While the reaction to today's announcement that Pirate Life Brewing has been bought by AB InBev may have been tempered somewhat by previous brewery sales and discussion within the industry that the Adelaide-based operation was a likely target for acquisition, it has still sent fresh shockwaves through the beer world. The news comes just 69 days after AB InBev acquired 4 Pines and seven weeks on from Feral's sale to Coca-Cola Amatil.
It also represents a quite phenomenal rise for Pirate Life; if anyone out there knows of a faster arc from the launch of a first beer (March 1, 2015, in this case) to a sale to a major brewery – with the small matter of wide acclaim and trophies galore along the way – we'd love to hear from you.
According to Pirate Life CEO Mick Cameron (pictured above), who launched the business with son Jack and Jack's mate Jared "Red" Proudfoot, today's sale was driven by the aim of keeping the brewery on the path they always intended.
"We've always had a dream about being a brand that can resonate globally," he says, referencing their stated goal from day one to produce not just high quality but "internationally recognised" beer.
"We have struggled with volume at Hindmarsh [the home of their brewery]. To be able to do the deal with ABI does allow us to build the new brewery and upgrade Hindmarsh and complete the dream."
He adds: "I was really excited three years ago [when they were preparing to launch] and, for a bloke that's in his early 60s, I'm more excited now than I've ever been."
With many of the larger craft breweries in Australia now snapped up by multinational operations – aside from those mentioned above, Lion/Kirin owns brands including Little Creatures, White Rabbit and Byron Bay Brewery plus New Zealand breweries Panhead and Emerson's, while Asahi owns Mountain Goat and Cricketers Arms – there will be many at the country's 400-plus independent brewing companies worried at what the future may hold. But, says Mick, if they focus on quality, he believes all can succeed.
"I've always said that the key issue is to continue to make cracking beer whether you're on a little three hec brewhouse or a 100 hec brewhouse," he says.
The conversation with the new owners started while Pirate Life was looking to raise funds for the new brewery site in Port Adelaide (we wrote about here). For AB InBev, the appeal was a chance to strengthen their portfolio within Australia with a brand they feel is complementary to 4 Pines and the Yak Ales lineup.
"From an ABI perspective, our focus is domestic," says AB InBev Business Unit President - Australia Peter Filipovic. He says the addition of Pirate Life will allow the company to "talk to more customers an consumers in Australia" with what is recognised as a leading craft brand.
"Our ambition is to have the best portfolio in Australia," he says. "Pirate Life is a welcome addition."
There's little doubting it gives the company a formidable lineup. Already, flying in beers such as Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout has given them a foot in the door at venues that would previously have had little or no dealings with CUB. And, whether this broader portfolio is used as a means to access new venues or defend existing taps at venues demanding a wider range of beers for their changing clientele, it certainly strengthens their position in the fast-changing Australian beer market.
As for Pirate Life's stated intention of building its international audience, he says: "Mick has done a great job growing in other markets and so we will let him keep doing what he does best."
For now, that includes brewing all Pirate Life beers at Hindmarsh, where three new 100 hectolitre fermenters are soon to be installed, as they work towards opening the Port Adelaide site by the end of 2018. The pilsner they've previously released in draught form will come out in cans early next year and they're looking to start releasing some new barrel aged beers too, including a double IPA that's "been sitting on strawberries in shiraz barrels" before Christmas.
Mick says it's "business as usual", describing Jack and Red as "absolutely stoked".
"We've got an opportunity to take the team to more places," he says. "We shared the news with them this morning; they're all sitting at the brewery having a couple of double IPAs."
The Independent Brewers Association (IBA) has offered congratulations to the current owners of Pirate Life on the sale in a statement released at lunchtime.
The association, which has lost some of its largest members in the past few months, having previously taken the decision to remove large brewers from what was previously known as the Craft Beer Industry Association in May, added: "While every sale of an independent brewery to big beer is disappointing we believe that each of them further underscores the impact the independent brewing industry is having on the traditional beer market in Australia and overseas.
"This was backed up by the recent Beer Cartel survey that showed beer drinkers overwhelmingly preferred to support independent breweries over those owned by multi-nationals.
"Brewery acquisitions such as this grab headlines and generate significant commentary, but it needs to be remembered that there are more than 430 other Australian independent brewing businesses who will continue to put their heart and soul into their beers, and it is for them that the IBA exists. We will be doing all we can to help them take advantage of the opportunities created by ownership changes, such as launching an independence seal in the near future.
"We will continue to work towards our vision of quality independent beer everywhere through Awareness, Quality, Regulatory and Value initiatives for IBA members."
You can read the media release announcing the sale here.