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.

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