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Does Independent Craft Really Need a Seal?

The Brewers’ Association (BA) in the U.S. has just launched a “Certified Independent Craft Brewer” seal. The seal, an upside down bottle indicating certified independence, is designed to identify which breweries in the States are not owned by one of the big corporate breweries. The BA says more than 1500 breweries have signed onto the certification, placing the seal somewhere on their packaging. The seal is a clear response by BA to the big boys’ recent efforts to buy up successful craft brewers as well as to launch their own pseudo-craft brands to compete against authentic craft brewers.

On the surface it seems like a good idea – find a way to differentiate real craft from pseudo-craft and give consumers an easy-to-find marker to establish authenticity. Organic and fair trade products have been doing this for years, quite successfully. Consumers know which labels mean something and therefore the system is more legitimate and reliable all around.

In that context an independent craft brewery certification seal makes sense. It is a way to quickly demarcate real craft from faux craft.

Maybe. But overall I believe it is a misguided strategy that obfuscates certain hard facts about the beer industry. Allow me to summarize a few of my concerns.

First, there is the issue of definition. What exactly does “independent” mean? For the BA it means no more than 25% of the brewery can be owned by a non-craft brewer. Is that truly independent? Case in point, last week news broke that Heineken, through wholly-owned Lagunitas, is buying a 20% stake in Michigan brewery Short’s Brewing. By the BA definition, Short’s continues to be considered “independent” despite their new corporate partners. I am somewhat dubious.

The BA also has a size requirement, kind of. To be eligible you must produce less than six million barrels (about 7.2 million HL) of beer annually. that is a lot of beer. To put it in perspective that limit is more than three times the annual production of the Edmonton Labatt plant. At that size, is the independence of the ownership the most important factor in determining if the brewery is legitimately craft or not?

Second, and this really is the core of my concern, is that the seal ignores fundamental realities of the beer industry – that it is a capitalist venture. The vast majority of BA members are corporations (there are a handful of co-operatives and employee-owned breweries). They are for-profit enterprises which (hopefully) generate value and revenue for their owners. They don’t produce beer for the good of the community, but to make money.

What, at its core, is the difference between a large, multi-national corporation and a relatively small, independent corporation, other than scale? What happens when that independent corporation becomes rather large, such as Boston Beer Co.? Does that change the picture?

Let me immediately contradict my own point by highlighting that I do think there is a difference. The ABInbev’s of the world are transactional enterprises first and beer-makers second. An independent brewery is still about beer first and foremost, and that matters. Craft brewers are, for the most part, about building a culture of beer, which also matters.

I support fair trade and organic certification because they tell me something specific and significant about the product. The certification verifies that it was produced ethically/without pesticides/etc. I can then make my choice. What does an independent seal on my beer really tell me? It tells me it is not owned by one of the big corporate brewers, that is all.

For some that is enough. And fair enough.

For me it isn’t though. What matters more is that the brewery is anchored in a community. That they come from the community and produce beer for people in the community. That connection is more important than ownership, at the end of the day.

Emphasizing local still locks out the corporate brewers, who long since traded in their community cards for global dominance, but it also allows the consumer to make cleaner distinctions about other aspects of the beer.

Promoting the independent ownership of craft brewers isn’t a bad thing. I am supportive of almost anything that undermines the hegemony of the corporate brewers. But I find the BA’s efforts on this front to be more than a little misleading. They are trading on the public’s image of craft brewers as small, local and plucky. The reality is that many of the players in the industry (including Canada), they have long moved past that stage. And having done so, the line between them and the big corporate brewers is thinner than the BA would like to admit.



1 comment to Does Independent Craft Really Need a Seal?

  • So much to be said here, great points. Speaking as an 11-year veteran of the industry, in general I feel the difference is – is your brewery invested in creating more, or less diversity, choice and excellence in craft beer? Are they looking to create wonderful beer, or are they interested in guiding consumers towards the lowest common denominator to maximize profit, as we saw in the 1970s in 1980s in Canada? Put another way, do you love beer, or do you love money? To me, money is what we need to make beer. To the big guys, beer is what they need to make money. If your brewery is investing financially in efforts to limit for everyone the things that make craft beer great – ie, innovation, diversity, excellence – in order to maximize profit, you are not a craft brewery. And if you are taking actions that obfuscate who you are, because you know that by these definitions you are not a craft brewery, it makes sense to have some kind of indicator of that. But agreed, the seal concept needs fine tuning, because the parameters, as you indicated, are not cut and dried.

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