Fervent Few

Fervent Few — Crossing The Thin Beer Line


Boston Beer Company—the makers of Sam Adams—could see the majority of their production shift away from beer towards their non-traditional brands by the end of 2017. The company also makes Angry Orchard hard cider, Truly Spiked Seltzer, Coney Island hard soda, and Twisted Tea. This would put them in violation of the Brewers Association guidelines for a craft brewery. And so this week we ask our Fervent Few community: should the Brewers Association alter their guidelines to keep Boston Beer in good standing? They’ve changed them for Boston Beer before. How many times is enough? 

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Nycbeerrunner: “Nope, they shouldn't change. Definitions mean nothing when you change them every few years.”

Caldwell Bishop: “In my opinion, It seems a bit disingenuous to change the definition to continue to include members who willingly move away from the current definition. It then raises the question to me of what's the point of even having a definition.”

Ian Davis: “How did any of the other breweries start out? As small-time, independently-owned operations. Just because Jim Koch has graduated to their level much later in life doesn't grant him special consideration. Koch chastises the modern day craft beer drinker anyways. I respect what he's done for the industry, and I am cognizant of the fact that he paved the way for better beer in a time when macro adjunct lager was the only other option, however, he has moved beyond the protective realm of the BA and should be treated as such. Let's also remember that Boston Beer Co. moving to the upper echelon in the beer world isn't the same as a small independently owned brewer selling to ABI. This is more or less a success story of a good businessman doing what many other ‘craft’ breweries have not yet done.  Boston Beer Co. should be proud that they have created a force large enough to not need the BA, and the BA should part ways amicably with old Sam.”

Brad Redick: “Should the BA continue to redefine definitions in order to align themselves with a heritage that is no longer representative of today's small brewer, then it will only erode their integrity in my eyes. I'm certain that the decision to part with Sam Adams would not be an easy one, but membership in such a group in 2017 shouldn't still be connected to what you did for the industry in 1995.”

William Kuttruff: “At some point the Brewers Association's line in the sand has to be drawn with permanent marker—constantly changing the rules to accommodate a few adversely impacts the rest. Small, independent and traditional. Boston Lager was the first craft beer I ever had in 1987, and that will always mean something to me. The Boston Beer Company has been granted stays from BA rules previously based on size/number of BBLs produced, but their new focus on non-craft beer is a new way for them to do business in a market that is currently growing at a much greater pace than their craft brews. Although Jim Koch has a romance with beer and has history in the movement, he also needs to provide shareholder value to his stockholders who have invested in his public corporation. This is why I believe Sam Adams has specifically targeted cider and liquid crack (IE: Twisted Tea, et al)—a whole new population of alcohol drinkers can be approached and recruited to prop up his bottom line. The craft brewing segment has not been kind to his stock price in recent years and I believe he sees the writing on the wall that Sam Adams is further from relevance.

The BA still needs to operate like a mature adult and enforce the rules it lay down—to everyone.”

Michael Boyer: “I wouldn't mind if the BA changed the definition to accommodate. While its’ at it, BA could use the opportunity to modernize the ‘independence’ prong, too. The continued viability of BA members hinges on their respective abilities to respond to market forces and position their businesses competitively. The rise of contract brewing illustrates that point rather well. And while there are principled notions about ‘brewing traditions,’ a pragmatic look at the economic landscape of the brewing business shows that Boston Beer Company is the front line. If the BA doesn't hold it, who will?”

Nate Wannlund: “I understand strategically why the BA has kept the definition loose enough to include Boston Beer. It makes sense from an organizational standpoint because a brewery of their size and means is good to have around. However, the business model and structure of Boston Beer is so similar to that of AB InBev that it makes it very tough to explain why one is ‘independent’ and the other is not. The only argument is size, and unfortunately that has nothing to do with independence. In an age where a heavy value is placed on authenticity and transparency, I feel the BA has struggled in this particular arena. I do not envy the decision, but it would bring some clarity to a very murky definition if the BA broke up with Boston Beer.”

Zack Rothman: “I think the BA's definition should adapt to continue including Boston Beer, as long as the single largest portion of their overall production is beer. It wouldn't change my opinion of them, as few companies have done more for craft beer in America than Sam Adams. I'm not just talking about Jim Koch leading the revolution in the early days, but him continuing to support other breweries and businesses over time as well.

Boston Beer paved the way and made a space for craft brewers to compete against the large multinational corporations that had come to dominate the beer market. While Jim Koch caught flak for initially contract brewing his beer, craft breweries today do it all the time. Many people followed the business model that Jim developed by focusing on offering a better tasting beverage and not just marketing it, but getting out there and selling it just like he did.

When there was a hop shortage, Boston Beer stepped up to share some of its hops with smaller breweries—hops these brewers would have otherwise not have been able to access. They help small businesses get started with their Brewing the American Dream program. They also pay respect to homebrewers through their Longshot competition.”

Nick Naretto: “I don't believe that the Brewer's Association should change its guidelines to accommodate anyone. There are already a lot of people that don't see Sam Adams as a craft beer. Their presence is so huge that you see it along with all of the macro brands and not so often next to your small local breweries. It's hard not to get caught up in the mentality of trying new beers constantly as there seems to be a new beer and even a new brewery to try around each corner. Perhaps the BA could introduce a new sort of tier for a brand like this that has such a history with craft beer. Possibly some sort of lifetime achievement award that grandfathers them into craft because of all of their contributions to it throughout their history.”

Dave Riddile: “Do I think the BA should continue to change their guidelines to fit Sam Adams' growth and change? No. I actually view this as more of a positive if they were to no longer be considered ‘craft.’ It means that a brewery that the BA and others have worked with and learned from graduated in a sense. They're still independent advocates for small businesses and breweries. The BA should view this as a milestone.”

Sam Adams market share has been slipping the last few years, and one of the reasons why is because there’s just so much beer to try now. Not only that, but many craft beer lovers want the freshest beer from their local breweries. Why bother picking up a six pack of Sam Adams when you can go down the street and get a one-day-old case of IPA? All of this in mind: is there anything Boston Beer can do to win back the hardcore craft beer fan?

Johnny Swinehart: “Sam Adams has done a really crappy job connecting with the consumer in regards to feedback and developing new beers. As someone who used to live in Boston, I found it incredibly strange—and still do—that they don’t have a taproom in Boston! They have the Jamaica Plain facility you can visit, taste a few free predetermined samples, make a comment or two to the tour guide, and then are told that, if you want to buy a beer, visit one of the bars in the area. Even in Boston, which should be their strongest market, they have no connection to the consumer outside of bars and stores. It's no surprise, then, that the company got overtaken by brands that adapted to market tastes faster. For example, they just recently in their history started making IPAs after refusing to do so for almost 30 years. With strategy like that, no wonder they are declining as a national brewery.” 

Jim Plachy: “At this point I don’t see a reason to go back to buying Sam Adams at a grocery store. I might take a pour of something at a festival or if something seems interesting at a bar or restaurant I might order a pint. Even if they released Rebel Hazy IPA next week it’ll just feel like a cheap attempt at appealing to me.” 

Nick Naretto: “I'm sure there are some things that Boston Beer could do to take a better stab at recapturing an audience. They often seem to be chasing trends and a little bit late to the game on what's currently popular in beer. If they moved that focus to innovation, they might have a better chance at growth. I have had a decent amount of their newer offerings and they are actually all pretty solid. If you strip the Sam Adams off the label and add a trendy new name, it might actually take off. Maybe a new craft beer brand that doesn't carry the Sam Adams name would work in their favor. A brand that starts small, with a brewery and taproom, is what seems to sell the best right now, so it might not hurt to try that.

When I see a new beer by Sam Adams I typically will add it to a mixed six pack just to try it out. They are always decent and reasonably priced, so there's little risk in grabbing one. I have fond memories of early fall camping trips in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest with a Samuel Adams Octoberfest in my hand. So I recently picked up a fall variety pack to reacquaint myself with my old friend Sam.” 

For the second week in a row we’ve been pretty critical of the Brewers Association. And, again, there’s no good conclusion, because now we wait. Wait to see what steps the BA will take if Boston Beer becomes more a producer of alcoholic beverages than a brewer of beer. The majority of our community think it's time for Boston Beer to be let go as a member of the Brewers Association, but what about you? What do you think? Join us in the Fervent Few and let your voice be heard by hundreds of enthusiasts, brewers, bottle shop owners, and so many other lovers of beer.

Hosted by Jim Plachy