowing up the int-beer-net: Elysian’s collab beer with indie label Sub Pop). Ouch.

The bottom line is that the three co-founders, Joe Bisacca, Dick Cantwell and David Buhler, collectively decided to sell their baby to the largest brewing conglomerate on the planet. Terms were not disclosed but it’s safe to assume none of them ever has to work another day in his life yet all of them, at least for now, will continue to work at the company they once owned for twenty years. God bless them. Starting a brewery is hard work. Running one for that long is much, much harder. They deserve to reap their financial rewards. But here is what inspired this whole blog post: they collectively decided to sell their baby and I highly doubt selling to AB-InBev was ever something they’d considered two decades ago or probably even two years ago.

Did they consider its future at all? Did they ever develop a succession plan? All breweries are founded by mortal men and a few mortal women. People perish, but what happens to the breweries–that some people cherish as if they’re living entities–don’t have to die with them.

My next point is one I sincerely wish I didn’t have to bring up or even think about, but in 2012, Dick Cantwell’s son, Nap tragically died from a bike accident suffered while leaving the Elysian brewery he worked at on Capital Hill. As a father, I can’t think of a single worse tragedy than losing your young kid. I can only suspect that Dick, known for espousing independence in all forms, aspired to pass his share of his brewery onto him. (Since this is all conjecture, I don’t know what the cards held for Dick’s daughter Lucy but I know she’s the executive director at the New Belgium Family Foundation. Elysian and New Belgium share more than just their Trip Series of collaboration beers.) Nap’s passing perhaps altered his vision for the company’s future and even if that had nothing to do with this transaction, at the very least it shows that people face much bigger issues and dilemmas in life than crying about the sale of one of your favorite breweries (none of us has one single favorite).

So as the entrepreneurial men and women who’ve created this small but mighty segment of the brewing industry start reaching retirement age or face challenges that impede their ability to further helm the breweries they established, what should they do? Should they simply fold ’em? Should they bequeath them to offspring or employees who possibly aren’t equipped to manage them? (Point of interest: the attrition rate of family businesses shows that 30% successfully become Gen. 2 companies and only 12% make it to third generation, which I wrote about in this 2010 All About Beer story) Or should they cash in their chips? And if so, how much does it matter whether the buyer is a fellow craft beer stalwart, some faceless VC firm, or the evil-doers at the behemoth brewing brands?

I’ve never been nor will I ever be in that position–much like 99.9+% of you–so I don’t know if I’d rather take pride or mounds of cash to the bank. What I do know is this: In my first book, Red, White, & Brew, each chapter focused on a different brewery but it’s really a beer book that’s not about beer, it’s about the people. And one question I asked all of the subjects was about plans for the brewery’s future. Here’s a quick run-down because even when I started working on it in 2005, I didn’t realize how relatively quickly this issue would come to the fore. In order:

1. Yuengling (Pottsville, PA). The full name is D.G. Yuengling & Son, Inc. and for five straight generations beginning with David Yuengling in 1829, a son has always succeeded as the head of the company. Current jefe Dick Yuengling has no sons but all four daughters work there and represent the sixth generation of ownership. They will not change the name.

2. Geary’s (Portland, ME). David Geary and his then-wife started the brewery in 1986. Their daughter Kelly works at the brewery and hopefully still represents its future ownership. Their son Matt currently works in the beer industry for Pilsner Urquell. Considering their longevity, there are far worse places he could be learning the ropes.

3. Bell’s (Kalamazoo, MI). Larry Bell launched his brewery in 1985, making it one of the most veteran companies in the game. Today it’s the 7th largest craft brewing concern; 13th largest overall. His daughter is currently the VP!

4. Leinenkugel (Chippewa Falls, WI). I got some guff for including them in my book but at no time did I state it was about the craft brewing industry or exclusively craft brewers. Leinies had been an independent brewery in the Northwoods of Wisconsin for 121 years from 1867 to 1988. Today it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of MillerCoors. For what it’s worth, Jake Leinenkugel and his sons, the great-great-great-great-grandsons of Jacob Leinenkugel, still have jobs at the company.

5. Free State (Lawrence, KS). Chuck Magerl opened this brewpub in 1989 and fairly recently launched a production brewery. He told me during the interview that he envisioned going the employee-owned route as the succession plan.

6. New Belgium (Ft. Collins, CO) Co-founded in 1991 by Kim Jordan, she remained the majority owner until the tail end of 2012 when the brewery became 100% employee owned through an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). It’s one of the very few breweries I’ve ever dreamt of working for. Fort Collins is a rad place to live and work.

7. Grand Teton (Victor, ID) Formed as the Otto Bros. Brewery in 1988, one of the Otto brothers died and the other, Charlie, sold it to the current owners–a husband and wife–in 2009. Well worth a road trip to visit no matter where your road starts.

8. Widmer Bros. (Portland, OR). Around here this story is already legend. Kurt and Rob Widmer started a tiny little brewery in 1984 helping to kickstart our whole Beervana thing. Neither has kids. They sold a minority interest to Anheuser Busch–more than the arbitrary 25% that the Brewers Association defines as sufficient to remain independent and “craft”–and now the parent corporation, Craft Brew Alliance, owns breweries from New England to Hawaii.

9. Anchor (San Francisco, CA) The makers of Anchor Steam Beer led the charge for craft brewing in 1965 when Fritz Maytag (yes, that Maytag) bought the funny little brewery that had existed, barely, since 1906. America wouldn’t see its first post-prohibition brewery open for another eleven years. Like a lot of people, I suspected his nephew who ran much of the operation would take over but in 2010 Fritz sold it to the Griffin Group (Sky Vodka). They don’t run it exactly how Fritz did, but it remains an integral player in the industry IMO.

10. Electric (Bisbee, AZ). I think the chapter on “Electric” Dave is everyone’s favorite in the book  Arizona’s still a literal and figurative beer desert, but bless ol’ Electric Dave, he tried to change that back in 1988. He actually did sell the company to a couple guys who seemed like Jimmy Buffett “parrotheads” back around 2010 who couldn’t keep it afloat. Russian River‘s Vinnie Cilurzo can also tell you some stories about this guy!

11. Spoetzl (Shiner, TX). Not many breweries ever make it to their 100th anniversary but this one did. Granted, by that time it was owned by the Gambrinus Co. based not in the tiny town of Shiner but over in San Antonio. FYI, it’s the same company that owns “Oregon’s oldest craft brewery,” Bridgeport.

12. Dixie (New Orleans, LA). This one’s just sad all around. Another heritage brand that may not have been terribly relevant in today’s beer culture, but their Blackened Voodoo black lager was my A-HA beer back in the ’90s and the latest (and technically still current) owners lost it to a bunch of down-south, back-room bureaucracy and hypocrisy after the building was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and subsequent looters. Any bottles of Dixie you see on shelves anywhere are brewed up in Wisconsin or Minnesota or something.

13. Alltech’s Lexington (Lexington, KY). This was really just a side business when I was there but I wanted to an excuse to visit Kentucky and drink bourbon and their excellent bourbon-barrel ale gave me that. Now it’s one of the biggest brands in Ireland. Read the chapter.

14. Dogfish Head (Milton, DE). Huh, whatever did happen to this guy? If you hear about ‘im lemme know. (But seriously, Sam does have two young kids and I’d love it if they run the brewery and accompanying Annual Intergalactic Bocce Tournament.)

So cry in your beer today for the “loss” of Elysian. But at least we know they won’t be the next to close and that someone’s looking out for it in the long term to get their investment’s worth. I think it’s safe to predict we’ll start seeing “shocking” news like this breaking on the order of once a month for the next few years. Who’s next? And when it’s not them, let’s not pretend we’re stunned when we find out who it is.