The Brewers Association Evolves

Taking the Next Logical Step

As bruited in press reports a few months ago, the Brewers Association (BA) has changed its definition of craft beer again, reports Beverage Daily.

Essentially the requirement to have a majority of production in beer made from traditional or innovative ingredients is discarded, such that anyone with a federal license who makes beer as such qualifies, provided beer production does not exceed 6,000,000 bbl and a non-craft brewer, basically a large industrial brewer, does not own more than 25% of a craft brewer.

This means a brewer can make more cider than beer, or other non-beer alcohol beverages (e.g., malternatives so-called) and still qualify for membership in the BA.

This is an entirely logical change. Cider, or sake, or a coffee-alcohol infusion, should not disqualify from membership when many craft brewers now make one of these drinks or have an interest to do so.

A deep interest in beer characteristics and history, honed over the last 40 years under influence of craft brewing, has shown to many connections with other alcohol beverages, either due to sharing the fermentation step or a similarity in alcohol levels or the occasions when these drinks are consumed.

Not least too, large brewers now make craft beer in the sense traditionally understood: full flavour, often all-malt and well-hopped, unpasteurised. This is due again to the successes of the beer revival  assiduously promoted by small brewers and beer writers for those 40 years.

Hence, small brewers no longer have a monopoly on quality beer. A brewer of any size can make quality beer, as of course existed in some cases (if not the norm in the U.S.) before craft beer started.

That being so, craft beer definitions based on product formulation, or percentage of company sales represented by beer, just don’t make sense.

Today, the real and only dividing line between brewers is scale of production: small vs. large, national vs. regional or local, with of course some shading of those categories by larger independents.

Whether Boston Beer Company prompted the change, as some have speculated, is irrelevent if the change makes sense on its own terms. (Not that excluding BBC, aka Sam Adams, would make any sense given its historic importance to craft brewing and the large amount of beer it still brews).

Really, the industry lobbying situation is now where it was before craft beer started. There were two national lobbies. One that still exists which represented the large national breweries, and a second representing smaller regional or local brewers.

Specifically, you had what is now the Beer Institute, incorporated in 1862 as the United States Brewers’ Association, Inc., which represented and still does the largest brewers, the makers of Bud, Miller, Coors, and so on.

And there was also the Brewers Association of America, which grouped the smaller, regional breweries.

That structure recognized the economic reality that size often dictates very different interests. There will always be some overlap, but size and scale have always, in most industries, been key determinants for producers’ interests.

A small brewer, to take an obvious example, is interested to preserve and enhance favourable excise treatment. It will be more interested in keeping up on latest industry technology, and training. An industry association can help with that. The mega-brewers can handle the regulatory and technology issues themselves.

When craft beer emerged, a third group, the Association of Brewers, was formed to advance its interests. At the time this made sense as there was a clear demarcation between the beer made by its members and beer from the other two groups.

It was not just a scale difference, it was a total difference of brewing philosophy, one that has now disappeared due to the successes of the craft beer movement.

The timeline on the BA website states in part:

1983 – The Association of Brewers is organized to include the American Homebrewers Association and the Institute for Brewing and Fermentation Studies to assist the emerging microbrewery movement in US.

2005 – The Association of Brewers and the Brewers’ Association of America merge to form the Brewers Association.

So, by 2005 the Brewers Association of America, due to changes in national beer preferences inaugurated in good part by the Association of Brewers (Charlie Papazian, etc.), saw its separate existence had no further utility.

Today, with the most recent changes to the craft beer definition, the national lobbies have re-assumed their pre-1980s structure. There are two main groups, the BA and the Beer Institute, with the main differentiation being scale of production. It is the one one and only factor that remains to distinguish validly the interests of the members.

While the 6,000,000 bbl threshold is somewhat arbitrary, still the reality is that the average member of BA has interests that diverge considerably from the average member of Beer Institute. As the BA’s site spells out, in practice the characteristics of beer made by BA members will often be distinctive, but the line is not as clear-cut in the past – not when national brewers own a passel of craft brewers or make in-house beers functionally similar to craft beer.

Hence, how much cider a BA member makes, or sake, or malternatives, is simply not relevant to why the BA exists to represent its members interests.

Finally of course, any trade group is just that. There will always be people who contribute to their industry who don’t want to join. There can be many reasons for this. Not all smaller brewers in Ontario belong to the Ontario Craft Brewers Association.

The BA surely attempts to please a majority of its members, it is just common sense. But if any choose to leave the group because it appears Sam Adams is getting an undue break, that is their right. I suspect there will be very few.

Craft beer from inception was about doing something different, evolving, taking chances. Its industry bodies must follow in synch but must recognize finally too the successes wrought by the industry it seeks to guide.