Independence matters. Just ask the early American colonists and the brave men who fought against what seemed like insurmountable odds to declare victory over what was then the most powerful nation on earth. These individuals knew the road ahead would be difficult and while it would have been much easier to accept Mother England as commander- in- chief, the American colonists believed that sacrifice and uncertainty were worth the ultimate reward: Independence and the right of self- determination in personal and business affairs.
Today, America’s craft breweries are often faced with a similar decision. They could sell out to one of the large breweries or corporations, let the funds come pouring in, and live an easy corporate life free from most financial worries. Or, they can remain independent, free to run their businesses the way they like without having to kowtow to their corporate masters. The Brewers Association just last week unveiled a seal that identifies those breweries that have chosen the route of independence and, in doing so, they seem to have ruffled the mash tuns of a handful of brewers who, once proudly and fiercely sovereign, now find themselves under the control of Anheuser- Busch Inbev.
Viewpoints from the High End
To voice their displeasure with the Brewers Association and its Independent Seal, five former craft breweries decided to create a video (Follow this link to watch the video). They are joined by the president of The High End, with each person speaking briefly about what they think craft beer is all about; what consumers really want in a beer; and why they feel an independent seal is meaningless. Simply titled “Six Viewpoints from the High End”, the video includes candid talking points from the following individuals:
- David Buhler, Elysian Brewing
- Walt Dickinson, Wicked Weed Brewing
- Garrett Wales, 10 Barrel Brewing
- Andy Ingram, Four Peaks Brewing
- Steve Crandall, Devil’s Backbone Brewing
- Felipe Szpigel, The High End, President
I watched the video and my initial thoughts can be summarized into two broad Q&A categories:
- What compelled these people to create this video?
- Do these people truly know their customers and the craft beer market?
Let’s address point number one. I was taken aback when I watched this display of unfounded arrogance because not only is what they say convoluted, but it is also ill advised. One of the rules of advertising, press releasing, etc., is that you avoid bringing attention to your competitors, if you can avoid it. Yes, if companies are as large as you are and you want to engage in head- to- head combat, then sure, you can talk directly about your opponent. But given that Anheuser- Busch InBev is already the largest brewery in the world, you would think they would be wise enough NOT to mention craft beer at all, as doing so only brings attention to the competition and, in the long run, could actually benefit the competition due to the exposure. It seems to me like these guys perceive the Independent Seal as a threat and, in knee- jerk fashion, decided to throw together a quick 4 minute video as a counter- attack.
Creating the video seems like a poorly advised defensive maneuver, but what is even worse is some of the statements made by the six individuals in the clip, because what they say often flies in the face of logic, is hypocritical, and/or shows complete lack of understanding for the craft beer market.
Here’s a small sampling of the more egregious quotes and my response to each:
“BA continues to refuse to let the consumer make up their own mind and tries to make it up for them”– Garrett Wales
Uh, not quite, Garrett. The Brewers Association is not trying to make up consumer’s minds for them, as you so un- eloquently state. They are simply making it easier for consumers to identify which breweries are independent and which are owned by larger corporations. This is not a case of coercion on the part of BA. All they are doing is offering a useful service for those consumers for whom independence makes a difference.
“When a major trade organization is saying it doesn’t matter what’s in your glass as long as it’s independent, and they’re telling consumers that, then that’s a big issue, you’re saying go ahead and drink crap just as long as you don’t support the big guys. And it’s not healthy and not a good way going forward“– Andy Ingram.
Wow, where do I even begin? The Brewers Association doesn’t care about what’s in your glass as long as it’s independent? Go ahead and drink crap as long as you don’t support the big guys? Complete ignorance on multiple levels here. The Independent seal is not an absolute symbol of quality and is not intended that way. It is only meant to distinguish independently owned breweries from everyone else.
“We’re all doing the same thing, we’re beer, and were fighting this bigger battle which is wine and spirits and we’re losing margin every year to them..they have to be looking at us and just laughing….You guys are literally infighting….this is a civil war”– Walt Dickinson
A civil war, you say? It sounds to me like the first shots aimed on Fort Sumter were fired by The High Point, not the Brewers Association.
“Consumers don’t care necessarily about independence, what they care is about is what is the impact that small business has on the communities”– Felipe Szpigel
Oh, Felipe! How can you, the president of the High Point, make such a statement of pure ignorance? Consumers in fact do care about independence and for some, it is an important consideration when making a purchase. Not everyone is like this, of course, but a large percentage is. And your follow up that consumers only care about the impact small business has on the community and that Anheuser- Busch InBev’s commitment to community will win the customers’ loyalty in the long run is not only ignorant, it also flies in the face of what the others on the video are trying to say: That quality product is what matters most. This sounds like wishful corporate thinking at best, blissful and willful ignorance at worst.
I should also point out that, among the six individuals on this video, Steve Crandall is the only one who says anything resembling common sense and respectful discourse. He points out that Devil’s Backbone will continue doing what they do best and he supports craft beer one hundred percent. David Buhler of Elysian fame- you know, the brewery once known for its bold proclamation that ‘corporate beer still sucks’- offers nothing of value and based on his words and smug attitude, it is clear he doesn’t like the independent seal and cannot understand why any brewery would use it.
Spirit of Independence
Viewpoints From the High End is an ill- advised and poorly thought out response to what should be perceived as a harmless non- threat to the non- craft community. A seal signifying independence is just that and nothing more. It’s a simple way for consumers to identify beer made by independent operations. It will prove quite useful for those consumers who care about such matters. It won’t matter to others who likely won’t even notice it or know exactly what it means.
After watching these six individuals talk about this independent seal, I can’t help but think that these guys want to have it both ways. They want to continue to be viewed as one of the guys, so to speak; one of the fraternal order of craft brewing brothers and sisters, while still selling out and accepting millions from an international brewing conglomerate like Anheuser- Busch InBev. They want to be in the same league as craft breweries while raking in the big bucks. They want the best of both worlds, but unfortunately for them, selling out comes with a price. I agree that the beer they brew today is just as artistic and craft- conscious as it was before they signed the bottom line and handed over control. But they are, in fact, no longer small and independent and therefore no longer qualify as craft brewers in the strict sense.
Since these companies are now owned by Anheuser- Busch InBev, we know that their corporate masters had to approve this video. This really makes me question the tactics of this large international business and while I realize that they have stooped to this level in the past, it still surprises me to see them do it again. Unless you, Anheuser- Busch InBev, somehow perceive this symbol as a threat, then why did you feel the need to make this video? I don’t see how this helps the Anheuser- Busch Inbev cause at all and, as I said before, it could even have the opposite effect by making more consumers aware of independent craft beer. Other large corporations have gobbled up craft breweries and I don’t see any of them responding in this manner. Lagunitas and Ballast Point are two obvious examples. They both sold their companies to beverage giants Heineken and Constellation Brands respectively, but I don’t see their former owners/brewers creating videos that attempt to belittle the Brewers Association and its “Independence Seal”.
Backlash can be brutal. You never know exactly how the public will react when confronted with unwelcome or unanticipated news, but these members of The High End had to know there would be a price to pay when they signed away their businesses to Big Brew. They are speaking like a bunch of whiny politicians who lost a close election and feel all they can do now is vent about the unfair process, complain about symbols, and look for excuses to explain why they are no longer as popular as before.
Independence has countless advantages. The freedom that comes with self- sufficiency is rewarding, but it can be difficult to maintain. America’s 5,000+ independent craft breweries know the sacrifices they must make and the hard work they must endure. But for them and the loyal consumers who love them, the independent mantra is worth every drop of sweat and every ounce of energy it demands. Those who decide to cede their independence will, indeed, reap financial benefits, but they must accept what they will ultimately lose. These are the consequences when you sell out, and no seal of independence or anything else will change that fact.