Leaders with the Brewers Association (BA) opened Tuesday’s opening session of the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver by soliciting donations for its new political action committee (PAC). Their goal? To make permanent the excise tax cuts in the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act (CBMTRA), which are slated to expire at the end of the year.
BA executive committee vice chair and Maine Beer Company co-founder Dan Kleban told thousands of brewers in attendance that the organization can no longer rely on staff members or brewers volunteering their time to score legislative victories.
“We’re going to have to evolve,” he said.
Kleban urged brewers to “open up your wallets, be generous.”
“As a brewery owner, I look at contribution to the BA political action committee as an investment in my brewery and an investment in my employees,” he added.
In his opening remarks, BA president and CEO Bob Pease said the organization’s efforts to make CBMTRA tax cuts permanent are a “top priority.” If successful, he said small and independent craft breweries will save a combined $80 million annually.
“Your membership has never been more important,” he said.
Left Hand Brewing Company co-founder and BA executive committee chairman Eric Wallace encouraged brewers to call their legislators and join a May “hill climb” to lobby lawmakers in Washington, D.C.
In their speeches this year, both Pease and Wallace struck different tones when discussing larger competitors such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. After calling acquired craft brands “weapons in the arsenal of the big breweries” last year, Wallace called on the more than 7,300 craft brewers — who he again referred to as “anarchist cats” — to remain united despite an increasingly competitive marketplace.
“When we work together and stay united, we can have a large impact and our collective power is significant,” he said. “There’s no upside for us to act like the largest multinational brewers and take broadside shots at our competitors using misleading and even hypocritical statements. Let’s continue to be better than that and maintain the beautiful collegiality that I’ve experienced in my 25 years as a brewer.”
Nevertheless, Pease took a somewhat sarcastic approach to break the ice, pointing out the ongoing corn syrup debate between Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors by calling it “a very high-level dialogue.”
“If big beer wants to go at it tooth and nail over such matters, that’s their prerogative,” he said. “But that is not our fight. We will not join in, we will not gloat. We remain committed to growing the overall category of beer just like we have been for the last 30 years.”
According to Pease, the craft brewing community is the strongest it’s ever been. He pointed to the number of craft breweries growing from 1,566 in 2000 to 7,346 in 2018.
“That’s not just growth, that’s explosive growth,” he said.
Last year, those companies produced 26 million barrels of beer, grew volume by 4 percent and increased overall market share to 13.2 percent, Pease added. He noted that slower growth is the “new normal.”
“It may not be possible to replicate the overall growth of the last 19 years,” he said. “Many may find it increasingly difficult to crack through in this hyper competitive environment, but those of you who are in it for the craft beer revolution for the long haul, there is a silver lining — the state of craft brewing is very strong and there is so much more we can and will do.”
Of course, Pease and Wallace again implored brewers to adopt the BA’s “independence seal” on their packaging. Wallace said adopting the seal shows brewers are “a part of our multifaceted tribe.”
Wallace also briefly touched on reaching a more diverse set of consumers, telling brewers that they should be “a force for diversity and inclusivity in society.”
“Beer should be a great uniter and all colors, creeds, genders and political leanings are welcome,” he said. “Beer brings people together, and we could use as much of that as we can get right now.”
Other notes from the opening session:
New Belgium co-founder Kim Jordan was presented with the Brewers Association’s Recognition Award, which is given to an individual or company “whose inspiration, enthusiasm and support have contributed to the craft brewing movement.”
During the keynote address, Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson compared craft brewers’ ability to create “fans” through their beer and pubs to his heavy metal band drawing 30,000 fans to concerts in muddy fields. Craft brewers, he argued, should aim to create fans — not customers — because fans are bonded to those brands. Those relationships are what the big brewers are seeking when acquiring craft beer companies, he added.
“What they’re jealous of is the fact that everybody here are fans,” he said. “And the people who drink your beer and are loyal to you are fans. They’re not customers. They have a relationship. They like the fact that you’re small and independent and that you care.”
Asked what he thinks of big brewers buying smaller breweries, Dickinson replied, “it’s what big corporations do. That’s the reality of the world.”