Johnathan Wakefield has had enough. Enough of the buyouts, enough of facing off against behemoths such as Anheuser-Busch InBev — the global brewing giant that owns Budweiser — and enough of seeing good beers diluted to mediocrity.
Hence, his annual orgy of suds, WakeFest, has drawn a line in the sand and won't include any participating breweries that don't qualify as independent under Brewer's Association guidelines. Among the criteria is that they be small, producing no more than six million barrels annually, that they specialize in beer, and that no more than 25 percent of the company is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
"With everything that's going down in the industry, those of us that are independent need to stand up for what we are and who we are," Wakefield says.
As craft beer's popularity and notoriety have exploded in recent years, Wakefield says macrobrewers, the companies that pump out the cans that are ceaselessly shotgunned ahead of football games, have found themselves losing market share to brewers putting out creamy milk stout, piquant sours, and biting, hoppy beers.
"They're trying to control the market and hurt smaller guys," Wakefield says. "They come in and start pumping out this stuff at a lower quality and below cost just to get market share."
Notable acquisitions, which some brewers argue is pulling a smokescreen over drinkers' eyes, include Constellation Brands' $1 billion acquisition of Ballast Point Brewing Company in 2015. The New York-based company also purchased Fort Lauderdale's Funky Buddha, considered a godfather of the South Florida craft-beer movement, over the summer for an undisclosed sum. Wynwood's newly opened Veza Sur Brewing and Chicago's Goose Island Brewery are owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. Lagunitas falls under Heineken's green flag.
Still, the confusion and frustration don't break down cleanly.
"I know and have been friends with a lot of these guys for a long time," Wakefield says. "I spoke with a lot of them when the acquisitions happened, and how can you be mad? You're happy they made money, but at the same time you're not happy they sold."
"We're bummed we won't be at WakeFest this coming year," Funky Buddha spokesman John Linn says. "However, Funky Buddha Brewery beers are still brewed from the same team who have the same passion and dedication to the craft of brewing — no matter how anyone defines us. We aren’t hung up on whether or not someone defines us as 'craft.' We’re just focused on making the best-quality beer we can."
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The growth of Wakefield's festival remains a testament to the industry's overall growth even as complications arise. WakeFest began in 2015 with about 20 breweries; by 2016, that number mushroomed to about 85. So far, 97 breweries have lined up to take over Mana Wynwood next February 17, and Wakefield has yet to begin inviting Florida breweries. The number of participants is expected to be around 110, and even with five hours, guests will find trying all of the beers a daunting task.
Fifty VIP tickets will go on sale at noon today, November 27, at the brewery. The $350 package includes early entrance at 11 a.m., a special tasting glass, food from vendors, unlimited beers, a VIP area with specialty beers, four special-release bottles, and first dibs on purchasing additional specialty bottles. Tickets are limited to two per person.
Another 250 VIP tickets will go on sale online at noon Tuesday, November 28. General-admission tickets, priced at $60, will go on sale at noon Wednesday, November 29.