By Mark R. Meckler, Ph.D. & Sam Holloway, Ph.D.
Outrage, confusion, hurtfulness, desperation … these emotions flooded online forums as small breweries all across the USA tried to comprehend why the BA would alter the definition of “craft” to include seltzers and (seemingly) whatever Boston Beer Company needed. We admit we were hurt, too. It was like when your parents tell the teenage version of yourself that you need to grow up and take care of yourself more, they want time for “other things,” so make your own breakfast and lunch and by the way, there won’t be anyone waiting for you when you come home from school anymore.
With a week to cool off and try to reconcile how our former beacon of hope, the Brewers Association, could seemingly turn on us in favor of only the largest craft breweries we came to a sobering realization: The Brewers Association is doing the right thing. They’ve grown up, the industry has grown up, and the problems the BA needs to concentrate on are more grown up. We certainly think they made a mistake on how they communicated this change, but we all need to get used to a new reality. The BA is no longer centrally focused on the needs of the smallest breweries – and that is exactly what they should be doing. Read below to learn our argument in favor of these changes and a new future for our industry leaders and ourselves. Note: We have not spoken to anyone at the BA, just consoled ourselves over some strong winter ales and management theory.
The Proposal to Alter the Definition of “Craft”
Recently, the Brewers Association board of directors proposed to alter the definition of a craft brewery to make it more inclusive. The current definition of “craft” includes three pillars: Craft breweries must be small (less than 6 million barrels), independent (not owned more than 25 percent by a non-craft brewery), and traditional (a majority of its total volume must be derived from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients). As reported by Chris Furnari and Justin Kendall (Brewbound), the “traditional” pillar in the current definition of craft may be changed: “It’s the last pillar, traditional, that is under review, in part because an increasing number of craft brewers are already experimenting with non-traditional beer offerings such as flavored malt beverages and hard seltzers. A growing number of BA members have also expressed interest in creating beverages infused with THC and CBD…”
The motive behind this change to the ‘traditional’ pillar is being vociferously questioned by smaller traditional breweries, who mostly think it is just a way to keep Boston Beer Company defined as a craft brewery. Beervana creator, Jeff Alworth, presents a compelling argument that supports this viewpoint.
We agree that the BA has screwed up in its communication and messaging on this. At the same time it is possible that the BA still holds strong to its core values to support all craft, not just large craft. Sometimes leaders need to solve new problems to sustain the same mission.
We’d like to first comment on the broad feeling of betrayal that small craft brewers are feeling. A core belief of craft brewers is that “local” and “small” is the core, the heart and the soul of craft. We agree completely. However, this also can lead to irrational thinking that that “non-local” and “large” mean not-craft. We disagree with that conclusion. Two things may be true at the same time: a) the core of craft breweries are small, independent and local, and b) a craft brewery can get very large and still craft their beer beautifully with similar values and passion as any other craft brewery.
So is there no betrayal, nothing to be upset about? Yes, there is at least a bit of betrayal here by the Brewers Association. They have decided to focus their attention on big issues, big goals and formidable tasks, seemingly at the expense of focusing attention on their traditional core members. Also, they have disrespected traditional core members by communicating poorly and disregarding the importance of how small traditional brewers might feel. This is where a lot of the hurtful emotions come from.
If you are feeling bad or completely betrayed by this re-definition of craft, try looking at it this way. The BA finds itself in a position to exert power and influence in the name of craft brewers, and push back on the practices of the multinationals / marketing giants. It had its first major success at the national level by influencing excise taxes. By expanding to keep large craft brewers on our team, we keep and grow that power. In this sense, the BA is positioning itself to get positive work done that none of the rest of us can do. We say go for it BA, get big, powerful, get bad-ass and go kick some corporate butt for us. That is work state-level guilds and we small breweries cannot do.
But what about us? It feels awful when an organization or a club that was “ours” changes and seems to leave “the little guy” behind. Is this abandonment? I hope not, and the Brewers Association needs to step up and let its members know. Small brewers need a lot of help and a lot of support. Small brewers are the soul of the craft movement. The Brewer’s Association has to learn how to grow without abandoning their base, traditional microbreweries, brewpubs, and tasting rooms.
Let’s craft a counterargument with a little thought experiment. What happens if a small, 500-barrel brewpub gets really popular and starts selling 51 percent burgers and fries and 49% beer? Are they off the list too? Is Dogfish Head less craft or less important to our industry simply because they took money from private equity to grow? What about CANarchy, Enjoy Beer, or Artisanal Brewing Ventures who make sound business decisions to expand their ability to make well-crafted beer: are they no longer one of us? We didn’t think so either – we should and do celebrate our friends who’ve decided to get big in the right ways.
Craft Brewing has grown exponentially. Formerly small breweries have turned into regional and national breweries. This has not stopped local micro, nano and pub breweries from entering the market and succeeding. The “rising tide floats all boats” theory offers logic to the argument that the growth has helped everyone.
Advice for the Brewers Association
- Know what you are know why you are. Know what you are not and why you are not. When you have decided this, please broadcast it loud and clear, and stick with it. This is what binds leaders and followers, organizations and communities. Let everyone know, so that we can affirm or deny that at the core we (mostly) share common beliefs, expectations, assumptions and values.
- Give us ability to make sense of things in a similar way through that common lens. The BA may have reasons for this decision that would resonate with many members large and small. The BA’s failure to explain and make senses of this redefinition for its members is a major failure. This can be corrected. The BA should immediately engage membership at all 3 Levels of Leadership. Explain how this proposed change is a pursuit of an opportunity rather than just problem solving for Boston Beer Company. Explain why this is right and good for the enterprise and for all members.
- Be especially clear with membership by affirming values, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations. Perhaps some of these are re-affirmations, and perhaps the BA is affirming some new values, beliefs and expectations. Just clearly declare where you stand on principles, and move away from awkward definitions. This will allow each member the ability to listen, reflect and decide if they still want to follow and support the BA or not.
A lesson for all of us. All change is loss and loss must be mourned. Then we move forward, together, onward, and upward. The Brewers Association has grown a lot. Much of the effort and attention now goes to breweries that are larger and more powerful than the vast majority of breweries. But you have not been abandoned! Now is the time to look to other organizations for the specialized support that the BA can no longer provide. Join Crafting A Strategy. We are here to help all breweries.