Big Beer Is Working Their Dark Magic…And I Didn’t Even Know It.

Yesterday I posted an article about ungettables I shared with some friends that were sent to me from Old Dominion Brewing.  In particular I liked the Oak Barrel Stout, but was confused as to why they used oak chips, but it was called oak barrel in the title.  Well yesterday I got my answer in the comments.  Josh from Ben Franklin Brewery said:

As massugu said Old Dominion was originally in Ashburn VA right around the corner from the Redskins in season training park. They sold a few years ago to Fordham Brewing (51%) and Anheuser (Inbev 49%) I love their oak barrel stout. When Old Dominion first made it they used oak barrels but needed to adapt the recipe in order to produce larger quantities. The stuff of tap at the brew pub was amazing and it’s still one if my favorite beers.

This was a very interesting comment to me for several reasons.  First, they used to barrel age this beer.  I bet it was amazing stuff when they did, because it gets so much more in the way of flavor from actually spending time in a barrel rather than being aged over oak chips.  

Second thing he said was that they needed to adapt their recipe to make “larger quantities.”  This is sounding like big beer’s hand at work here.  Small quantities aren’t good enough it has to be available to the masses, and probably year round.  So they needed to make more, in order to make more they needed to change their production process.  I find it difficult to believe that they changed their production process without affecting the quality of the beer, but it is still good, so they probably thought it was ok to make the change.

Low and behold the 49% owner is AB InBev.  So, to recap Big Beer has a big hand in ownership of Old Dominion Brewery.  They were forced to change their production process of their Oak Barrel Stout (which is no longer aged in oak barrels because they couldn’t make enough) to make more.  Finally I’m betting (although I have no way to tell) that the current iteration of Oak Barrel Stout, while still good, isn’t as good as it used to be.  

I’d love to hear from someone that has actually tried the Oak Barrel Stout when it was still aged in oak barrels.  This is a dire prophesy that seems to be coming true.  We were worried that once the bean counters at the mega breweries got hold of craft beer they would begin to degrade the quality of the craft product.  Looks like we actually have a live example here.  It would be great if I were wrong, and the brew now is actually higher quality than before the buy out, but I’m guessing that isn’t the case.

Beware friends with deep pockets.


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28 Comments on “Big Beer Is Working Their Dark Magic…And I Didn’t Even Know It.”

  1. Carmen
    March 28, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

    To be fair, 49% is still minority ownership, which means they really don’t get a final say in anything at all. They can make suggestions, they can threaten to sell, but they can’t veto a single thing. That’s the key to majority ownership at the end of the day. You really do have total autonomy.

    That said, it seems obvious their goal was to widen their distribution by selling a minority stake off. That means compromising on production techniques to increase your output. It is VERY hard to keep small businesses small and successful, so I don’t begrudge them growth. One bad batch could ruin a small brewery with the wrong circumstances and loan payments and a million other things.

    • Don
      March 28, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

      Carmen, I think you are correct in the fact that it is very hard to keep small businesses successful. However I think you are fooling yourself if you think that AB InBev’s hands aren’t all over this decision. I think there is a big difference between a minority ownership, and a minority ownership by a 1000 pound gorilla. And this may have been Old Dominion’s thought all along, and they may have happily changed their recipe to accommodate larger batches, but that doesn’t lessen the fact that when Big Beer gets involved with craft the quality of the product goes down. This is exactly what we were worried about, and it seems to be happening, whether the former owners were willing participants or not.

  2. March 28, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    The sad things is that we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of this in the not-too-distant future. Big Beer will undoubtedly be making major plays to get a piece of the steadily growing craft beer pie. I think it will ultimately be up to the consumer to decide who holds the cards.

    • Don
      March 28, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

      I agree with everything you just said.

  3. March 28, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    The flip side of using oak barrels instead of oak chips is the need to turn oak trees into oak staves. What would Shel Silverstein say? “It’s okay, I cut down the giving tree to make great beer for you to drink while sitting on the stump of the tree that used to be here but you needed to age your beer in.”

    Being a forester, I’m really okay with that. But, as required by NEPA, it’s my professional obligation to forecast the consequences of such actions.

    • Don
      March 28, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

      The preceding message was brought to you by “the Lorax”.

      Hard to argue the environmental aspects here. However, most of the barrels used are actually re-used from bourbon, wine, or other such beverages. Thus adaptive reuse is a really good thing, and cuts down on waste, and in this case all those flower beds!

      • March 28, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

        Or even mulch.

        Agreed. Reuse is a good thing. I liked the way a bouron barrel (castoff from Lagunitas) gave my homebrewed stout a great flavor.

        I hate to go all economics on you but I think you may be missing my point. If the brewery wanted to scale up to provide more product in more states (and make more money) while keeping the product affordable then they had some tough decisions. If they ramp up production using their initial recipe methods, then more barrels need to be had from somewhere. They can’t simply buy barrels from different makers and hope for consistency; whatever the barrel used (bourbon, chardonnay, pinot noir, etc.) each imparts its own flavor when used to age a beer. They needed the same type of barrel they aged them in before. Barrels’ supply is not unlimited. The greater the demand the higher the price, which gets passed along to us. Higher prices for barrels means there’s an incentive for more oak trees to be cut to meet the demand.

        Once they decided to increase production (I can’t blame anyone for wanting to make more money), their choices were to charge significantly higher prices (since they would be competing for barrels for aging) or to use oak chips.

        • Don
          March 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

          Or they could have just bought one of this Hacker McSmackers and cut down 5 trees at once!

  4. March 28, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    I was pleasantly surprised to read today’s blog post. The recipe actually changed before the business was sold. If you reach out to the guys at Lost Rhino Brewing Company you can get better information since they used to work at/for Old Dominion. I see they also have a beer called Woody Stout which uses Oak Barrels. Now I know what I need to get my hands on next time I’m visiting my parents in Northern Virginia. Here’s a link to a story about when Old Dominion sold.

    • Don
      March 28, 2012 at 1:37 pm #


      Thanks Josh. I’ll do that, and see how that process unfolded.


  5. ajsmith333
    March 28, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    I think “the fact that when Big Beer gets involved with craft the quality of the product goes down” is still just your opinion (one shared by others, as well) rather than a fact. Changing the recipe of a beer in order to scale it up happens in breweries whether or not they are owned (all or in part) by Big Beer. Pilot batches are made all the time with expensive, exotic ingredients or hops with limited supply. Sometimes changes must be made in how the beer’s produced to meet timing or cost requirements-it’s a reality that all production companies face. American light lagers and some other less-than-great beers have come about from efforts to cut down the expense and time taken to produce beer, but so have some of the great beers you enjoy (and can afford). Was Big Beer the force behind this specific decision? Maybe…but to assume it and to imply that all recipe changes or cut corners are the result of Big Beer influence and that they produce lessened quality is, in fact, wrong.

    • Don
      March 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

      Like I said, they may have been willing participants, but the result is the same. Me, I’d rather pay $12 for 22oz of a great barrel aged beer than $2.50 for a lesser 12 oz product. I understand all the economics behind the decision, stc, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it. Whether “Big Beer” helped them make the decision, or they made it to be more attractive to a potential financial suitor is totally irrelevant in the eyes of me, the consumer. I hate to see this sort of compromise, and as craft beer continues to grow I think we will see and hear about them more and more.

      • ajsmith333
        March 28, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

        You are still, without reason, assuming that ownership or impending ownership from Big Beer was the motivation for switching the recipe-not expanded distribution, limited barrel supply, problems with consistency, worries about infected barrels, etc. You have taken a recipe change (that you have decided produced a beer that tasted worse than the ideal you have in your head about the original beer) and turned it into some case against Big Beer involvement with small breweries. You started out saying you liked the beer, then went on to make some completely unfounded case about how the beer was dumbed down for the sake of Big Beer. You may hate to see this sort of compromise, but I hate even more to see the compromise of people like you vilifying something with no supporting evidence. Anytime you see someone do something that is business-savvy, do you suspect they are trying to entice a corporate buyout? Perhaps they’re just trying to succeed themselves.

        • Don
          March 28, 2012 at 3:06 pm #

          Yup. 😉

        • Narvid
          April 2, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

          I have never in my life (age 51) seen a recently corporatized product become better than it was before big anything bought it. Never.

          There may be more of it, or in more places, or maybe I’m just buried in more of their advertising that tries to convince me it’s better.

          All the business rationalization in the world (and there is a lot of it) can’t change the fact that it’s only about profit. I recognize for some that’s a trade-off they’ll accept, but not me. I like things that are made by people.

  6. March 28, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    So does Goose Island now suck as well?

    Big Beer is big business. I wouldn’t equate it to instant suckitude. In many cases they are providing expansion funds or other means in return for profit sharing when they gobble up other businesses, particularly in the case of InBev.

    I’d rather see that approach than what we saw in the early to mid 00’s where big beer hid their namesake behind a fake small brewery name and produced liquid shit in a bottle with a craft-looking label slapped on it. Yes, I’m looking at you, Winter’s Bourbon Cask Ale.

    • Don
      March 28, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

      Frankly, yes. GI does suck more now. I have heard they are getting rid of Matilda, and some of their other Belgian style brews to focus more on production of their stouts. And even though I prefer their stout, this is the type of decision that big beer makes all the time. They want to maximize profits, and they don’t care what they have to do in the process. I trust that if a craft brewery makes this decision on their own it was made very thoughtfully and that it wasn’t taken lightly because the beer is more than just a commodity. If you talk to a craft beer brewmaster, these beers are like their children. The wouldn’t cut production just for $$ if it meant hurting the overall “brand” and the loyalty that comes with it. Big Beer doesn’t care about that (its obvious from their latest machinations to gain market share) they’d sell their grandmother to gain a half a point market share.

      Yeah, and the Winter’s Bourbon Cask Ale was Horrific! 😦

      • March 30, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

        Fair enough. I see that some of GI’s flagships have been moved to an AB brew house to increase volumes. IIRC, they were out of space at GI to begin with, so it was likely going to go offsite regardless. Does it make the beer suck? I dunno. I haven’t seen a drop in quality from them yet. But maybe GI was a bad example. There are plenty of breweries – especially on the InBev side – under the AB/InBev umbrella that still operate on their own, sharing funding and profits with AB/InBev.

        • Don
          March 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

          Yup. But I believe it is imperative that we as craft beer consumers be a watchdog for the industry to make sure their nefarious ways don’t come into play.

  7. March 28, 2012 at 2:20 pm #


    I’ve been in the Ashburn area for the past 10 years and yes the quality isn’t the same as it was when the brewery was open. Old Dominion used to have a restaurant which included many items on the menu flavored with their house brew like the beer battered fish and fries. They also carried Oak Barrel Stout on tap and it was amazing. InBev closed the restaurant down shortly after the buy out. The stuff bottled now is still good, but I still yearn for that old recipe and my old hang out place.

  8. March 28, 2012 at 2:32 pm #


    I’ve lived in the Ashburn area for the past ten years. Old Dominion wasn’t only a brewery but also a restaurant that featured many menu items flavored with their house brews such as the beer battered fish and chips. Oak Barrel was on tap and man was it good. The stuff bottled now is still good, but not like it was. Shortly after the buyout, InBev closed the restaurant down. I still yearn for the old recipe and my old hang out place.


    • Don
      March 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

      THANK YOU PETER!!!! Finally, someone who can corroborate my suspicions. Too bad they shut down your hang out. But maybe it was for the best…you know they need to make money 😉

  9. March 28, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

    Bottom line: it’s about CRAFTmanship, which makes it craft beer. Sure, Big Beer can mass-produce a similar product, but when it boils down to it – I’ll order anything that doesn’t have Big Beer involved, over the competition. Why? Because if Big Beer had any interest in quality, rather than quantification, it would have been helping craft beer from the beginning. The reason behind it’s involvement now is totally obvious.

    • Don
      March 28, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

      Very nicely said

    • March 28, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

      Amen to that brother! As I’ve said in the past, I don’t care if Big Beer buys into Craft–an inevitability–as long as they leave the brewing to the brewers.

      Unfortunately, it is in the nature of big corps to make their decisions based on quarterly dividends, stock splits, executive bonuses etc. In other words they’re more concerned w/ the welfare of their stockholders and execs than w/ product quality and customer satisfaction. (That’s an observable fact not any kind of sour grapes.) Its also why we Craftees have gravitated toward breweries that put product quality and customer satisfaction first.

      Lets face it if the quality of our favorite brew goes down, then we’ll move on to somebody else’s beer. The demand for quality beer is there and it ain’t going away. If big beer can help satisfy that demand fine, but if not, tough shit, its not like we didn’t warn ’em.

      BTW Don, I’m gonna be in the Waynesboro, VA area this coming August for a genealogical get-together. There’s a local brewery in the area, called Blue Mountain, that is producing an Imperial Stout called Dark Hollow Artisanal Ale (25° Plato, 79 IBUs, and 10% ABV) that according to them “has been aged (100 days) in charred American oak bourbon barrels still dripping with uncut whiskey.” (Sounds right tasty don’t it?) I’m gonna be on the lookout for it, and if I do find it I’ll let you know how it compares. In any event, I intend to try a few of their beers–preferably on tap– while I’m down there.

  10. Johnny
    March 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

    I loved this article. It was very well written and thought out. This issue of Big Beer buying into Craft worries me greatly. I know that this one local brewery by me in Ohio called Indigo Imp is partially owned by AB InBev now and while I haven’t tasted a difference I fear it’s only a matter of time. What I can’t understand is all the supporters on Ab InBev’s side that say they support Craft beer as well, if that was true then you wouldn’t be defending Big Beer in my opinion. What is really unfortunate is that I’ll skip out on some Craft beers just because I don’t want to support Big Beer in anyway; yes I know that might be extreme and I might miss out on some nice stuff, but that’s how strongly I feel.

    • March 29, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

      Wow Johnny I envy your resolve. I can’t do that. I support local brewery’s but if it’s tasty I’m going to buy some big stuff too. This is also why I buy things at a chain grocery store and big box stores as well. I try and support local businesses as much as I can but even the craft brewers have to buy their supplies from larger suppliers. I did order some rhizomes so I can grow my own hops but even though I’m getting them through the local homebrew store he still had to buy them from a bigger company. And I guess since you don’t want to support Big Beer in anyway you won’t be able to tell whether Indigo Imp does taste different in the future since you won’t be buying their beer any more since Big Beer owns part of them.


  1. Big Bee…Er..I Mean Old Dominion Brewing Chimes In | Beer & Whiskey Brothers Blog - March 30, 2012

    […] I put together an article warning about Big Beer’s influence on craft beer.  In this particular example I used Old Dominion’s Oak Barrel Stout as a beer that may have […]

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