The fourth-largest craft brewery in the United States announced today that it has been acquired by Lion Little World Beverages, a subsidiary of Japan-based Kirin Holdings.
New Belgium Brewing, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, was founded in 1991. It grew to become one of the country's most prominent independent breweries, famous for beers such as Fat Tire, Voodoo Ranger, and La Folie. It was a pioneer among breweries for its employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). In December 2012, after owning up to 41 percent of the company, the employees bought 100 percent of it from CEO and Cofounder Kim Jordan and her family.
The deal with Australia-based Lion, reported to be an all-cash transaction for the entire company, puts an end to the ESOP.
"We will no longer be employee-owned, and it would be easy to see that as a drawback," Jordan says in a letter to "New Belgium fans" on the brewery's website. "But here’s another way to look at it: More than 300 employees are receiving over $100,000 of retirement money, with some receiving significantly greater amounts. Over the life of our ESOP, including this transaction, the total amount paid to current and former employees will be nearly $190 million. We will have helped a significant number of people realize the upside of having equity in something, being a part of the American Dream."
Lion Little World Beverages, which also owns Little Creatures Brewery (Fremantle, Western Australia), is the craft arm of the Sydney-based Lion food company. Tokyo-based Kirin Holdings acquired the Lion Nathan beer company in 2009.
Kirin's other notable drinks holdings include the Four Roses Distillery (Lawrenceburg, Kentucky), the Philippines' San Miguel Brewery, and a 24.5 percent share of Brooklyn Brewery. The New Belgium acquisition is a likely step toward wider activity in the U.S. beer scene.
In May, Lion announced that it had hired former Duvel Moortgat USA president and Pabst CEO Simon Thorpe to head up its North American craft-beer business. It appeared likely that acquisitions would follow; on Thorpe's watch, Duvel Moortgat USA acquired Boulevard Brewing in 2013 and Firestone Walker two years later.
New Belgium has a nationwide footprint, but its production had dropped in recent years as smaller breweries proliferated across the country.
"We all know the world of craft brewing is dynamic," Jordan says in her letter. "In the US, the number of breweries has nearly doubled in the last four years to 7,500. At New Belgium, we’ve needed to balance the cash demands of our ESOP and selling shareholders, with the operational need for more capacity … and the need to grow our brand by reaching more beer drinkers with our brand message. … As we surveyed the landscape over the last several years, we found that options to raise capital while being an independent brewer weren’t realistic for us."
Jordan says that Lion shares New Belgium's emphasis on environmental sustainability and carbon neutrality. "Some of the most widely used options by craft brewers were going to compromise a lot about what makes New Belgium great; environmental sustainability, and a rich internal culture," Jordan says in the letter. "Some of these were going to lead to cost-cutting or a lack of focus on sustainability. Having the support and resources of Lion Little World Beverages, allows us to attend to those competing priorities and utilize our brewery capacity to its fullest."