Devils Backbone Brewing Company, headquartered in Nelson County, made national news in April when the craft beer company announced its acquisition by St. Louis-based powerhouse Anheuser-Busch.
The response was immediate, with some Virginians praising the decision while others vowed to boycott the company’s products for “selling out.”
“They’ve certainly been the recipient of some unnecessary hate,” said Mary Wolf, owner of Wild Wolf Brewing, located just down the road from Devils Backbone. “Although, I understand why some people have that perception.”
Since the deal between the world’s largest beer producer and Devils Backbone — which was for an undisclosed amount — closed on Sept. 1, co-owner Steve Crandall said he has seen little fallout in terms of revenue for his company, which is up 18 percent to 20 percent over the same time last year.
In 2016, Devils Backbone produced about 75,000 barrels of beer, but next year, Crandall said it expects to produce somewhere around 95,000 barrels.
The company also has increased its staff to 180 employees from 130 a year ago, including a dozen brewers, which is consistent with last year. Most of the hires were made before the acquisition, he said.
This growth is part of an expansion plan that includes opening a $3 million distillery and other new additions to its existing locations in Roseland and Lexington.
“We have a partner now in this business that’s funding our dream,” Crandall said of the deal with Anheuser-Busch. “We would have had to grow into this expansion that we’re doing, and it would have probably taken us 20 years to do so.”
Devils Backbone products will enter markets in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York next year, Crandall said. The company also is expanding its territory in Tennessee.
Since the acquisition, Nelson County has not seen any changes in the brewery’s operations and has noticed the same level of traffic at the Basecamp Brewpub & Meadows location in Roseland, said Maureen Kelley, the county’s economic development director.
The acquisition also has not negatively affected the county’s Brew Ridge Trail, the state’s original self-guided craft beer trail, of which Devils Backbone and Wild Wolf are members.
“We’re continuing to see increases in our visitation to those establishments,” she said. “Devil’s Backbone is still a very strong local partner. Steve and Heidi Crandall are residents and committed to the Nelson economy. ... This sale is an opportunity for them to reinvest in Nelson County.”
This does not mean the deal with Anheuser-Busch has been without repercussions for Steve Crandall and Devils Backbone.
He has resigned from the board of directors of the Brewers Association of America, a trade association that represents small and independent breweries in the U.S., though Devils Backbone remains a part of the Brewers Association as an associate, nonvoting member.
In addition, the company now is ineligible for membership in the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild and cannot compete in The Virginia Craft Brewers Fest.
Eric McCay, co-owner of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond — who is chairman of the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild — said the bylaws always define Virginia craft brewers as “small, independent and traditional,” and as part of Anheuser-Busch, Devils Backbone no longer meets the criteria.
Still, for Crandall, the benefits outweigh the negatives.
In the past few months, the brewery has broken ground to expand its infrastructure at both the Basecamp and the Outpost Brewery & Tap Room in Lexington.
“That deal basically included $25 million for us to build out the dream,” Crandall said this month, “the dream that the founders had on growing our craft brewery into eventually a national brand.”
The projects at the Basecamp currently consist of paving the parking lot, a $250,000 job, as well as building an outdoor pavilion and a new office building.
Construction is nearing completion on a new area focused on rare beers from Devils Backbone as well as other companies and a world-wide selection of high-end whiskeys and bourbons.
Devils Backbone will add a $3 million distillery and an addition to the existing Brewpub to house different types of fermenters for souring beers that brewmaster Jason Oliver will use.
“This is going to really step up Jason’s ability to do a lot of great experimentation with unique styles of beers, way more than he’s done in the past,” Crandall said.
It also has begun working with a civil engineer company out of Lexington to develop a year-round camping and RV area with cottages; Crandall said they hope to break ground on this new area in the spring.
Meanwhile, Lexington construction projects include a 50,000-square-foot packaging and shipping/receiving facility, upgrading equipment, including the addition of a barrel-aging system. Devils Backbone also plans to triple the size of the existing taproom, which currently can serve about 50 people.
“It was an amazingly brilliant move to align ourselves with Anheuser-Busch,” Crandall said. “They have the greatest interest in not affecting our DNA. … They’re giving us a tremendous amount of autonomy.”
And as the beer community continues to grow accustomed to this change in ownership, Wolf said she expects some of the animosity toward the brewery to lessen.
“I think your average consumer doesn’t understand the significance nor do they necessarily care,” she said.
“It matters that you’re putting out amazing, fresh interesting beers, and if a company’s still doing that, then I’m not convinced who owns them is what really should matter.”