By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
On July 29, Eugene/Springfield’s Hop Valley Brewing announced the sale of a majority stake in the company to Tenth and Blake Beer Company, the craft and import division of MillerCoors. During the third quarter, Tenth and Blake also announced agreements with Terrapin Beer Company of Georgia and Revolver Brewing of Texas.
Customer and industry reaction has been mixed. Eugene resident Sam Rutledge first discovered Hop Valley’s Vanilla Infused Porter back in the brewery’s early days, and was struck by the daring use of vanilla. “I will still probably buy Hop Valley beer if it’s on sale, if it looks like it might be good,” says Rutledge. “But I’m hesitant because my experience with national brands is they’re risk-averse. One of the things I’ve liked with Hop Valley’s beer is they take risks. I would not be surprised to find Hop Valley make blander, less-adventurous products now that it’s owned by a national conglomerate. I will be surprised to see anything new or really surprising.”
For Hop Valley co-founder and co-owner Chuck Hare, that won’t be a concern. “They’re not going to come in here and change recipes and make the beer cheaper and different. They’re not sending someone in to run our company or approve our brews,” says Hare. “We’re doing everything we were already doing.”
Hop Valley remains a separate business unit of Tenth and Blake. Current management and ownership are still in charge, says Hare, and no employees are expected to lose jobs due to the acquisition.
Prior to the Tenth and Blake agreement, Hop Valley heard offers from other individuals and entities. “We had opportunities to walk off, never work again. But that’s not what we wanted to do,” says Hare. “We still have a considerable equity interest in this company. If we didn’t, then there wouldn’t have been a deal.”
Hop Valley was founded in 2009 as a 15-barrel brewpub in Springfield. An expansion in 2013 brought a 60-barrel, 30,000-square-foot production brewery and public taproom online and helped Hop Valley grow from 6,700 barrels in 2013 to 38,500 barrels in 2015, according to the Brewers Association, making it the 82nd-largest craft brewery in the U.S. With a solid base in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California and some markets in Vermont, Hop Valley wanted to continue expanding distribution, but that’s where the problems began.
Assuming Hop Valley’s track record and Oregon’s prominence in the national industry would help open up markets in California, Hare and the team encountered very different reactions. “The farther you get away from home, the harder it is to sell beer.”
Back home, Hop Valley’s owners did some soul-searching. “We decided we wanted to scale up and get our beer in as many hands as possible,” explains Hare, but “we really needed to find safe waters with a business partner who would help us grow, protect us and help us get into major chains.”
The talks with Tenth and Blake showed Hop Valley a way forward — and brought something unique to Tenth and Blake. “We set trends here in the Northwest,” says Hare, “and Tenth and Blake was attracted to our hop-forward beers. We’re packaging five different IPAs right now, but each one is so distinctly different.”
Hop Valley expects to have other behind-the-scenes advantages, such as decreases in packaging costs and opportunities to visit with other Tenth and Blake breweries nationwide for collaborations and training. But providing a clear route to more tap handles and shelves nationwide is the primary benefit of the acquisition. “It’s tough to find a distributor who will take you,” says Hare. “That’s a problem we’ll never have to worry about again.”
The deal deserves the benefit of the doubt, says Amanda Martin-Tully, co-host of Portland-based The Brew Happy Show podcast. “When you see a homegrown brewery sell their majority share, it shakes the community,” she explains. “It's viewed as a betrayal, and that's a little harsh. We should be applauding our small business owners for creating a great product, and celebrate their success.”
Martin-Tully advises that Hop Valley fans watch and see. “Are they caring for their employees? Are they staying true to their mission statement? Is their beer still good? If you find these to no longer be true, then of course we should voice our disapproval and leave our pints empty. But just labeling them ‘sell outs’ and boycotting their beer? I'd like to think we're better than that,” says Martin-Tully. “Besides, that's a lot of good beer going to waste for no good reason.”
For Hare, the focus is simple. “There are lots of people in the country who haven’t had a good Northwest IPA yet,” he says. “I’m excited to get that to them.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.