Is this the end of craft beer?

Another round of layoffs at the Brewers Association

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Julia Herz
Brewers Association

Don’t worry; beer ain’t going anywhere. Neither is small and local, but craft beer — as a whole and as a movement — could be nearing its conclusion.

The Boulder-based Brewers Association (BA), the non-profit trade group representing small and independent breweries, announced another round of layoffs — 17% of its staff, or nine positions — on June 26. This round adds to April’s initial 23% staff reduction, both motivated by the loss of revenue generated from annual BA events (Great American Beer Festival, Craft Brewers Conference, Homebrew Con, etc.). According to the BA’s 2019 stewardship report, those events accounted for 58% of its annual revenue.

“The Brewers Association’s fortune mirrors the fortunes of the American craft beer community,” president Bob Pease wrote in a press release announcing the layoffs. True, but so is the inverse, and if the craft brewing movement manages to make it out of COVID alive, it’ll have to do so without the BA’s program director of craft beer and the movement’s biggest champion: Julia Herz.

Craft beer. Herz spoke the two words as if they were one. As if no beer existed beyond craft beer. For small and independent brewers, it sounded like a call to arms. For the brewers who built the industry before selling up, her emphasis on the modifier must have sounded like a serrated knife cutting through galvanized steel.

As Westword’s Jonathan Shikes reports, when Herz started in 2010, there were 1,800 U.S. breweries. Today, the number is almost five times that. What’s more, a lot has changed in those 10 years, especially the definition of craft beer. Initially, a craft brewer was defined as small, independent and traditional (i.e., no adjuncts to cheapen the product). But since adjuncts are as traditional as any ingredient, out the window it went. Small also changed (increasing from an annual production of 2 million barrels to 6), but independence did not. To be a certified craft: no more than 25% of the brewery can be owned “by a beverage alcohol industry member which is not itself a craft brewer,” sayeth the BA.

The BA planted its flag on that percentage, excommunicating breweries that sell to bigger breweries and branding the faithful with a seal: An upside-down beer bottle with the word “independent” written inside.

Herz was by far the most prominent face of the campaign when the seal launched in 2017. According to the BA, 5,000 breweries adopted the seal, many of them because of Herz’s tireless campaign and ceaseless education.

The seal works: It provides transparency when it comes to ownership (though a craft brewer need not list all its private investors). And, as was evident with the hubbub about SoulCycle in August 2019, ownership matters a lot to customers.

At least it does in a healthy business environment. But in a pandemic? Thanks to economies of scale, bigger breweries can provide better price points than smaller breweries. And what moves more units: a seal certifying independence or a lower price? The two need not be mutually exclusive, but they often are.

With no end in sight for this virus, it’s possible that where we’re at now, we can’t even imagine what the bottom will be like. With a BA chopped at the knees, education, enthusiasm and advocacy for craft beer is bound to diminish. And the all-important “craft” designation is bound to erode until it’s as diluted as the thin mass-market lagers it bucked against in the first place. The beer you will always have with you. What we call it is a different story.

Missing the old days? Read ‘Denver Beer’

Westword’s Jonathan Shikes is one of the best beer writers in the Centennial State — if not the best — and his new book Denver Beer: A History of Mile High Brewing is a must.
But don’t let the title deceive you; Shikes’ history of modern-day brewing extends well beyond the Mile High City. From Charlie Papazian and the birth of the Great American Beer Festival to the groundbreaking work of Boulder Beer Co., there’s plenty of Boulder brewing history to discover.
Shikes also incorporates the innovations and advancements of Ska Brewing and Oskar Blues Brewery to illustrate further how we got here. But the book’s heart and soul rest in Denver’s Tivoli Brewing, which, coincidentally, closed the year Shikes was born. Metaphorically, Tivoli is back in business, and Shikes is still breaking brewing news along the Front Range.
Pick up a copy at arcadiapublishing.com or wherever books are sold.