It’s been less than two months since the Brewers Association (BA) – a not for profit trade organization representing the interests of small and independent U.S. craft beer companies – unveiled the “independent craft brewer seal,” a special badge aimed at helping member breweries distinguish their beers from those owned by multinational corporations.
As of press time, 1,790 breweries had embraced the seal, agreeing to display it across packaging and marketing materials, on websites, and in taproom windows, among other places.
Joining that growing list today was Austin, Texas-based Jester King Brewery, which over the years has developed a reputation as an outspoken critic of the political stances and economic practices of large beer companies, such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, while simultaneously championing small craft ventures.
“We believe that independence matters, perhaps now more than ever, and that beer drinkers should have as much information as possible when making buying decisions,” brewery founder Jeffrey Stuffings wrote in a blog post announcing his decision to adopt the BA’s indie badge.
“We see the BA seal as one of several ways small brewers can fight back against big beer’s effort to obfuscate the beer market, and we’re glad to support the initiative,” he added, noting that beer aisles are filled with “a dazzling display of colors” and an “illusion of choice.”
“A startling number of the options send your dollars funneling back to the same three or four giant beer conglomerates,” he wrote in explaining why the company had adopted the seal.
Nevertheless, Stuffings also used the blog post as an opportunity to critique the BA’s craft brewer definition — most notably its interpretation of what it means to be independent — and the organization’s design decisions.
“If we were setting the criteria to use the seal, we’d make 100 percent independence a requirement,” Stuffings wrote, noting that a craft brewery could sell a 24.99 percent stake to a multinational conglomerate and still be allowed to use the seal as an “independent” brewery.
He also called out private equity investments as troublesome, saying beer companies that were majority owned by a PE firm should disqualify a brewery from being considered “independent.”
“We have no insider knowledge, and are far from well-versed in the field of venture capital, but it’s our understanding that it’s only a matter of time until VC firms flip their brewery holdings for a profit,” he wrote. “What bothers us is a VC firm using independent cred to build up value in a brewery before selling it to a multinational.”
Beyond Stuffings’ concerns about the true meaning of “independent,” he also expressed discontent with the way the seal was designed – something that other industry stakeholders have criticized since the image was unveiled in June.
“To be perfectly transparent, we have some aesthetic concerns about using the seal,” Stuffings wrote, saying that he wouldn’t tarnish his brewery’s designs, created by artist Joshua Cockrell, by pinning an upside down beer bottle on its labels.
The company will instead look to incorporate the seal on “case cartons, bottle carriers and tasting room décor,” he said.
In a message posted to the social media platform Twitter, the BA praised the Texas brewery’s decision, saying that it was “excited to see @jesterkingbeer adopt the independent craft brewer seal!”
The organization didn’t publicly address Stuffings’ criticism of the group’s definition of independence, or his comments on the design elements of the seal, however.
Instead, the BA’s market development committee penned an article advocating for retailer and wholesaler adoption of the seal, once again pointing to the results of a 2,000-person survey co-developed by Brewbound and conducted by Nielsen that showed that 81 percent of craft beer consumers were familiar with the terms “independent” and “independently owned.”
In the post, members of the committee – which includes five BA employees and individuals from Great Lakes Brewing, Karl Strauss Brewing, Sebago Brewing Company, among other beer companies – argue that the seal provides an “important opportunity to differentiate – and hence premiumize – the products they are selling.”
“Independent brewers have averaged a case price $1.37 higher than the larger craft category,” the committee members said in the post.
The committee also argued that providing consumers with more information increases purchase frequency.
“A 2017 experiment published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics found that offering consumers at a bar more information about their choices increased purchases, even as the choices increased,” the committee wrote.
“As choices continue to proliferate, retailers who provide information and curate their selections for their customers will hold an advantage in the marketplace over those who don’t,” they wrote.
And perhaps they’re onto something. In an attempt to cut down arguments for a seal that differentiates indie brewers from their corporately held counterparts, various members of The High End — A-B InBev’s craft and specialty division — created a video and shared opposing views of the effort just three days after the badge was introduced.
“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,” said Andy Ingram, the founder of Four Peaks Brewing, which sold to A-B in 2015. “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.”
In the video, Ingram, along with Felipe Szpigel, the president of the High End, and founders of Elysian Brewing, Wicked Weed, 10 Barrel Brewing and Devils Backbone (all now owned by A-B InBev) took turns defending their companies’ products.
“The problem is that the BA continues to refuse to let the consumer make up their own mind and try to make it up for them,” said Garrett Wales, the co-founder of 10 Barrel Brewing. “They have a little bottle that someone told me that’s what I have to buy because there is a bottle on the six packs – but that doesn’t mean shit to me.”
But for Stuffings, craft brands owned by A-B InBev or other large brewing conglomerates are not authentic and, ultimately, he believes consumers have a right to know who is behind them — even if an aesthetically unpleasant upside-down bottle is the only way.
“If there’s one thing we can’t stand, it’s inauthenticity,” he wrote. “And sadly, that’s what big beer is doing by gobbling up small breweries at an alarming rate and displaying them side by side at bars and on retail shelves. It’s this inauthenticity and illusion of locality and independence that bothers us, and we’re onboard with a coordinated effort to push back against what we see as an unethical business practice.”