Oregon Brewers Guild co-executive director Tony Roberts will step down from the position at the end of the month, leaving Christina LaRue as the guild’s sole director.
“This wasn’t part of the plan, but the pandemic has caused disruption for all of our businesses, and the guild is no different,” guild president Dan Engler said in a release about the leadership change. “This highlights the unique needs of state guilds, and we hope the Senate will pass assistance for member organizations, help that was already approved by the U.S. House over two months ago.”
State guilds, trade groups that advocate on behalf of craft breweries to lawmakers and work to boost consumer bases, have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their revenues come from large scale, in-person events, which have been canceled, and member dues, the bulk of which come from craft breweries, who are also suffering financially.
Roberts, whose position will not be backfilled, is not the first guild employee whose job was cut since the pandemic began. Earlier this month, the Brewers of Indiana Guild furloughed all of its paid staff. The Colorado Brewers Guild laid off one of its two employees in April after it had to cancel two of its largest events, according to Denver alt-weekly WestWord.
The Brewers Association (BA), the national not-for-profit trade group that represents the country’s small and independent brewers, laid off almost 40% of its staff in two rounds of job cuts after the in-person versions of its four signature events were canceled. One affected employee was Acacia Coast, the BA’s state guild manager; her dismissal inspired 20 guild members to pen a letter to Bob Pease, CEO of the BA, calling it “a blow to all of us and the work we do on behalf of our breweries” and asking for her role to be reinstated. A few weeks later, the BA announced the hiring of Marc Sorini as general counsel. Sorini previously worked for more than two decades as McDermott, Will & Emery’s alcohol regulatory and distribution group. His focus with the BA will be on working with state guilds on regulatory changes.
Roberts and LaRue joined the OBG as co-directors in early 2019, splitting duties according to their individual areas of expertise. Roberts focused on government affairs, marketing and operations; LaRue focused on membership, education and events. The two weren’t planning to split up professionally, but with so much uncertainty, Roberts wanted to find a more stable position.
“I’m not even saying the writing is on the wall, the guild’s not imminently going to shut down, but our finances are really tricky,” he said.
At the end of the month, Roberts will depart the guild and take a marketing role at Portland, Oregon-based law firm Dunn Carney, an associate member of the guild. He said it was the only job he came across in his search that he “could be happy taking.”
“I have two kids, I have a mortgage, I’m more risk-averse than I was 10 years ago, when I would have been willing to just march forward regardless of what happens,” he said.
The loss of ticket sales and event sponsorships due to COVID-19 has been painful for the guild’s finances, but several acquisitions of guild members by large-scale beer manufacturers have added to the pain. The 2014 acquisition of Bend, Oregon-based 10 Barrel Brewing by Anheuser-Busch InBev, which produced 64,371 barrels that year, and the 2016 acquisition of Eugene, Oregon-based Hop Valley Brewing, which produced 48,500 barrels that year, made two larger breweries ineligible for membership. Guild bylaws define a member as a “brewing organization that brews common brands, names and formulas at a facility in Oregon, which it owns a majority interest;” members must produce fewer than 2 million barrels annually.
Portland-headquartered Craft Brew Alliance (CBA) — the rollup of Widmer Brothers, Redhook, Kona, Omission, Square Mile Cider, Cisco, Wynwood and Appalachian Mountain — can remain a member until its agreed upon merger with Anheuser-Busch InBev clears regulatory approval.
OBG has about 165 brewery members and about 70 associate members, which are defined as “tradesmen and suppliers doing business with the brewing industry or any individual, partnership or corporation in an allied industry.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the guild has hosted two virtual festivals: the Stay Home, Drink Beer Virtual Festival on May 2, and the Drink Beer, Be Kind Virtual Festival on June 27. In addition to tickets, OBG also sold merchandise and raffle tickets for prize packages. LaRue and Roberts followed in the footsteps of guilds in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Arizona, who had already planned virtual festivals.
Guilds and other trade associations such as the BA have been excluded from the Small Business Association’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which has been a vital lifeline for many craft breweries.
The Local Chamber, Tourism, and 501(c)(6) Protection Act (H.R. 6697) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on May 5 and would expand the PPP to 501(c)6 organizations such as guilds, tourism boards and chambers of commerce. But that measure has not been brought to a vote. The bill was introduced by Reps. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Greg Steube (R-Fla.) and Gil Cisneros (D-Calif.). It has bipartisan support, but its co-sponsors lean Democratic (83 Democrats, 39 Republicans).
“The most important thing you can do right now is lobby your senator to help get (c)6-es of all stripes access to the PPP,” Roberts said.