A Declaration of Independence
By Aaron Forrester and Scott Keys collectively known as Beers N Buddies
The 2017 World Series between the L.A. Dodgers and the Houston Astros excited fans from across the nation as two of the best teams in the MLB quite literally slugged it out to demonstrate their dominance. Interestingly enough, this sporting event excited fans of another type, fans of craft beer, and not in a good way. Intended to promote the essence of their cities, the Mayors of Los Angeles and Houston entered into a friendly bet: at stake was local barbecue and local craft beer. This wager, however, touched off a firestorm among L.A craft beer enthusiasts when it was announced that Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti, had chosen brews from Golden Road Brewing, a brewery that, although founded in LA, was purchased by the macro beer king, Anheuser-Busch InBev in September 2015. Citizens felt that beer from an independent brewery, such as Mumford or Three Weavers, should be chosen to represent their city rather than from a corporately owned brewery. What Garcetti may not have been aware of when he made his wager is that the craft beer scene throughout the whole of the US had undergone major buyouts of smaller craft breweries by InBev and the like, a process that has given rise to the Independent Craft Brewer Seal from the Brewers Association, a seal, much like the friendly bet, that seems to be causing some commotion.
According to the Brewers Association (BA), “The independent craft brewer seal is a handy tool for enthusiasts to easily differentiate beer from craft brewers and beer produced by other, non-craft companies,” and only breweries that meet a specific definition of small, independent and traditional are able to use the seal. Among other things, a qualifying brewery must produce no more than 6 million barrels of beer annually and their beers must derive from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and fermentation. Under the umbrella of this definition, a number of breweries could potentially include the seal on their beers, including those as large as The Boston Beer Company, Sam Adams, which produces just about 4 million barrels, to Inland Empire Brewing in Riverside, California, producing just 1,300 barrels. With such drastic differences in barrelage, and obviously working capital, something that would negate a buyout, the question begs to be answered: should non-independent breweries, such as Four Peaks, Ballast Point, and Goose Island, be marginalized as non-craft?
While many craft beer fans feel that breweries such as Lagunitas and Elysian have sold-out to “Big Beer,” the owners of these acquired breweries have a different take, and for some, the seal promises to bring division to what has traditionally been a relatively cohesive industry. According to Andy Ingram of Four Peaks, “there is a clear present danger out there, there are storm clouds on the horizon for the beer industry. Some people think it’s top heavy – I don’t, I think we can sustain a lot more – but we are not going to be able to do that if we are divided.” For others, such as Garrett Wales of 10 Barrel Brewing, the seal serves only to negate the agency of purchasers of craft beer. “At the end of the day,” noted Wales, “beer does the talking, not the label on the package . . . The problem is that the BA continues to refuse to let the consumer make up their own mind and try to make it up for them.”
On the other end of the spectrum lies such breweries as Stone who, in a recent Instagram post, argued that, “Independence matters. In life and in beer,” and from henceforward all Stone products will feature the seal. Stone’s acceptance of the seal underscores not only their desire to forward their independence, but it also highlights a much larger movement in the US to take back craft beer for the craft beer industry. Published on October 16, 2017 to YouTube, a new movement is underway to raise 213 billion to purchase “Big Beer” and reclaim what was once independent. A daunting task for sure, the supporters of the movement hope to restore to Golden Road the very essence that Mayor Garcetti hoped to share.
It is too soon to know the extent to which the BA seal will define craft beer, craft breweries, and the sale of craft beer generally, but what is clear is that it is generating discourse about the very nature of the industry, and in time it may well be that what is now regarded as craft…will no longer be. For the moment, however, it is important to remember that the consumer is as much a part of defining what is craft beer and what is not, and it is we, the craft beer drinker, who must make plain, with our words and purchases, where we stand!