Craft beer is a notoriously crowded market, with more and more brewers trying to enter the game with only limited shelf space, and it's getting increasingly difficult for independent brewers to compete with the big guys as large companies keep swallowing up craft breweries. Now, the Brewers Association—beer's largest trade group—is trying to make it easier for average drinkers to support independent brewers by unveiling a standardized certification to be used by any 'independent craft' producer, and feelings within the brewing industry are mixed.
The move is almost a direct retaliation against Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI), the world's largest brewing company, which has been acquiring small, regional craft breweries at an increasing clip. Some in the industry feel this has blurred the lines between what is and isn't 'craft'. The 1,097 breweries that have already adopted the new label are hoping the move will help set the record straight. Others are dubious.
At the heart of this division is the idea of what 'craft beer' is, exactly. Is it just empty advertising jargon? Well, not to the Brewers Association. They apply the term to suds coming from any brewery (75 percent or more independently owned) producing less than 6 million barrels of yearly output. To put that in perspective, Bud reported 125 million barrels in sales in 2016
The idea of differentiating between small and large, in some official capacity, is hardly new. "It's a topic that's been discussed for close to 30 years," Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, told MUNCHIES. "There's been a thread through the industry to at least try and inform the public what brewers are independent and what brewers are owned part or all by the international brewers. We are supportive of getting the message out there, because some consumers do care about supporting an independent brewer."
Why now? Jim Koch, founder of Sam Adams, and BA board member calls it "a response to a grassroots groundswell—all of these acquisitions by the big global brewers, without letting the consumers know who the new owner [is]." He is referring, in part, to ABI, which has acquired no less than ten craft breweries from across the United States since purchasing Goose Island back in 2011. These recent acquisitions form the backbone of a division called The High End. After the labeling announcement the consortium was quick to release a video response blasting it as divisive. Felipe Szpigel, President of The High End, is quick to drive the conversation towards quality and community, rather than ownership.
"Using just independence is an oversimplification," he warns. "From a basic approach, one could associate independence with being small and having a positive impact into local communities. The High End is made up of partners and beer lovers who are committed to developing our industry, have an inspiring passion, an entrepreneurial spirit, and impact in their local communities through outreach, events, and supporting local causes."
But to its supporters, the initiative is about transparency, and an informed consumer. "That video is ridiculous," says Scott Vaccaro, brewmaster and owner of Captain Lawrence Brewing of New York. "Nowhere on that label does it say that it's a mark of quality. It's about being true to customers. All of the literature I've read says that consumers do want to know who owns the beer they're drinking. And this is a way for us to stand united and independent."
Not all small brewers share this level of enthusiasm, however. "I do not intend to use the new seal on any Oxbow products," says Tim Adams of his farmhouse brewery in rural Maine. "I do not believe that there is any doubt in the marketplace that we are an independent craft brewery, therefore I do not feel the need to preemptively tell people that we are. Also, we put so much energy and intention into the visual presentation of our packaging that I really don't like the idea of incorporating someone else's design into our artwork."
Then there's the issue of cost. For their part, BA is making the label freely available to those who qualify to brandish it. But working the generic logo into a bottle redesign is no easy task. Ken Grossman admits that Sierra Nevada has no firm plans to work it into their already iconic packaging. The brand might end up doing nothing more than adding it to their website. Most craft bottle shop owners contacted for this article were doubtful that the new labels would have any effect on their clientele because beer drinkers tend to be highly self-educated consumers.
Whether or not this new certification will be of any value to the casual drinker remains to be seen. The struggle over the very soul of beer promises to wage on regardless—perhaps even because—of what's on the label.