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A New Seal of Independence for Craft Brewers: Is It Important or Another Form of Marketing? 

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One of these things is not like the others. Can you tell which one?

• Devils Backbone
• Vienna Lager
• Breckenridge Avalanche Ale
• Blue Mountain Dark Hollow

If you guessed that Blue Mountain Dark Hollow is the only craft beer, Big Bird would be proud. With the acquisition of craft brewers by Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, the two biggest beer conglomerates in the world, the waters have gotten murky.

On June 27, the Brewers Association, an independent craft brewery trade organization, unveiled a symbol that would help consumers know. The association says that to display the new seal, craft breweries must be small, producing 6 million barrels of beer or less, and independent, meaning that less than 25 percent of the business is owned or controlled by a large alcohol business .

A sampling of Richmond-area breweries found that Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, Isley Brewing Co., Strangeways Brewing, Triple Crossing Brewing Co. and Stone Brewing plan to use the seal. Neil Burton, Strangeways’ founder, says the added expense is “well worth the message of supporting certified independent craft beer.”

“Anything that sets us apart in the eyes of consumers is just good business,” says Dave Gott, vice president of Legend Brewing Co.

A few area breweries expressed uncertainty, and two gave firm noes: Center of the Universe Brewing Co. and the Veil. “Our cans are sold in house and are not sitting on a shelf next to nonindependent producers,” Matt Tarpey of the Veil says. “Using the seal to avoid brand confusion could definitely be beneficial — I just don’t think it applies to us currently.”

Last year saw a continuation of beer industry trends: Although the overall beer market was flat, craft beer sales rose 6.2 percent. Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have responded by creating craftlike beers and purchasing existing craft breweries. This has put beer on the shelves that appears to be craft-made but doesn’t meet the criteria.

In response to the new seal, A-B InBev posted a video that featured owners from breweries that it has acquired in its High End division. The video is reminiscent of its Super Bowl 2015 ad about craft brews, with a little eye-rolling thrown in for good measure. MillerCoors provided a more reasoned response on its official blog, and both reactions offer insight into the discussion.

What do they argue?

Point: Many beer drinkers declare allegiance only to taste and quality. In the High End video, Garrett Wales of 10 Barrels Brewing says, “The beer does the talking, not the label.” And MillerCoors says, “[A] Nielsen survey shows ‘unique flavor’ and ‘high quality’ are more important [to consumers] than ownership or mass production.”

Counterpoint: This position assumes an either-or choice. With more than 5,000 independent craft breweries, the consumer can have both.

Point: “To be independent would mean you don’t put the logo on, because you’re indie,” says David Buhler of Elysian Brewing Co., another High End brand.

Counterpoint: Buhler equivocates on the word “independent.” The trade association isn’t requiring the seal be used, and it allows nonmembers to use it. Nor does belonging to a trade association negate one’s independence.

Point: “The BA continues to refuse to let the consumer make up their own mind,” Wales says.

Counterpoint: As the two multinational corporations attempt to expand control of the beer marketplace, and as the consumer movement supporting small and local businesses grows, the seal provides a visible distinction and allows a consumer to make a more informed choice.

Point: In announcing the seal, the Brewers Association said that craft brewers put “community above corporation, people ahead of profit and beer before the bottom line.” MillerCoors responded, “Big brewers make a big economic impact as well.”

Counterpoint: In communities that have production facilities, including the MillerCoors brewery in Elkton, this is true. Although Devils Backbone is now owned by A-B InBev, its two Virginia locations still employ scores of people and support nonprofits. But those facilities are few, compared to America’s 5,000-plus craft breweries.

Point: Walt Dickinson of Wicked Weed Brewing, recently acquired by High End, claims there’s another enemy. “We are fighting this bigger battle, which is wine and spirits,” he says. “We need to band together and grow this market as a whole.” 

Counterpoint: The implication that Belgian-based AB-InBev is on the side of other, smaller breweries is refuted by its actions, which instead have undermined craft beer.

There are several examples. The U.S. Department of Justice investigated the company during its proposed merger with SABMiller. Small breweries asserted that it acquired distributors and then dropped non-AB brands. The company reached a settlement with the government, and now it’s unable to buy a distributing company if it means that it would control the distribution of more than 10 percent of the beer in the country. It also can’t reward or incentivize a distributor to sell more AB InBev products than competing beers.

The company has also engaged in illegal pay-to-play tactics, the California Department of Alcohol Control determined. And it’s used well-funded lobbyists to assure federal and state laws that benefit big beer over smaller breweries. In North Carolina, provisions were stripped from a law that would have most benefited small breweries, despite support from a coalition of North Carolina breweries’ Craft Freedom initiative.

In summation: Should you care? Some beer lovers aren’t concerned about who owns the brewery that makes their beer — they don’t need to look for the labels. But Greg Koch, Stone Brewing co-founder, speaks to those who do. “It can be a confusing world out there with a great deal of obfuscation and ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ tactics of big beer,” he says. “Now beer fans won’t have to keep a long scorecard or do an Internet search when they want to make a thoughtful decision at their favorite beer store.”

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