The Brewers Association’s Quiet War On Blue Moon, Leinenkugels, Goose Island, and Maybe Even Elysian, New Belgium, and Your Brewery…

Six months ago I spent a few weeks traveling around the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. I’ve written a few pieces on the trip, including one long-form interview with Dick Cantwell, co-founder of the Elysian Brewing Company of Seattle, Washington. Cantwell is an interesting guy and also serves as one of the board members for the Brewers Association. So during the interview I asked him a little about the association and its politics. In one specific part of the interview, I asked him about how he thought the Brewers Association would react when the Boston Beer Company’s production exceeded its defined ceiling of two million barrels. In response, Cantwell said:

It’s inevitable that they will go above two million barrels and this was my point in saying we should dismantle it. The definition of our success ensures our failure. All of a sudden our market share would drop. And yes, Blue Moon, or what we are now calling it, Blue Moon by Coors, their success and the decency of their beers—I mean twenty years ago wouldn’t all of us have considered that a good thing, that one of the big brewers is actually making a beer we can drink, it is a victory in terms of sensibility but it’s scary in terms of the inroads it makes on our more purely defined arena but I still think it’s a victory.

The idea that the association was suggesting that its members use a certain terminology when referring to a competitor, namely ‘Blue Moon by Coors’, intrigued me so I inquired further. And that’s when Cantwell let slip some of the association’s plans for the future.

We’re going to do a whole campaign of ‘who makes your beer?’ So that it is right out there. It will be right out there that this percentage of our beer is made at New Belgium and I’m ok with that. But it’s also going to be, ‘how much of your company is owned by Anheuser-Busch’ and ‘who makes this’ and what the Plank Road Brewery really means. We want consumers to go to the website or generally have it forged into their consciences so that they pay attention and give a damn where it comes from and who does it.

I found the concept sufficiently interesting that I inquired of Julia Herz, the Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewers Association. Herz denied that the Brewers Association had such a plan. After a little more digging, I determined that the association had indeed registered a website, whobrewsyourbeer.com. A follow-up with Herz confirmed that the Brewers Association didn’t have a campaign planned on the issue, at least for 2008 or 2009, but that the association had indeed registered the website. “I personally feel it is increasingly more important for beer drinkers to ask what brewing company makes the beer they might enjoy, because that information is not always readily available on the label,” Herz said.

So I let the issue lie until today, when a new press release rolled in from the Brewers Association, a Declaration of Beer Independence. The proposal reads:

I declare that these are historic times for beer with today’s beer lover having inalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of hops and malt fermented from the finest of U.S. small and independent craft brewers with more than 1,400 of them brewing today, and

I declare the beer I choose to enjoy is not a commodity, but more importantly an artistic creation of living liquid history made from passionate innovators. The beer I drink furthers our culture and teaches us geography and helps to nurture a sense of community, and helps to make the world a better place, and

I declare to practice the concept of ‘Informed Consumption’ which has me deserving to know if my beer comes from a small and independent brewer or if it is owned by a mass production brewing company. I want to know why so many of my local beer brands are not available in many of my favorite restaurants, bars and beer stores, and I encourage beer sellers to offer a wide selection of beer styles and beer brands that includes beer from my local and regional breweries, and

I declare American craft brewers provide flavorful and diverse American-made beers in more than 100 distinct styles that have made the United States the envy of every beer drinking nation for the quality and variety of beers brewed in America to such an extent that beer made by American craft brewers helps to reduce dependence on imported products and therefore contributes to balanced trade, and

I declare to champion the message of responsible enjoyment of craft beer, the beverage of moderation, as the makers of these beers produce libations of substance and soul that are sincere and authentic, and the enjoyment of them is about savoring the gastronomic qualities including flavor, aroma, body and mouthfeel while practicing responsible appreciation.

I therefore declare to support America’s small and independent craft brewers during American Craft Beer Week May 11-17, 2009 and beyond…

While most of this language is PR for craft brewers, it was this line that again caught my eye: “I declare to practice the concept of ‘Informed Consumption’ which has me deserving to know if my beer comes from a small and independent brewer or if it is owned by a mass production brewing company.”

The association’s continuing definitional war has a lot of people in the industry scratching their heads. We’ve discussed here and elsewhere quite a few times the history of the association’s process of defining ‘craft beer’ or ‘craft brewer.’ The ‘who brews you beer’ idea is just the latest salvo. And it’s one that even Dick Cantwell worried about, considering he had just announced plans to contract brew several of his brands at the New Belgium Brewing Company’s facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. When I asked him about the whole definition controversy, which saw voting members actually abstain due to the friction involved, Cantwell noted:

I wasn’t on the committee that came up with it but that is such a tough thing. At times, I’ve argued about every possible point of view and have been on both sides of this issue. The most recent thing I think I’ve said is that we should just give up and not have a definition and trust the consumer to make the right choice. But that was admittedly a rarified position being as small as we are. I got reaction from other people on the board saying, “You know, you’re wrong.? I guess at this point that we’re just trying not to make too much of it. I do, however, see some positive effects even though there is disagreement and there is disagreement, even among members of the board. There are absolutists who think that if you even have any ownership by someone else that you couldn’t be considered independent. And I don’t even know if we would qualify because we have like six percent foreign ownership, depending upon where you draw the line. I mean it’s like, “How much of a vegetarian are you??

It’ll be interesting to see when the Brewers Association decides to unleash this new campaign or at least press the issue further, as it raises issues that may leave many craft brewers on the outside looking in.

11 Responses

  1. Another great and thought-provoking post, Andy! I’m inclined to ask of the BA, who’s watching the watchmen? Who decides who is big and who is small? Who decides what is independent? Who decides when a beer is no longer a commodity? And on and on… This all seems to be an unnecessary building of walls and a sort of forced adversarial relationship between brewers of all sizes, and between the beer fan of every stripe and preference.

  2. Zamboni Driver

    Interesting. As a public relations and marketing professional I question the long-game plan of the Brewers Association’s public relations strategy. Will the Brewers Assoc. define its members (some of which may be the Association’s best known and most successful brewers) out of an increasingly exclusive and seemingly elitist club? And in doing so, will it render the Association — and not the breweries it represents — irrelevant? I think if it stops navel-gazing, the Association can probably find more meaningful lobbying and public relations issues to pursue, issues that will positively impact the entire brewing industry, large and small.

  3. Mike Dean

    Beer is beer; good beer is good beer. I applaud Bud for American Ale; it’s not great beer, but it’s a solid drinkable beer that is MILES ahead of their other products, and can actually be consumed by humans. I don’t mind knowing who brews my beer — in fact, I like to know — but I don’t think we should broadly hint that products made by larger brewers are not as good BECAUSE the brewer is larger. Yes, it’s likely, but not certain, and let’s encourage ALL brewers to make better products.

  4. Excellent and very interesting points all around here.

    Cheers,

    Andy

  5. “I declare to practice the concept of ‘Informed Consumption’…

    but when asked about adding nutritional labeling to beers, they’re against it. Hypocrites.

    I suggest that the folks in Boulder put down the bottle and reach for a bong. When the Brewers Association can suddenly reclassify a brewery like Goose Island in Chicago as no longer being a “craft” brewery simply because they’ve made business arrangements with Anheuser-Busch for enhanced distribution, there’s something seriously wrong with these people.

    If there’s such a problem with smaller breweries working with Coors or A-B, why doesn’t the Brewers Association and all their entities send back those checks for the full-page ads that these larger breweries run in their publications? Hah!

    And for those breweries who also have fallen under this stupid stigma created by the Buddha in Boulder, I suggest they simply quit participating in BA events and stop advertising in their publications.

    Why support an organization that pigeonholes you as somehow consorting with the devil?

  6. Interesting – seems very much like a declaration of war rather than a declaration of independence. Who is going to benefit from this campaign? Weird.

    Boston Brewing is highly respected because even though they have been successful, and grown, they seem to remember their roots and do cool stuff for small brewers like sell supplies at cost. Doesn’t that mean anything, or is it all about the production numbers?

  7. Full disclosure: Jim Koch wrote the foreword for one of my books, Beer & Food: An American History, but it was my admiration for him and his contagious enthusiasm for making good beer that had me admiring him long before he gave me a hand.

    But what has pissed me off for years is what seems to me to be an organized effort to belittle the fact that since he was smart enough to keep his money available for marketing and distribution while using the services of faltering regional breweries to make his beers, he wasn’t considered in certain circles to be a “real” brewer. Here was a guy who actually helped to keep people working in dying regional breweries, and yet the innuendos always were that his approach was wrong. He wasn’t a brewer; excuse me, he wasn’t a real “craft” brewer.

    When he managed to win a couple of awards at some of the earlier GABFs, the stories were floated about that he had somehow “bought” votes by handing out swag…that people were stupid enough to be bought by a free tee-shirt in return for casting a positive vote for his entries. It was never that his beers were good, n-o-o-o, he “bought” the votes. Adding to all of this was the same old charge that he wasn’t a “craft” brewer, an utterly stupid argument that somehow made the use of a word or category that someone simply dreamed up one day as being more important than the process of just brewing good beer.

    Koch’s been behind the Longshot concept, the ACCION USA program and even handed out hops when the market turned upside down. And yet every now and then, there’s still grumblings out there about the fact that he’s not a real “craft” brewer. Hell, the guy bought a brewery in Ohio. What else does he have to do?

    The divisivness that’s been created because Koch has done things differently than someone’s framing of artificial buzz words and classifications has always seemed to be a bit too coordinated to me. Maybe I’m just being paranoid but I’ve always felt there’s been a driving force involved in slamming Koch and his approach to the brewing business.

    And then a few years ago, this crap started that suddenly redefined what a craft brewery is, and Goose Island in Chicago, a brewery that continues to climb up the sales rung, disappeared from the list, along with others who had been part of the brewing community for years.

    I don’t get any of this. Who sits and makes one edict after another that suddenly makes a brewery a non-entity? A guy contracts beer and he’s a bum? Now a brewery is smart enough to work with a company that just so happens to have the largest distribution system in the U.S. and it’s a bum too?

    So what are breweries suppose to do? Reach a certain level and then refuse to grow further? Should we start putting caps on production numbers or put an asterisk next to a brewery’s sales figures like they’re Major League Baseball steriod users?

    I read that manifesto above and all I can think of is a bunch of old hippies, sitting around and playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” in the background.

    Grow up. Brewing is a business. It’s there to make customers happy, make good beer and make a profit and I certainly don’t think it needs a bunch of idealists sitting around and making “profound” announcements from Olympus with a wave of a pen.

    When I don’t agree with an organization or a business, I take my money somewhere else. It might be time for some breweries who have business maturity to move on. If you’re not wanted, why sit around and be abused?

  8. Spot on Bob, spot on…

  9. How “independent” does a craft brewery have to remain in order to still be considered a “craft” brewery? Down here in Texas, there’s been some major consolidation of the distributors lately. Several of the smaller distributors that specialized in craft beer have been swallowed up by the two largest Budweiser distributors (Ben E. Keith and Silver Eagle). Consequently, they took over the distribution deals for some of the local craft breweries. So, should these craft breweries be considered differently now that their beer is being distributed by a Budweiser distributor? And is it different then if those same craft breweries had actually initiated a deal with one of those distributors?

  10. I gotta admit I’m a little bit torn here. On one hand, I completely agree with most of the sentiments posted here that this whole campaign is absurd from a consumer’s standpoint. I like a beer because it tastes good, not because it’s from a small-capacity brewery. Unless the brewer is funneling his profits to Al-Qaeda or the Aryan Nation, I’m really not too concerned about where it’s coming from.

    On the other hand, we have to keep in mind that this is an organization designed to protect the interest of its members. To that extent, I can see the logic in this. One need only browse through the BeerAdvocate forum to see the anti-big brewery sentiment that many share. I suppose it’s easier for small breweries to go after Goose Island and Sam Adams than it is to go after Budweiser. After all, if you accept the premise that most craft beer drinkers stick to crafts and most macro drinkers stick to macros, then big crafts and little crafts are the ones competing over the same consumers.

    Personally, I think the risk here for the Brewers Association is that, in making up rules where the most successful are essentially kicked out of the club, they lose the portion of the craft market that’s best suited to help everybody else. Look at how Boston Beer helped out smaller breweries during the hop shortage? At what point does Jim Koch say, “fuck it; you guys are on your own”? Right now, the market is craft vs. macro, and craft is winning (in terms of increased market share and sales, that is). Do they really want to make it small craft vs. large craft vs. macro? Who wins then?

  11. Who cares who brews a beer? The important thing is that you like the beer you are drinking. Boston Beer aka Sam Adams had others brew their beer for years, yet, no one said they weren’t a craft brewer.

    The craft brewing movement and homebrewing wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for King A-B supporting legaslation to get the ball rolling.

    Attacking the big boys who are producing non rice/corn beers isn’t the way to go.

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