Seal of independence

New craft-beer label in wake of “Big Beer” buyouts

“Certified independent craft” seal distinguished independents from those owned by “Big Beer.”

“Certified independent craft” seal distinguished independents from those owned by “Big Beer.”

Image courtesy of Brewers Association

A trip down the beer aisle in 2017 is a much different experience than it was a decade ago, or even five years ago. Back then you could always count on finding Sierra Nevada, Deschutes and a handful of other craft brews among the glut of Budweiser, Coors and Pabst Blue Ribbon. And it was easy to find what you wanted.

Nowadays, not only are there dozens more craft beers occupying shelf space, there’s a completely new element—six-packs, twelvers and bombers that appear to be made by small craft breweries but are actually produced by global companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) and Heineken. Over the past six years, independent breweries like Goose Island, 10 Barrel Brewing and, more recently, Ballast Point have all sold out to “Big Beer.”

Many folks in the industry will tell you that they don’t blame or scorn smaller craft breweries for selling to larger companies. It makes sense from a distribution and growth standpoint. When it comes down to it, these deals matter most to those who spend their money on craft beer. If you read beer geek forums, the phenomenon recalls the days when indie rock bands like The Replacements and R.E.M. signed to major labels. In most cases, craft beer consumers simply want to know where their money is going.

In June, the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade group that promotes independent craft breweries, answered this concern by introducing the independent craft brewer seal—a black-and-white image depicting a downturned beer bottle with the words “certified independent craft.” Only those breweries defined by the Brewers Association as a “craft brewer”—i.e., those that are small (6 million barrels maximum annual production), independent and traditional—are allowed to use the mark.

“Independence matters to some beer lovers, but not all,” said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association. “But small business is what drives our economy.”

Herz points to a poll conducted in May of this year of 2,000 beer consumers. Of the 29 buzzwords associated with beer purchases, “independent” and “independently owned” were at the top of the heap. The independent seal was rolled out a month later.

Herz and others do consider the buyouts a trend: AB InBev has purchased 11 breweries over the past year alone. “Big Beer has been buying up authenticity since 2011,” Herz said. “They want to give the illusion of choice. They want to be the one-stop shop of beer.” But she does add some context: Of the 5,600 breweries operating in the United States, 98 percent are small and independent.

The reaction was almost immediate following the seal’s rollout, as dozens of breweries adopted it. As of mid-September, some 2,150 breweries had signed on. A recent visit to Zoiglhaus Brewing Co. in Portland, Ore.—which specializes in German beer—revealed the independent craft brewer seal right on the front door. Zoiglhaus brewmaster Alan Taylor said he made the decision to adopt the seal immediately. As with many within the beer industry, Taylor says he doesn’t fault a brewery for selling out. But he also knows from a consumer standpoint that it really does matter, noting the backlash 10 Barrel Brewing experienced a few years ago.

“It’s important to let people know you’re independently owned—especially in the current market,” said Taylor, who is also co-owner and brewmaster for PINTS Brewing in Portland, and Ponderosa Brewing Co. in Albuquerque. He also sees it mostly from a consumer standpoint. “Would I want to put money into Elysian [the Seattle-based brewery sold to AB InBev in 2015] when I can keep my money local? No.”

One of the negative implications of the buyouts for independent craft brewers is the increased competition for shelf space, tap handles and even real estate. A brand like Goose Island, purchased by AB InBev in 2011, can be seen all over airport bars and restaurants across the country. And 10 Barrel—once a modest spot in Bend, Ore.—has opened pubs in Portland and Denver since its sale in 2014.

“It’s scary for independents,” said Terence Sullivan, who’s been with Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. since 1994, and now serves as the brewery’s brand manager. He said, “10 Barrel and Goose Island can ride the coattails of the Budweiser portfolio and save on distribution. They can even afford to take a slight hit and bring their prices down.”

Sierra Nevada—which already includes “Family owned, operated and argued over” on its labels—has also adopted the seal, which will appear on the outer packaging of its six- and 12-packs soon. Sullivan says he sees the value in the seal for beer-drinkers and beer-makers. He also sees things from a brewer’s standpoint as the competition continues to grow (there are currently around 4,000 craft breweries compared to the 150-200 there were in 1998).

“I don’t fault any of them for making those decisions—most of them are just following their dreams.”