The internet lit up this morning with the announcement that Minneapolis-based Crispin Cider had been sold to MillerCoors. Early reports in the Milwaukee Business Journal and the Pioneer Press gave little detail, stating only that the company had been purchased for an undisclosed amount and was to be run as a unit of Tenth and Blake, the craft-and-import division of the brewing giant named after the Miller’s 10th Street Brewery in Milwaukee and the Coors-owned Sandlot Brewery located on Blake Street in Denver, Colorado. Reports disclosed that the deal includes both Crispin and its affiliate Fox Barrel. Tenth and Blake CEO Tom Cardella cited the precipitous growth of the hard cider sector since 2008 when Crispin was founded and said, “We were looking at the best way to participate in that growth. Crispin stood out.”
I had the opportunity to chat with Crispin founder and CEO Joe Heron this afternoon to fill in some of the blanks. The whole thing came together quickly as far as these things go. Discussions began last year on November 4th and the deal was finished on February 4th. For Heron, selling the company that he started in 2008 wasn’t about money. The company has grown 200 percent since its inception. It was doing quite well. Instead the sale was intended to bring to Crispin a higher level of expertise and access to markets that would take the cider maker to the next level, or as he put it, “To put muscles on the mouse.”
What MillerCoors brings, according to Heron, is resources, expertise, and access to markets that will enable the company to upscale. The intent is to continue making the product in the current Colfax, California facility, but to expand and update that facility as demand increases. In addition the connection with MillerCoors will help Crispin place its cider into lucrative chain-store accounts.
Heron has been approached by others in the past, but was holding out for the right buyer. “The chemistry here is great,” he says. Clearly MillerCoors, like the other big brewers, recognizes the growth of the craft segment in the face of falling sales for their mainline brands. They are looking to get in on that growth by expanding into more innovative product lines. They have entered into partnerships with other small producers such as Georgia-based Terrapin. Heron says that part of what made the offer appealing to him was the sincerity of the folks at Tenth and Blake. “People see these as huge monolithic companies, but these are real people who are all about beer. They make their regular products, but they are just as much into the craft stuff as anybody.” He says that the company was interested in maintaining Crispin’s position as an innovator in the cider sector. In his words, “They like us because we make cool shit.”
Heron will stay on as the head of Crispin. “This is the most fun I’ve had in my entire career life.” he said. “I’m not going to leave it now.” Crispin will be given a large degree of autonomy from MillerCoors. That autonomy was another selling point for Heron. Crispin will maintain its own sales force. Cider production will remain in Colfax, California. The company will continue the kind of adventurous cider making that has begun to spawn imitators. Upcoming projects include a barrel-aged version of their Lansdowne named after late singer Marvin Gaye, and Bohemian, the next of their alternative yeast explorations, this one fermented with a German lager yeast.
Time will tell what this sale will mean for Crispin. If the MillerCoors promise of autonomy holds and the company is allowed to continue in the direction it has already set for itself over the last three years, it could prove to be a good move, expanding the market for the product beyond its current niche status. If quality suffers it will only alienate the brands current consumers. I for one don’t see Miller Coors doing that. As Heron said, they are purchasing a part of the future. They want to cash in on that growth market. They would be shooting themselves in the foot to mess with that. That said Killian’s Irish Red is not the beer it once was.