The beer industry is in an age of acquisitions marked by multinational brewing companies’s purchases of previously independently owned breweries. There are no prohibitions on which breweries can use words like “craft” on their labels, packaging and marketing materials, which some say obscures brewery ownership. It’s one of the most fiercely debated topics in beer today, and the Brewers Association (a trade group representing small, independent breweries) has for years sought ways to distinguish its members from the breweries owned by larger corporations.
That definition requires the brewery be small (annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less), independent (less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer) and traditional (a brewery that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation, which essentially excludes flavored malt beverages). The seal is available to all breweries that meet the BA’s definition, not just those who are members of the association, provided they have a valid brewing certificate and sign a licensing agreement.
“We are trying to differentiate and not denigrate. All beer is good, but if we want to preserve choice, we think preserving small and independent breweries’ ability to get on the shelf is super important,” says Bob Pease, CEO of the Brewers Association. “More and more right now, I think you see what we call ‘supplier push’ determining what gets on the shelf or tap. We think the seal is a tool to preserve what we call ‘consumer pull.’ Let’s let the beer drinker decide and let the chips fall where they may.”
Pease says the seal is just one component of a multiyear effort by the BA to differentiate independent breweries from those owned by larger corporations. Pease acknowledges that the seal will take time to make its way onto packaging and to resonate with consumers.
“We’ve done some polling of brewers that said ‘If you used this, how long would it take to get it on your packaging?’ Responses varied from two weeks to nine months,” Pease says. “We don’t want breweries to incur any additional cost or throw away existing packaging. Our hope is that as brewers reorder supplies, they consider implementing the seal into their next run of packaging. We’ve had 200 breweries download the [seal’s] art file in the first hour. We’re pretty encouraged by that.”
The seal depicts an upside-down bottle with the words “Brewers Association certified independent craft” on it; the BA says the upside-down bottle represents “the spirit of how craft brewers have upended the beer industry.” It was designed by Boulder, Colorado-based Sterling-Rice Group.
Design is subjective, and the new seal did have its critics. Among them is Phineas Jones, a Chicago-based graphic designer who has illustrated labels for independent breweries. He gave DRAFT permission to quote his tweet, though he says it reflects only his opinion, not that of the breweries with which we works:
But aesthetics aside, for the seal to be effective, consumers have to understand its meaning and, most importantly, care enough about brewery ownership for it to impact their purchasing decisions. An argument could be made that beer fans who really care about independent ownership already do their own research into who owns a brewery, making the seal redundant. Pease says that’s not the group this educational campaign hopes to reach. He acknowledges a group of “hardcore” craft fans who do their homework and who only buy beer from independent breweries. On the other end of the spectrum are consumers who don’t care about ownership as long as they like the beer they’re drinking.
“But in the middle, which I think this battle will be won or lost, is a group of beer drinkers we call ‘adopters,’ who have shown through research and testing and focus groups some willingness to alter their purchasing behavior if they knew what brewery was small and independent,” Pease says. “That’s what we’re hoping to do, to provide the beer drinker with an easy identifiable symbol so when she or he makes their purchase, they think about ‘Hey, maybe I should support that independent business in my brewery or state.’”