Last week, The Beer Necessities, a beer publication funded by Anheuser-Busch InBev, somewhat unexpectedly shut down. The site going dark was a surprise to some, who figured a website funded by the world’s largest beer producer had a better chance surviving than many competitors. To others, the closure was less of a shock. In either case, it’s a move that will no doubt put a smile on many faces, namely those who support relentless independence in their beer (and incidentally, media) choices.
So, what happened? The issue was not The Beer Necessities’ content — it was a matter of ABI choosing its favorite web mag child. In addition to The Beer Necessities, ABI indirectly supported the publication of October, another beer publication. October was funded in part by ZX Ventures, an ABI investment arm.
“After internal discussions, it was decided it is best to support one platform versus two at this time,” Jonathan Hack, founder of The Beer Necessities and senior manager of education of ABI’s the High End, told me. “On The Beer Necessities, we were happy with the site and the content,” he added.
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The Beer Necessities (TBN, as some abbreviated it), despite its controversial existence as a beer-focused publication funded by the planet’s biggest brewing company, managed to produce top-notch content. In its year-long lifespan, the site successfully built a roster of some of the space’s best beer writers (this author included, along with other contributors to VinePair, plus The Wall Street Journal, Beer Advocate, and others). Its content was well-intentioned, at least by its editors and writers — funny, informative, inclusive know-hows, how-tos, behind-the-beer segments, travel features, and interviews with the likes of O.A.R. and the Plain White Tees.
The decision, though unfortunate for its editors and league of freelance writers, makes a lot of sense. Two sites about the same thing is a lot, even for an enormous multinational organization. With the contract up, TBN was shuttered in favor of its step-sister. The site ceased publishing content on January 1, 2018, with very little fanfare. That was a sort of weak move, but also made sense, given the circumstances. Nobody really needs a press release to explain this, especially since it would only spark a chain of negative press that ABI has become notorious for on the Internet of Beer.
The Beer Necessities’ demise does bring a larger discussion to the surface, however, and it’s this: Corporate sponsorship in media has not yet found its place.
I’m not upset TBN shut down. I tried it once, because it was a good opportunity and because I respected its editors and writers. (And, let’s be real. I was a freelance writer planning a trip to Asia and needed the cash.) I also felt plagued by its ethical gray area, and respectfully backed out of contributing after that first paycheck. I later questioned that decision, too. Media is a tricky landscape, even for — especially for — its writers.
I’m glad TBN saw the year through and ultimately decided to turn out the lights, not because “craft beer won,” or because I hate ABI (I don’t); but because in the age of “fake news” fear-mongering, media transparency and authenticity are more important now than ever. TBN would argue that it could not have been more transparent — the ABI ownership was pretty blatantly stated on the site’s age gate (that thing that asks for your birthday when you try to visit an alcohol producer’s website), in its “about” section, and at the bottom of every article — but it caused an obvious uproar in the independent media space.
Beer publications like Beer Advocate and Craft Beer & Brewing expressed concern and even outrage at the existence of TBN, believing it represented ABI’s hold not only on the beer marketplace, controlling consumer choice on taps and shelves, but on media, controlling the information we consume as readers. (And, while there is some truth to this, I can vouch for the fact that the ideas I contributed were my own.)
The Beer Necessities was an Anheuser-Busch web magazine. October is a web magazine funded in part by ABI, but through its fund, ZX Ventures.*
From native advertising and branded content, to social media initiatives and other unseen sponsorships, virtually every other publication out there is doing things you probably don’t know about. The least we can do is be open and honest about our funding and truthful in our reporting, which is what we do.
Corporate dollars help fund many publications. Know what you’re reading, know where it comes from, and know the difference.
AB InBev’s Next Move: Sacramento
In other ABI news, the Sacramento Bee reported earlier this week that Golden Road Brewing, a Los Angeles-based brewery with several locations (and which was bought by AB InBev in 2015), will open its next location in Sacrameto’s midtown entertainment district.
The Bee says this will be “the first attempt by a major beer conglomerate to get in on Sacramento’s exploding craft beer scene,” exemplifying “what California Craft Brewers Association’s (CCBA) executive director, Tom McCormick, calls the ‘If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em’ strategy.”
Once again: Independence matters, but it’s up to the consumer to know the difference.
* Full disclosure: VinePair is an independent publication backed by investors, including Diageo Tech Ventures.