An independent state of mind: Part 1

The battle against Big Beer rages on

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Brewers Association

For all intents and purposes, Anheuser-Busch shot first.

On May 3, 2017, brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev (the Belgian-Brazilian company most readily identified with Budweiser) announced it had acquired Wicked Weed Brewing for their “High End” portfolio (a collection of brewers owned and operated in some capacity by AB InBev, hereafter noted as ABI). Wicked Weed, the hip Asheville, North Carolina brewery famous for its creative sours and wild ales, became the 10th craft brewery to join ABI’s High End — Chicago’s Goose Island Brewing being the first in 2011.

“Beer lovers — I’m not the one saying it, you just have to go on the internet — were pissed,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the Brewers Association. “That was the tipping point for me, and that was the [sale] that got more press than all of them.”

Craft acquisition by Big Beer, whether by ABI, MillerCoors or Constellation Brands, is not a new thing. Yet, there was something about Wicked Weed’s sale that rubbed fellow brewers and beer geeks the wrong way.

Something needed to be done, and the Brewers Association (BA), the Boulder-based trade group representing small and independent brewers, had just the trick up its sleeve: an “Independent Craft” seal.

“This is a certification mark,” Herz explains. “So all U.S. craft brewers — [BA] members and non — qualify.”

To qualify as craft, breweries must produce less than six million barrels of beer a year — one barrel of beer equals 31 gallons, or roughly 3,400 12-ounce beers — and no more than 25 percent of the brewery’s operations can be owned by an alcohol or industry member that’s not a craft brewer.

Released on June 27, the BA sent out stickers of the seal — with an upside-down bottle symbolizing how craft brewers have turned the brewing world on its head — to every brewery meeting BA’s definition.

ABI didn’t take it lying down. Just a few days after BA announced the seal, the High End released a four-minute marketing video of their acquired brewers decrying the seal and its emphasis on independence; a tactic that drew more ire than goodwill.

“The big guys are really trying to blur the lines,” says Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing co-founder and CEO. “They say that craft, as a word, doesn’t matter and that nobody cares about independence. And we have data that would indicate that that’s not true. A lot of brewers feel that in their hearts and souls.”

“I don’t begrudge the brewers who choose to sell,” Ryan Scott, co-founder of Odd13 Brewing, says. “I think this is a super-stressful industry with really narrow margins.

“I do have a pretty firm stance against Anheuser-Busch in general,” Scott continues. “They are a big company that actively tries to deny access to market for brewers like us.”

Scott, who owns Odd13 with wife, Kristin, and his parents, is no stranger to vocalizing his displeasure with ABI’s purchasing strategy.

“Insidious,” Scott says. “They don’t want you to know who owns your beer, or who owns the company that makes your beer. They want you to think it’s local.”

Sentiments that Left Hand’s Wallace echoes.

“The big guys are out there obfuscating and confusing by buying up those who were formerly our brethren and using them as weapons in their arsenal,” Wallace explains. “Whether it’s through their wholesale purchasing of tap handles and venues, or whether it’s squeezing out the independents when they set the shelves in grocery stores. … They have huge economic power to basically squeeze craft brewers out of their distribution channels.”

Part 2 will run next week.