The Brewers Association Gets Serious

Yesterday, the Brewers Association announced a logo--or "seal" in their jargon--certifying a brewery's independence. It was met with, at best, a tepid response, and the peanut gallery noted the various ways in which the organization's murky objectives hamstring it or make this at best a punt. My first reaction--and one others noted--was the unfortunate logo itself, a too-clever-by-half upside-down bottle:

What does the seal look like? Featuring an iconic beer bottle shape flipped upside down, the seal captures the spirit of how craft brewers have upended the beer industry, while informing beer lovers they are choosing a beer from a brewery that is independently owned.

(From a symbolic perspective, upside-down images tend to signal something in opposition, a protest or sign of distress, or something neutered or drained of vitality--not the message the BA wants to communicate. The unhyphenated, broken-up word "independent," which had to be fractured into uneven fragments, is also a design debacle.)

But leave aside the sniping, the second-guessing, and the bad logo: this demonstrates the Brewers Association has narrowed its focus to what is truly important to members and is preparing to move to the offense.

This is a smart initiative.

Three years ago, the BA recognized that its basic mission was flawed. The organization was created as a bulwark against the actions of very large, wealthy, and politically-connected beer companies like Anheuser-Busch. So membership was limited to "small" and "independent" breweries (which in the manner of bylaws have specific definitions). But they couldn't resist throwing in a quality element, too, trying to argue that their breweries made somehow categorically superior beer. That self-congratulatory element created not only an internal conflict (many small breweries make bad beer; some large breweries make exceptional beer), but it created a lack of focus. The quality piece was marketing gloss, and in focusing on it, the BA lost the main plot: that by working together breweries could create an environment in the marketplace where small players could compete.

When they redefined their membership criteria in 2014, the Brewers Association effectively dumped that last piece. It still exists, but as a vestigial, meaningless word salad. ("A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation." Traditional or innovative? This means nothing.) They did define the category of company in this bullet-point by adding "flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers"--a useful distinction about what constitutes a brewery. Taken together, the new definition of membership is "relatively small, independent companies whose central product is beer." It's clear and meaningful.

Now, in introducing the independence seal, the Brewers Association is refining and sharpening its message. "Craft" has become a meaningless term, as all subjective, qualitative terms and definitions inevitably end up. (No brewery exists to make bad beer; they all think they're good.) It's no wonder the big breweries co-opted "craft beer" and left the Brewers Association trying to defend a concept as insubstantial as rising steam. And in doing so, big breweries also subtly undermined the BA's actual reason for existence--defending small breweries. In introducing the "independence" seal, they put the debate back on their own terms.

The only breweries that will be able to get this seal are the ones meeting the BA's definition for independence (which is actually 75% independent). AB InBev has done a great job of creating the impression of independence by purchasing regional craft breweries and concealing who owns them. Those breweries are local--you go to Chicago or Bend or Asheville and you find brewhouses behind the names Goose Island, 10 Barrel, and Wicked Weed. But they are are all owned by one of the most powerful companies in the world, and one that owns a third of the entire global market. They will not qualify for the independence seal, no matter how much they effuse about their "craft" and "innovation."

I have no idea if this will work in the long run, but it is a concrete step in redefining the terms of war. Gone are the diaphanous PR gestures toward quality. Instead, the BA is betting that customers can be made to understand what independence is and why it's valuable. The success of this endeavor probably depends on widespread adoption by independent brewers, and if I were one I would start using it immediately. I'm an old labor guy and I understand the value of collective bargaining--or in this case--organizing. If 5,200 breweries start using the seal and 100 can't, that could well change a consumer's buying decisions.

I don't love the upside-down bottle, but the seal is a great idea.