Those looking for a sign that the Brewers Association is doubling down on independent ownership as a defining feature of craft beer need look no further than what was hanging from the Music City Center in Nashville, Tenn., during the annual Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) in May.
The two-story-tall banner featured an image of the BA’s certification seal, introduced last June, which features an upside-down bottle and the words “Certified Independent Craft.” Producers that meet the BA’s definition of a craft brewer—small (annual production of 6 million barrels or less), independent (less than 25 percent owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member which is not itself a craft brewer), and traditional (a majority of products brewed using traditional processes and ingredients)—are invited to include the seal on their packaging to quickly communicate their craft status to consumers.
It’s a point of differentiation that clearly matters to the more than 3,400 (of the nation’s roughly 6,300 brewers) who’ve so far adopted the seal, as well as to the many consumers who factor independent ownership into their purchasing decisions. In an environment where overall beer sales remain flat and the majority of growth centers around microbreweries (17 percent volume growth in 2017) and brewpubs (15 percent growth), it makes sense that craft brewers want to protect the turf they’ve claimed as their own—and why bigger brewers are keen to capture some of that territory.
Eric Wallace, BA chairman and co-founder of Left Hand Brewing in Longmont, Colo., put it bluntly when, in addressing CBC attendees, he characterized the “many faux craft, crafty, captive, capitulated, and acquired brands” as “weapons in the arsenal of the big breweries…used to control as much of the market as possible.”
It was these remarks, in particular, that prompted Pete Coors, chairman of Molson Coors’ board of directors, to pen an open letter to the industry shortly after the conference. It read in part:
“The leadership of the Brewers Association does a great disservice to the entire beer value chain by attempting to pit one part of the industry against another. …You must know that it’s insulting to those of us who don’t meet the clever criteria of your self-proclaimed definition of ‘craft brewer.’ This approach prioritizes insults and division over unity for a beverage that has been used to unify and celebrate together for generations.”
Coors has a point. Beer is the people’s beverage—an approachable, lower-in-alcohol option appropriate for a broad spectrum of consumers and occasions. An “us versus them” mentality and overly fussy nomenclature effectively creates a club that’s only for the initiated. And, in other industries, a successful business that accepts an outside investment or ownership stake from a large company is celebrated, not shunned. After all, it’s only beer.
But, prior to craft, when was the last time beer captured the public imagination outside of a high-dollar advertising campaign? When was the last time beer was celebrated for what’s inside the packaging, rather than the marketing used to sell it? Dilly dilly, indeed.
Craft brewers have brought a heightened awareness of and respect for beer that’s on par with gourmet food and high-end wines and spirits, as well as increased choice and variety for consumers. Craft celebrates innovation, excitement, original expression, and the freedom for producers to follow their own brewing muse rather than a forecasting sheet.
And for that, independence matters.