2 years after Ballast Point deal, Kings & Convicts Brewing abandons Wisconsin plans to instead sink its roots in San Diego
Kings & Convicts Brewing, the tiny north suburban operation whose founder stunned the beer world in late 2019 by buying the famed Ballast Point brewery, is scrapping a plan to build a new headquarters in southern Wisconsin and heading instead to Ballast Point’s longtime home of San Diego.
Though it will maintain its tiny Highwood, Illinois, taproom at least in the short term, Kings & Convicts will center business in what has been Saint Archer Brewing, a brand bought by Molson Coors in 2015 at the height of the trend of large beer companies buying small, upstart craft breweries.
Kings & Convicts broke ground in 2019 on what was to be a 50,000-square-foot production brewery in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, about 5 miles north of the Illinois border. The project was not completed, and the deal between the brewery and the land’s developer dissolved.
But founder Brendan Watters said the Ballast Point deal shifted his attention to the West Coast, which made moving Kings & Convicts there an obvious move.
“If we didn’t do Ballast Point, we’d still be (in southern Wisconsin),” Watters said. “It just doesn’t make sense for us. We have so much capacity and focus on the West Coast now. We just don’t have the bandwidth.”
Watters’ acquisition of Saint Archer’s brewery and a satellite taproom marks the second time he has swooped in after a major beer company’s takeover of a smaller craft brewer turned sour.
In 2019, Watters recruited wine industry magnate Richard Mahoney to help finance an acquisition of Ballast Point, one of the most renowned names in craft beer, but which had fallen on hard times after a $1 billion sale to Constellation Brands four years earlier.
Last week, Chicago-based Molson Coors said it would sell the Saint Archer brewery and a satellite taproom to Kings & Convicts and pull the Saint Archer brand — which was not available in Chicago — from the market.
“Unfortunately, the overall business has struggled to grow, despite investing significant resources behind its production and commercialization,” Paul Verdu, vice president of Molson Coors’ craft division, said of Saint Archer in a statement. “We’ll maintain ownership of the Saint Archer brand as we determine the best long-term plan and remain focused on growing our regional breweries that continue outpacing home-market competitors.”
Watters said the Kings & Convicts beer sold at the Highwood taproom, which also includes golf simulators, will be largely made in San Diego. He said he plans to keep the location open “for the moment.”
“It’s not really a big deal for us there,” he said. “We’re out here all the time now. It’s not something we’re focused on really.”
Able to produce large volumes of its own beer for the first time, Watters said, Kings & Convicts will be mostly a lager-focused brewery, complementing Ballast Point’s flagship brand, Sculpin India pale ale. He said he hopes Kings & Convicts will retain the approximately 40 employees currently working for Saint Archer in brewing, packaging and in the taproom.
Kings & Convicts will be the significantly smaller operation of the two, brewing on Saint Archer’s old 40-barrel brewing system compared to Ballast Point’s two brew houses of 150 and 300 barrels.
Thought Ballast Point production has shrunk since the sale, Watters said the decrease is by design as the brand pulls back from a national footprint to focusing on its core market along the West Coast and especially in southern California. Ballast Point will open a new taproom in San Francisco this year, Watters said, and is looking at further expansion in the west.
“It might have been perceived to be a brand damaged, but if you look at San Diego, Ballast Point is huge in San Diego and big on the West Coast,” Watters said. “And Sculpin has as much brand recognition on the West Coast as Ballast Point. You don’t have to be a national brand to be a good, solid brand and make money.”
Ballast Point beer continues to be sold in about 25 states, including Illinois.
Watters said he has no plans to reopen a Ballast Point brewpub in Chicago’s Fulton Market neighborhood, which Constellation Brands opened in 2018. Watters said he is working on multiple possible deals to get another brewery or a restaurant operating in the space.