Of the over 5,300 breweries in the US, 99% are small and independent brewery operations, yet they make just 12% of the beer sold here. Craft brewing is much beloved by beer drinkers with discriminating palates, high standards, and adventurous tastes.
Many regular craft brew drinkers are motivated by a desire to support risk takers, underdogs, and the entrepreneurial spirit required to start an independent brewery. Though they may choose their beverages based on personal preference, that preference is informed by a desire to reward hard work and creativity.
Some would likely be dismayed to learn that the “craft brewery” they’ve been supporting is anything but. It might have started as an independent brewery but is now owned by one of the titans of the industry. It’s no secret that Anheuser-Busch, private equity, and venture capital firms have been buying small brewers.
Corporate Cherry Picking
Sometimes these small breweries continue to operate as they had, mostly. The moneyed interests who have taken over the financials can — and do — dictate certain things, and many people have noticed a decline in the quality of the product when an independent brewery succumbs to corporate control.
In other cases, the careful, creative craft brewing of these erstwhile independent brewers comes to an end when they’re bought out. The larger corporate breweries absorb and market these breweries’ most popular brews, absent the care and attention to detail that goes into the craft. Less popular brews are often quietly discontinued, and the American brewery landscape loses a little more diversity.
Money vs. Love
The reason beer giants are buying up smaller, formerly independent breweries is predictable: money. Craft brewing is popular for various reasons, but chief among them is the superiority of the products that small independent brewing operations have brought to market. Even uneducated consumers who know nothing about beer or brewing know that if you’re looking for a flavorful beer with character and complexity, you look for independent brewery labels.
Corporate interests seek to capitalize on that, and buying up independent brewing operations serves two purposes. They can sell the product of the brewery operations they acquire under the “craft brewing” flag while simultaneously chipping away at the market share that independent brewery operators cling to tenaciously. The goal is complete dominance.
Can I Get a Palate Cleanser?
The result is confusion for the fan of craft brewing who wants to support independent brewing and the care and innovation that goes into it. It’s hard to know if a brewery is an independent operation or one owned by Big Beer. Corporate beer production is increasingly geared toward eliminating craft brewing competition, and they have even changed brand identities, labels, and marketing strategies in an attempt to obfuscate the origin of the “craft brews” they produce.
Then there’s the question of ownership. To really know who’s behind the brewery producing that charming, funky little IPA that’s such a hit at the local watering hole, one might have to have access to the brewery’s balance sheet.
Consider the ownership of a few of Colorado’s well-known breweries. Barrel Brewing Co., Breckenridge Brewery, and New Belgium Brewing Co. all produce what most people would consider craft beers, and many would assume all three are independent brewery operations. However, none of these are presently independently owned breweries. Each is more than 25% owned or controlled by a non-craft brewer member of the alcohol industry.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
There’s good news for the craft brewing aficionado and the independent brewery operator. The Brewers Association, a member-funded, 501(c) not-for-profit trade association, has established an independent craft brewer seal to help consumers know if a brew is genuinely the product of independent brewing. The Brewers Association membership comprises roughly 6,000 brewery owners, over 37,000 home brewers, and supportive beer wholesalers, retailers, and individuals, all passionate about craft brewing.
The Brewers Association, with the stated goal of supporting and protecting small and independent brewery operations, realized the growing difficulty faced by consumers in determining if they were really buying — and drinking — craft beers. They developed a certified independent craft seal, which proves that the beverage on which it appears was produced by an independent brewery.
Bob Pease, CEO of the Brewers Association, issued a statement addressing the need for the seal. “Beer lovers are interested in transparency when it comes to brewery ownership. This seal is a simple way to provide that clarity. Now they can know what’s been brewed small and certified independent.”
Defining Independent Brewing
The seal is free of charge and available to any small, independent brewing operation in the U.S., provided they have an official license from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to produce beer — and can meet the definition of a craft brewing operation.
Defining craft or independent brewing might seem tricky, but the guidelines under which the independent craft seal can be awarded are relatively clear-cut.
To qualify as an independent brewery and to qualify for the Independent Craft Brewer Seal, a brewery must be small, with an annual production of 6 million barrels or fewer, and independent, meaning less than 25% of the brewery can be owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member who is not itself a craft brewer.
For the small, independent brewery, the seal can serve as a badge of honor — and could mean big profits. Over 4,000 brewers have applied to the program and been granted the seal, and consumer response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Brewers who affix the seal to their labels have seen such a surge in support — and business — that the Brewers Association developed a second seal, the Independent Craft Brewer Supporter Seal, eligible to supporters of U.S. craft brewing and independent brewery operations.