So, its Thursday, March 2nd. About half past six. I’ve received a countless amount of messages all asking me the same question.
“Is it true that ABI just bought Boxing Cat?”
I’ve known since Tuesday February 28th. Lee Tseng called me as I was walking to my favorite pork rice joint in the world. He never calls me. I’ve got about six modes of communication with Lee Tseng. We’re in a couple sports groups, we’re in a couple industry groups, we’re in a group that is dedicated to the fact that he installed a dartboard at one of his bars. I talk to Lee in front of other people. Lee’s a social guy. He usually doesn’t call. He just got out of the hospital and I thought something was really wrong. I answered the phone by asking him if he was dying,
“No, Carl, I’m not dying, but I have something to tell you.”
“Oh fuck you, you’re selling to ABI aren’t you?”
“I fucking hate you. Congrats, fuck you though. Fuck.”
“Yeah me and MJ drew straws to see who was going to have to call you, I lost.”
“Fuck you Lee, seriously. But congrats. You deserve it.”
“Yeah, it was the right decision.”
“No it wasn’t. Fuck you. You’re killing me here.”
“I know buddy, but at the end of the day.”
That went on for about another couple minutes. It’s hard when to know how to be happy for something that you disagree with on a molecular level, but you know your friend deserves it. That’s what I need to talk to myself about today. I owe a lot to Lee Tseng and Michael Jordan. Kelley Lee is my buddy, but from the perspective of learning how to be great and chasing those that came before you, Lee and Mike gave me a kick in the ass to be better than expectations and try to truly change the game. How do you maintain a friendship with someone that you genuinely respect and who selflessly made sure you didn’t make the same mistakes that they did, after they sell to a behemoth that is actively trying to destroy my entire world? That’s a hard question. How do you love the person without ignoring the devil lurking behind him?
Anheuser Busch InBev knows this all too well. You can assume, because its most likely true, that ABI has a manual in an office somewhere in Brazil or wherever that is titled, “how to manipulate craft beer by using the one thing that makes it special, it’s own community.” That’s a working title. ABI knows that I’m never going to stand up and take a shot at Boxing Cat. Because, until it’s too late, Boxing Cat will remain the people that I love and respect that helped me and others put a legitimate face on Chinese craft beer, both locally and internationally. But Boxing Cat as of whenever they signed their contract agreements stopped being the Boxing Cat that it was for the last eight years. That’s a watershed event. By the American Brewer’s Association and a handful of other trade groups around the world, including the Craft Beer Association of China, as soon as you sell to ABI, or any other commercial brewing concern, you stop being craft.
(A lot of people as that question.)
“What difference does it make?”
To a consumer, not a whole lot, you have money, you want to buy beer with it, what the fuck do you care right? To the industry, a definition is the only protection that small, independent breweries have against corporations that have more money, better infrastructure and better lawyers than you, the independent brewer, do.
As long as I’ve been in the brewing industry, I’ve always seen it from both sides. I appreciate the science and technology that commercial/industrial breweries bring to the process of brewing beer. A lot of what they do is applicable to what I, as a craft brewer do. I love process engineering, because its fucking fascinating. The idea that you can understand exactly what is going on at every stage and improve product quality and package stability of a brand of beer, its poetry to me. Tom Ashton had a lot to do with that evolution in my ability as a brewer. Equally so has Michael Jordan. Both worked at large commercial breweries at one point. Both made the decision that craft beer was an expression of more than just process and repeatability. Craft beer is one of those rare industries where you make people happy by simply existing. I’ve felt that only one other time in my short stint on this planet. In college I was a flower delivery guy. Try to find a mother fucker that doesn’t smile when they get flowers delivered, I dare you. I brought flowers to weddings, graduations, birthdays and funerals. No one gets mad at the flower delivery guy. No one gets mad when the craft brewer shows up to the party either.
But how do you interpret change in a growing industry? Boxing Cat helped set China craft on its way, their DNA is in just about every part of our growing community. Who hasn’t made an excuse to pop out of a business meeting early to grab a pint of TKO before a flight? Probably the funniest evidence of their influence on craft is the annoying number of Chinese craft breweries that are named after cats. Between Boxing Cat and Brew Dog we are basically in an age of naming craft breweries in China after household pets. Jokes aside, Boxing Cat stopped being a craft brewery the minute they agreed to sell their company to ABI. This isn’t a petty observation or something I’m making out of jealousy. If you think ABI didn’t come around to visit us at Great Leap then you are naïve. I’m just not as smart as Lee and I chose to tell them to adjust their attitude and try again. They didn’t and I didn’t much care. My personal feelings about what ABI means to the brewing industry and craft beer’s future isn’t really the point of this blog. This is about admitting the hard truth that the earlier this week, Boxing Cat started being a portfolio brand of a company that most in the industry around the world commonly refer to as the devil.
If Yanjing or Qingdao bought them, it would be the same result. The thing that makes craft important for consumers, more than just the definition of various trade organizations around the world, is the fact that when you buy a craft beer you are supporting someone’s idea of home. You are supporting the achievable dream that we as consumers can have more than what is copied, mass produced or bought by a major corporation. It represents the connection of the community to the producer. It represents consumption as a human ideal. Not something that is dictated by marketing strategies and advertising. It’s, at its very basic construct, an attempt at honesty.
I’ll still drink Boxing Cat out of nostalgia and support for my friends. For the time being it’s still going to be good beer, but the chances that it will remain good beer after being “transitioned” by the same brewing geniuses that brought us Bud Lime is unlikely. And when ABI fucks it up, and they will fuck it up, I’ll be the first one to toast a glass to the memory of one of the best pints China has ever known.
Until then, don’t make me call ABI portfolio brands “craft”. They need to find a different fucking name for that class of beer, announce that name during a super bowl commercial with talking frogs or some bullshit and stop trying to hide their true face to the world.