In the third major blow to the Colorado beer industry in the last two months, New Belgium Brewing on Tuesday announced that the employee-owned company is selling to Australian-based Lion Little World Beverages.
New Belgium is currently the largest craft brewery in Colorado and the fourth-largest in the U.S., behind Yuengling, Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada, according to the Brewers Association. The Fort Collins-based brewery’s cash sale, for an undisclosed amount, is expected to finalize by the end of the year, pending approval by employee stock owners.
More than 300 of New Belgium’s employee-owners will receive more than $100,000 in retirement money through the deal, “with some receiving significantly greater amounts,” New Belgium founder Kim Jordan wrote in a letter on Tuesday.
According to New Belgium CEO Steve Fechheimer, the brewery employs nearly 700 people between Fort Collins, Denver and Asheville, N.C. — where a second New Belgium brewery opened in 2016 — and across the country on its sales team.
None of those employees — nor any of the company’s taprooms or breweries in Fort Collins, Denver and Asheville — will be affected by the sale, Fechheimer said. He and his “leadership team” will stay in their positions as well.
“We will no longer be employee owned and it would be easy to see that as a drawback,” Jordan wrote in her letter. “But here’s another way to look at it … Over the life of our (employee stock ownership plan), including this transaction, the total amount paid to current and former employees will be nearly $190 million. We will have helped a significant number of people realize the upside of having equity in something, being a part of the American Dream!”
Matt Tapper, managing director of Lion Little World Beverages, a subsidiary of Japanese company Kirin Holdings Company Limited, told The Denver Post that New Belgium’s “ethos to be a force for good” is something his company wants to continue moving forward.
In nearly 30 years in business in Fort Collins, New Belgium has grown to be one of the country’s largest craft beer businesses while also becoming 100% employee-owned and receiving B-Corporation status, which means the business “meet(s) the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose,” according to the B Corps website.
Tapper said his company will uphold that mission while growing the New Belgium brand.
“This investment in New Belgium … is a pretty significant stake in the ground in terms of the U.S.,” Tapper said. “We sort of aspire to, over time, work with the New Belgium team to establish a pretty significant craft beverage business.”
Lion Little World is now the largest brewer in Australia and the largest alcoholic beverage company in New Zealand, with big beer and smaller brands from XXXX to Boag’s, Malt Shovel and its original Little Creatures microbrewery, which also has outposts in Hong Kong, Singapore, London and San Francisco, according to its website.
In 2012, Kirin Holdings-owned Lion bought Little World Beverages, which became the first craft brewer listed on the Australian stock exchange.
“Imagine a world where publicly traded companies are dedicated to business as a force for good, taking into account an array of stakeholders — their workers, their shareholders, and the environment,” Jordan wrote in her letter. “This is a model for a big, compelling future and is in line with the needs of our rapidly changing world.”
Jordan says that after 29 years in the beer business, she’ll continue to be active in the company under its new ownership. In her letter to customers, she discussed the hardships of “balanc(ing) the cash demands of our ESOP (Employee stock ownership plan) and selling shareholders” with the need to grow in both beer-making capacity and beer-drinking audience.
“These are a lot of competing priorities and it has been difficult to do all of them as well as we’d like,” she wrote. “As we surveyed the landscape over the last several years, we found that options to raise capital while being an independent brewer weren’t realistic for us.”
New Belgium was first reported to be on the lookout for a buyer in 2015, the same year that Colorado’s Breckenridge Brewery sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev (which just last week bought Portland, Ore.’s Craft Brew Alliance — including brands like Kona and Redhook — in a $221 million deal). But by 2017, New Belgium was leading a group effort to rescue another longtime craft brewer, San Francisco’s Magnolia Brewing, out of bankruptcy in a deal for $2.7 million.
That year, Spanish company Mahou San Miguel bought a 30% stake in Boulder’s Avery Brewing. And earlier this year, Avery announced that the company sold 70% of its brewing operation to Mahou San Miguel and fellow business partners Founders Brewing Co. The sale means Avery can no longer classify itself as a craft brewer, a title with standards defined by the Brewers Association. With this sale, New Belgium will no longer be a craft brewery, either.
It’s been a turbulent couple months for the Colorado beer industry as a whole. In October, Boulder Beer Company, the state’s oldest craft brewery, announced plans to downsize, end distribution and lay off more than a third of its workforce.
Late last month, Molson Coors announced that the company is closing its Denver office, moving its headquarters to Chicago and laying off 500 employees internationally. While the company will still operate the Coors brewery in Golden, the move means Colorado has lost one of its most iconic, long-running brands — and with it, a big part of the state’s corporate identity.
Bart Watson, chief economist with the Colorado-based Brewers Association, says business moves like these are to be expected in a maturing beer economy.
“The craft brewing market has also become considerably more competitive in recent years, particularly for regional brewers with a widely distributed footprint and significant capacity,” he told The Denver Post. “Every brewer will make their own independent decision about how to respond to this competitive market, and we’ve seen a number of independent brewers choose acquisition by a strategic partner as their route.”
In this case, New Belgium is Kirin’s first full brewery acquisition in the U.S., which could mean the brewery maintains more autonomy, Watson said. But that remains to be seen.
“I do think this situation may be different than some of the acquisitions we’ve seen where the acquiring company already had significant operations in the United States,” he said.
The question for New Belgium and other craft breweries, then, comes down to which strategic partner and at what cost — or profit — to the company.
“Some of the most widely used options by craft brewers were going to compromise a lot about what makes New Belgium great; environmental sustainability, and a rich internal culture,” Jordan wrote. “Some of these were going to lead to cost-cutting or a lack of focus on sustainability. Having the support and resources of Lion Little World Beverages allows us to attend to those competing priorities and utilize our brewery capacity to its fullest.”
Jordan and her ex-husband Jeff Lebesch took out a second mortgage to start New Belgium Brewing in their Fort Collins basement in 1991. While Lebesch focused on making beer, Jordan, a social worker by training, applied her work background and Quaker schooling to running the business. She started with practices like open-book management and eventually sold the entire company to employees.
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