15 November 2010

Merger Mania

Two national brewpub chains--Gordon Biersch, the lager-focused chain with outlets in Washington D.C. and Rockville, Md., and Rock Bottom, whose nearest outlets are in Bethesda, Md. and Arlington, Va., have announced a merger with the holding company that owns other brewpubs, including the District Chophouse in Washington, D.C.

The new company, to be called Craftworks, will consolidate the operation of 35 Rock Bottom locations and 29 Gordon Biersch locations (plus two in Taiwan!), plus a GB bottling operation.  The company will also operate the Old Chicago pizzeria chain, as well as a variety of specialty concepts including A1A Ale Works, Big River Grille and Brewing Works, Bluewater Grille, ChopHouse & Brewery, Ragtime Tavern, Seven Bridges Grille & Brewery and The Walnut Brewery, and also and maintains intellectual property rights to the Boulder Beer, Inc. microbrewery in Colorado.  Indications are that the consolidated company will operate the restaurants under their original brands and not "rebrand" them or change brewing, food offerings, etc.

What will this mean for the company and the brewpubs?  Among beer aficionados, Gordon Biersch beers have been solid and good, but the brewpubs largely predictable and formulaic, with beer samples expressed to a central lab weekly for quality control and adherence to the German Reinheitsgebot (translation: no adjuncts, good or bad); the Rock Bottom outlets, on the other hand, have been more "traditional" brewpubs that allowed the house brewers a degree of latitude and creativity, as well as cask-conditioned ale in the outlets I've been in.  The Chophouse "chain" has only four outlets--DC, Denver, Boulder, and Cleveland, so the outlets are still something of a rarity; and anyone who's tasted the production of District Chophouse's brewer, Barrett Lauer (the original brewer of Baltimore's Wharf Rat/Pratt Street Ale House) will know that there's no "chain feel" to the place, unlike Gordon Biersch's outlet a few blocks away.

Will any of them ever come to Baltimore?  Hard to say.  The Chophouse theme has incorporated historic buildings, and there's a vacancy in the Power Plant downtown what with the hasty departyre of the closed-down ESPN Zone.  I've had folks suggest a Gordon Biersch for the Harborplace location vacated by Capitol City Brewing a while back, or even the Fells Point space vacated by DuClaw at the beginning of this year.  But consider that whatever economic forces led to the closure of these well-capitalized locations will also be in play for a seemingly more capitalized company like Craftworks.

So is there room in Baltimore for these folks?  Do we want a lager brewery again, or have we largely forgotten Baltimore Brewing Co.?


The Oriole Way said...

This is a private equity buyout, and likely a leveraged deal (consider that there is a "$150 million credit facility to support the transaction"). That likely means the owners will seek to expand and then resell the consolidated company, perhaps in an IPO. It would not be surprising if one of their brands made it to Baltimore; this would seemingly be an attractive market for their concepts, especially if part of the strategy is aggressive expansion.

Sam Sessa said...

I've made a meal out of the Chophouse onion rings and a few of their in house ales (they're only ~$2 during happy hour!)