Monday morning I received a press release from the Brewers Association, a trade group comprised of breweries, suppliers, wholesalers, retailers, and others associated with craft beer.
It was just a few months ago that this band of beer industry participants introduced the “Independent Craft Brewer Seal” in an effort to distinguish small American brewers from their gigantic corporate counterparts. Although it was rolled out amidst a bit of craft beer community controversy — why a bottle and not a can some asked — the logo caught fire and started appearing on beer packaging and taproom windows across the country.
So I was anxious to see what the BA had up its sleeve this time.
What I discovered in my inbox that morning was a not-so-serious crowdsourcing campaign to “take craft back from big beer.” The mock effort to raise $213 billion to buy Anheuser-Busch InBev — the world’s largest brewer and recent acquirer of smaller craft breweries across the United States — was rolled out with a dedicated website, videos, infographics, and an official spokesman that had seemingly jumped out of a Dollar Shave Club commercial.
According to the press release, AB InBev is the most powerful force in corporate brewing and a threat to independent brewers everywhere. The Belgian brewing conglomerate raked in $45.5 billion in revenue in 2016 and controls nearly half of the American beer market. With overall U.S. beer consumption relatively flat, however, the company started buying independent beer brands to tap the still-growing craft segment.
Craft Brewer Definition
Small – Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.
Independent – Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
Traditional – A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.
Once-local breweries like Goose Island, 10 Barrel, Elysian, Breckenridge, and Wicked Weed have all been gobbled up by AB InBev recently, and it’s a trend that seems to be gaining momentum.
“This has been a catalyst for slower growth for small and independent brewers and endangered consumer access to certain brands,” the BA stated back in March, when it released its 2016 statistics.
Many who follow the industry believe craft brewery acquisitions are particularly troubling since big brewers control much of the beer supply chain.
One of those people is Jonathan Martin, head of Bubba Brew’s Brewing Co. in Bonnerdale, Arkansas and president of the Arkansas Brewers Guild. He is the Brewers Association’s very definition of a craft brewer — small, independent, and traditional. Bubba Brew’s distributes draft beer exclusively within the state’s borders and focuses mostly on styles like pales, stouts, and wheat ales.
Although Martin understands the economics behind AB InBev’s recent acquisitions, he believes the craft beer supply chain is clearly at risk for people like him.
“A lot of true beer enthusiasts like variety,” he said. “And to me that’s where the impact of big beer acquisitions is most felt. The more big beer controls distribution, the more it can force in-house brands into the market.”
By his estimation, this squeezes the smaller independent brewers out of the retail environment. There’s only so much cooler space to go around, and only so many distributors — who are typically controlled by corporate cash daddies like AB InBev and MillerCoors — to fill those coolers. In that scenario distributors prioritize corporate portfolios over local brewers.
Not even homebrewers are safe these days. AB InBev purchased ingredient and equipment suppliers Northern Brewer and Midwest Supplies a year ago, disrupting the purchasing habits of many hardcore hobbyists.
And in a surprising twist, the brewing giant also locked down the hot hop market in South Africa, choking the flow of new and experimental hops into the U.S. market. The move sparked fresh fear that AB InBev was intent on limiting independent brewers’ access to innovative ingredients.
Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer
Another concerned Arkansas brewer is John Beachboard of Lost Forty Brewing Co. in Little Rock. Fresh off a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival — which was earned by the brewery’s Logger Rita Vienna Lager — he said corporate acquisitions of small breweries often confuse beer consumers.
“They are muddying what it means to be craft,” said Beachboard. “We [devoted craft beer enthusiasts] know that Elysian and Wicked Weed are owned by AB InBev, but does the average consumer know that when they’re about to make a choice in the store?”
Lost Forty embraced the Independent Craft Brewer Seal when the Brewers Association unveiled it this past June. The logo has been included on the label of all of the brewery’s recent small batch releases. For Beachboard, anything that can more clearly identify independently owned breweries is important.
“I know there was a lot of debate over whether it was good or bad,” he said, referring to arguments over the choice of a bottle over a can for the logo (and heated discussion over why the bottle is upside down instead of right-side up). “But when I saw the logo I had a strong reaction. I thought, ‘Yes!’ Whatever the Brewers Association can do to inform consumers is valid and good.”
So much of craft beer’s appeal is its status as a local artisanal product. Much like farm-to-table—where you know the farmer who grew the pig that produced the bacon on your breakfast plate — craft beer has grassroots appeal. Simply put, beer drinkers enjoy knowing the brewers who make the beer that fills their pint glasses. When acquisitions take place, beer loses its very identity. It’s gentrification in liquid form.
As far as the “take back craft” campaign is concerned, there is very little chance that enough money is raised to purchase AB InBev. The share for each person in the U.S. (including babies) is a staggering $653.37. The number drops to $28.78 if split amongst each of the earth’s human inhabitants. That’s a particularly tall order for a goat herder in South Asia.
To be clear, no money will be collected from those who pledge unless the stated goal is reached. It’s mostly a public relations stunt intended to raise awareness among beer consumers. The campaign is a bit silly and somewhat far-fetched— but it has people talking. And that is exactly what it was intended to do.
So visit the campaign website and pledge if you’re so moved. Or perhaps more importantly, visit your local brewery and pay real money for a quality product made right here in your community.