Stone & Wood Brewing Company is now Japanese-owned, following the sale of its parent company Fermentum to Lion, a subsidiary of Kirin Holdings.
It’s a dramatic about face for Australia’s most ardent and outspoken bastion of independently brewed beer, whose achievements were explored by Drinks Adventures in this 2019 podcast documentary.
Lion and Fermentum have dressed the deal in a cloak of corporate social responsibility initiatives, including a $5 million donation by Lion to Stone & Wood’s Ingrained Foundation.
But the fact remains that Fermentum’s earnings will now be lining the pockets of Kirin’s Japanese owners.
By Stone & Wood co-founder Jamie Cook’s own reckoning, this is at odds with the interests of the Northern Rivers community that it holds so dear.
“You can try and be regional but if, at the end of the day, your sole purpose as a business in Australia is to… return profits back to your overseas shareholder, then that’s going in a different direction to trying to be a small local brewer that supports its local market,” he told Radio Brews News in 2016.
Have faith: Stone & Wood’s 2017 plea
The following year was when independence took a real beating in Australia.
Four Pines and Feral were acquired by multinational interests in quick succession, but Stone & Wood’s founders assured us they were different.
“We are both amused, annoyed and angered that we continually hear our name being thrown around as ‘the next one to go’, or that ‘those guys are just in it for the money’,” they said in an October 2017 blog post.
“People are supporting small businesses like Stone & Wood because they can’t trust big business and politicians anymore.
“Sadly, when small breweries who for years have played the anti-corporate card, sell out, it starts to tear away at that trust again.”
Cook was even less equivocal in his commentary two months later, when upstarts Pirate Life sold to Carlton & United Breweries.
“When a transaction like this happens, we know the brewery and the brand will pay the price, but so does the whole industry really,” he told Brews News.
“There’s a loss of trust between drinkers wanting to engage with small independent businesses on the basis that’s who they are and that’s who they represent.
“For them to all of a sudden use that loyalty to cash in their chips, that breaks the trust.”
How long does independence last?
Congratulations to Brad, Ross and Jamie and all of Stone & Wood’s shareholders, including the many employees who will get a piece of the windfall.
This is a fantastic outcome for them. The company’s achievements are tremendous, and it has done a lot of good along the way.
But for those of us who have taken all of the above rhetoric at face value? Well, we can’t help but feel a bit silly.
And the drinkers who have long paid a premium for Stone & Wood’s beers, on the basis of their independence and community-mindedness, may now be wondering if it was worth it.
For all its noise about independence, Stone & Wood’s commitment to the cause lasted 13 years.
That’s one year longer than that of Little Creatures (2000-12), and five years less than Mountain Goat (1997-2015).
If trust in independent brewers was in short supply in 2017 – as Jamie Cook said – then surely now, it is non-existent.
The question in consumers’ minds is no longer if an independent brewer will eventually sell; it’s a matter of, ‘how long will they trade before doing so?’
Now, we can all answer that question: No more than 18 years.