What Happens if Boston Beer Becomes Boston Non-Traditional Beer?

Austin Ray
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THE GIST
As noted this week by The Boston Globe, Boston Beer Co. is poised to outgrow the most widely recognized parameters of what it means to be a craft brewer.

Though a pioneer of the craft beer industry, the proprietor of the iconic Samuel Adams brand line has shifted much of its focus over the last few years toward selling non-traditional beer products like its Twisted Tea, Angry Orchard Cider, and Truly Spiked Seltzer brands amid waning beer sales. However, the Brewers Association upholds as one of three core tenets that a brewer can only be considered “craft” if the majority of its volume is derived “from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.” The other two tenets relate to being small and independent.

To date, Boston Beer, a dues-paying BA member, has operated within the boundaries of traditional beer volume. Now, though, analysts believe the company could crossover and see the bulk of its volume dedicated to non-traditional beer products as early as this year. In turn, should it perform as many expect, the nation’s second largest craft brewery by volume would technically find itself rejected by the industry it helped create in the first place.

WHY IT MATTERS
The speculation over Boston Beer’s impending expulsion from the BA’s craft beer club is nothing new, really. But if the company, a well-respected and historically important brewery, finally does evolve into a beer-second operation as many expect it will, the industry’s preeminent gatekeepers would have to a reconcile with a pair of uncomfortable competing questions:

  1. In the event Boston Beer goes whole hog on non-beer, should the BA stick to its definition and abide ostracizing its second largest member by volume?

  2. Or should the organization amend the definition, as it has before, to accommodate one its most powerful allies?

There aren’t any easy answers here. But precedent favors answering yes to option two. Indeed, the group has amended its definition before, loosening restrictions on ingredient guidelines—as a side hug of sorts to Yuengling, letting them in on the “craft” action—and increasing the barrel threshold as it relates to being “small,” specifically to enlarge its base and ensure important members—including Boston Beer—aren’t stripped of the craft badge just for growing. Adding another interesting wrinkle in favor of amendment, Boston founder Jim Koch, already arguably the industry’s most recognizable figurehead was named an at-large BA board member this year. So standing ardently by what many consider an arbitrary definition may not ultimately be worth putting distance between itself and Koch’s company.

However, there are some pros to letting Boston Beer go, even if they’re largely symbolic. In letting Koch and his team walk, the nonprofit trade group would establish a level of rigidity to its definition of “craft brewer.” This would be helpful, considering the flexible nature of the definition (see: past amendments abovementioned) has been sharply criticized in the past. Basically, people wonder: of what use are definitive operational boundaries that bend and capitulate to the world operating outside of them? With the introduction of things like the seal of independence (which Boston Beer is in the process of adopting), the BA has clear intent of establishing differentiating authority behind its own definition of a craft brewer.

Meanwhile, some BA members, like Jester King, are questioning even if companies that stay under the 25% rule or take advantage of private should be included in the “craft” definition. Letting Boston Beer go would send a message to those members.

For now, Boston Beer tells The Globe it has “no plans to stray from [its] craft roots,” so take that for what it’s worth. It’s clear, though, that beneath the soil from which this industry blossomed, Boston Beer’s roots, as well as the roots of the broader beer business at large, are only continuing to tangle.

—Dave Eisenberg