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Same Same But Different

Founders Cam and Dave are staying in position. The brewers at Mountain Goat's Richmond HQ will still be the brewers at Goat's Richmond HQ. The existing Goat sales team will still be the Goat sales team. There will be no change to the beers currently brewed under the Mountain Goat banner.

So says Matt Grix, the new Mountain Goat GM as of Monday when the announcement was made that Melbourne's legendary microbrewery was now 100 percent owned by Japanese beverage giant Asahi. It was an announcement that, while not exactly unexpected in many quarters, still sent shockwaves through the Australian beer industry, bringing the sort of takeovers / buy-ins happening with increasing regularity in the States onto Aussie beer lovers' doorsteps. With it came the full gamut of reactions online: "Goat's dead to me" at one end of the scale; "Good on you, guys. Well deserved" at the other; and "It was always going to happen here at some point" somewhere in between.

But, as he settles into his new role – only meeting the wider Goat team for the first time on Monday – the former CUB man who joined Asahi three years ago is keen to offer reassurance to Goat fans.

"It will remain a standalone business," says Matt. "The beer won't change. The guys will continue to innovate. I'm there to leverage the strength of Asahi ... To give them better reach to more consumers."

It's easy to understand why little will need to change. After a short spell brewing their packaged Steam Ale and Hightail at the William Bull Brewery in Griffith, NSW, Goat has been producing an increasing amount of its beers at what was formerly Independent Distillers Australia and is now Asahi Premium Beverages in Laverton. All Steam Ale (keg and bottle), bottled Hightail and IPA (until it was discontinued and replaced with the new Pale Ale), as well as all cans – Summer, Fancy Pants and Surefoot Stout – are brewed there, with all other draught beers and limited run bottles coming out of the Richmond brewery.

Matt says that Cam Hines and Dave Bonighton, who launched Mountain Goat 18 years ago next month, staying on was "a key part of the deal".

"I'm going in to learn the business from these guys," he says. "Everything stays exactly the same. There are no plans to change anything. We love the business and love the products and want to maintain things as they are.

"The craft beer market is in good growth. [Mountain Goat is] a terrific product that complements our portfolio with Asahi Super Dry and the Cricketers Arms brand."

He says that, while Goat will now be able to benefit from Asahi's greater reach and data obtained from its global business, the plan is to focus on Australia and build the brewery's audience outside Victoria. He believes this can be done without compromising the other local brand they own. Cricketers Arms was bought by Asahi in 2013 and relaunched last year and, says Matt, is enjoying "terrific growth".

"The good thing about the liquor industry is that there's such a diverse range of consumers. [This] gives us the opportunity to put the right brands in the right venues [and] that's really appealing to Mountain Goat," he says.

He's leaving the door open for more local purchases too.

"The business is always looking at products that complement our portfolio," he says.


THE IMPACT

Since the announcement, all manner of views have been put forward as to what Asahi's purchase of Mountain Goat means. While Lion's purchase of Little Creatures / White Rabbit was of a larger scale (at least we assume so as we don't know and aren't interested in what was paid for Goat), it also felt a little different. Lion always had a significant stake in the company that owned both, Little World Beverages. Meanwhile, Cricketers Arms was always a brand that stood apart from the craft beer world.

But Mountain Goat's tale is the stuff of lore. From the postcard Cam sent to Dave two decades ago to the backyard parties of the early days to the 15th birthday celebrations on Goat Island in the Northern Territory and winning Champion Australian Beer in May with their biggest ever beer, this was the classic story of two mates starting from nothing and building an empire – two mates who are among the nicest guys you could wish to meet and who have surrounded themselves with some of the nicest staff you could wish to meet, many of whom we at The Crafty Pint are happy to count among our very best friends.

As well as building Mountain Goat from scratch, Cam and Dave have helped build the Australian craft beer industry, recently playing key roles in the development of the Craft Beer Industry Association (CBIA), of which Dave was chair for a period. Yesterday, CBIA responded to the news – and, presumably, questions as to whether Mountain Goat could remain a member – with a statement:

Yesterday we heard the news that Mountain Goat Beer has been sold to Asahi Premium Beverages.

It is well known that eighteen years ago, when Mountain Goat began, the modern wave of craft brewing was in its very infancy in Australia.

Through their hard work, Cam and Dave did much to lay the groundwork for the momentum enjoyed by the craft beer sector today. As well as building a great beer business, both men have played leading roles in the industry as a whole, including in the formation of the CBIA. We acknowledge and appreciate their efforts.

The CBIA celebrates the successes of all Australian craft brewers – whatever that means to each one – be it gaining a tap in their local pub, securing ranging in a national chain, selling to a new owner – or anything in between.

The parameters for eligibility for membership of the CBIA were developed around the volume brewed by the relevant operation, as opposed to its ownership structure. For so long as Mountain Goat continues to meet those volume parameters, we look forward to their continuing involvement with the CBIA.

That in itself will no doubt raise further questions for some people. If volume rather than ownership matters more when deciding whether a business can be a member of Australia's largest craft brewing association, then what does it mean to be a craft brewer in Australia; indeed, what is craft beer in Australia?

The definition of craft is something we've pretty much avoided here at Crafty Towers, given there are so many definitions, non-definitions and arguments that have been made. What can be said with certainty is that the ground is shifting in Australia like never before. In many ways, we at The Crafty Pint are increasingly convinced that craft beer has won its first major battle in Australia: to be recognised and accepted. The question is no longer, "Will it survive?" but "How big can it become: 10 percent of the Australian beer market? Twenty? Thirty? More?"

Other questions arise. Who will be producing most of the beer in that market: small, independent, Australian-owned breweries or brands owned by major beverage companies or retail chains? Who will be the next significant player to take investment from or be bought by a major international beverage company or retail chain? Does it matter?

We have been working on an in-depth look at ownership for some time and, only last week, finalised and sent out the questions to the people from different parts of the Australian beer industry whose answers will form part one of a two-part feature on the site. Among those we asked to take part was Dave Bonighton, given Goat's involvement with Asahi; hopefully, he will still be able to respond as his answers now take on even greater import.

Given we already have these articles coming, we see little point in weighing in on the question of ownership now. Indeed, figuring this moment was nigh, we put our thoughts into a newsletter three weeks ago. Essentially, if the beer remains the same, for many people such a takeover won't matter. For those to whom it does, hopefully they'll recognise the hard work of the people that have sold their business, toast them with a glass of their favourite beer and move on to support the hundreds of other small, independent Australian breweries out there.

And perhaps that is where the division lies for many. No honest beer lover – or one taking part in a blind tasting – would deny the quality of beers such as Return of the Dread coming out of Little Creatures since the change in ownership, for example. But they may choose not to drink them and favour something locally-owned.

From a Crafty Pint point of view, when pushed on what craft beer is to us, we always seem to come back to one thing: love. If those designing and producing the beers don't love what they are doing and aren't putting love into their beers then, no matter how well they are made, they are missing something crucial. It's why we returned from a recent trip around Tasmania inspired by the dozens of people in the early stages of their lives as brewers: because they were abandoning careers (and perhaps a degree of reason) to do something they love. Equally, it's why we really don't care that AB Inbev plans to take over SABMiller.

Of course, you can never quantify such a definition in any workable way and perhaps that is one reason why there is no agreed definition for craft beer and why size or ownership or ingredients or whatever else is used by those who feel a definition is required. But is one needed? Every individual who cares about such things is going to have their own parameters as to what they'll accept and that's as it should be.

As for Mountain Goat, as long as Cam, Dave and their existing staff are involved then there can be little doubt that there is love for the brand and its beers, even if the brewery is no longer independent and Australian-owned.

What is incontrovertible is that the beer scene in Australia, and particularly in Melbourne, would look nothing like it does today without their efforts and achievements of the past 18 years. And surely even the angriest of the keyboard warriors can raise a glass to that.

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