Brewers Association Celebrates Independence Day a Week Early

Austin Ray

THE GIST
The Brewers Association today unveiled a seal of independence for both its members and nonmembers alike to place on packaging as a way to tout their autonomy. But the seal is about more than individual pride. Featuring an upturned silhouette of a beer bottle adorned by the words “Certified Independent Craft,” the nonprofit trade group also hopes the insignia will serve to create a clearer distinction between the corporate-owned and independently-operated breweries whose products co-mingle on shelves across the United States.

“We’ve been hearing from [our members] pretty consistently for over a year about the confusion that exists in the beer marketplace, about which beers come from independently owned breweries, and which do not. That was the impetus to really prioritize this effort,” president and CEO of the BA, Bob Pease, tells GBH. “We are working on an effort to differentiate, but not denigrate, which beers come from small, independent breweries, and which beers come from ‘Big Beer.’ And then we’ll let the beer drinker decide.”

The seal is free to use, though brewers must license it from the BA.

WHY IT MATTERS
Ever since multinational brewing conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors began throwing money at formerly independent craft brewers, they’ve been criticized for a widely perceived lack of transparency. That is, critics suggest these companies have been buying up small breweries and then willfully hiding their investments from the public at large by not more prominently disclosing their stakes in the brands. This criticism is nothing new. And with this seal, the BA is attempting to just make the distinction itself by inviting the nation’s 5,400 independent breweries to just go ahead and proclaim their independence.

This makes sense enough: independence is one of the three core tenets of the BA’s own definition of what constitutes a “craft brewer” in 2017. Furthermore, the conversation surrounding independence seems to have reached a fever pitch in recent months, at least if the fiery response to AB InBev’s acquisition of Wicked Weed is any indication. And lastly, it does seem that independence matters to drinkers, as the BA cited in its announcement a recent survey commissioned by Brewbound and conducted by Nielsen, which found that “’independent’ and ‘independently owned’ strongly resonated with the majority (81 percent)” of craft beer drinkers, but not drinkers at large.

But to what end is a seal like this in service of? Pease breaks it down in phases for us. To start, he says the initial hope is to have as many independent breweries as possible adopt and “socialize” the label by pushing it out and educating their fanbases about it. “You think about the social media reach of 5,400 breweries, that’s pretty powerful,” he says.

As for which people the seal is meant to educate specifically, Pease broke beer consumers into three “buckets.” The first bucket, he says, are those who don’t care about ownership and are solely interested in things like taste and affordability. The seal may not resonate as much with them. On the other end of the spectrum, the BA refers to “core craft” consumers, those who are already engaged and care and pay attention to the types of companies they support, both in the beer industry and out. The third group, though, is the BA’s main target. There, you’ll find conscientious beer drinkers who might not be extremely educated about the matter, but are willing to learn and invest energy into the cause. “That’s kind of the biggest target market for us,” says Pease, of this latter group.

It’s not just about converting and educating new drinkers, though. Pease wouldn’t specify exact plans, but “phase two” of the project will see the group, and ideally brewers, push the seal at the distribution and retail tier. First though, the focus is on familiarizing breweries and consumers with the seal.

As far as numbers go, Pease says there were 200 signups within the first hour of the announcement to learn more about the seal, saying yesterday they would’ve been pleased with 50 in a day. It’s worth noting, though, a signup to learn more doesn’t equal an adoption of the seal, and there have been plenty of opinions on both sides of whether the logo would be welcome or not.

Like any industry designation, its potential success causes its own issues—by not using the logo, for whatever reason, a brewer is setting themselves up to be pegged as "fake craft" and may feel unwelcome pressure to conform. Nick Nunns of TRVE Brewing, for example, tweeted: "Can't wait for trolls to bust my balls about not putting the independent beer emblem on our labels."

Dogfish Head, however, is one such brewery that has already publicly vowed to adopt the seal. And while Pease insists that this initiative isn’t intended to denigrate, Dogfish Head is clearly taking on the cause with axe in hand.

Writes founder Sam Calagione in a letter explaining the adoption: “We think this is important because the identity and integrity of the craft brewing community have come under attack in recent months as certain global brewing conglomerates attempt to influence and blur the lines between their brands and those that continue to deliver innovation, imagination and community investment here in America.”

It should be noted that Dogfish Head itself sold a 15% minority stake to a private equity firm in 2015. The company is free to use the seal, however, because, as outlined by the BA, the company is less than 25% owned “by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer” and, as is currently written, private equity ownership does not factor into the craft designation at all.

Meanwhile, in Australia this year, independent brewers drew the line at private equity as well. Which begs the question: what will happen to brewers using the logo if the definition for "craft brewer" changes out from under them? The definition has changed multiple times over the course of its history in order to be more inclusive. If that trend reverses, and indications are that the line is being drawn more decisively of late, then brewers using this logo could end up on the other side of the fence without having changed anything about their own business.

In the end, though, Pease says it’s not about business—it’s for the consumers.

“Beer drinkers make choices every day with their hard-earned dollars, and they have indicated that ownership can drive their purchasing intent,” he says. For the BA's part, as is their mandate to market for their member group, they aim to stand outside the polling place raising as much a ruckus as they can before that lever gets pulled. 

“We want the beer drinker to be deciding what’s on tap.”

—Dave Eisenberg