Do you care who makes your “craft” beer? A seal certifying a brewery’s independent craft status — like the certified organic seal on produce — has been quietly appearing on beer cans and bottles for the past year. The Independent Craft seal was introduced in 2017 by the Brewers Association, a trade group representing small brewers. The seal features an eye-catching upside-down beer bottle, meant to signify the way that craft brewers have turned the beer industry on its head. The bottle is emblazoned with bold letters declaring the words “Independent Craft.”
This seal is a certified mark that brewers can license from the Brewers Association for use on packaging and marketing materials. It’s available to any operating brewery that meets the Brewers Association’s definition of “craft.”
The seal was prompted by corporate breweries buying smaller craft breweries. In 2011 Belgian brewing conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev bought Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery, setting off a wave of small brewery buyouts. AB InBev has since purchased 10 more small breweries, said Julia Herz, craft-beer program director at the Brewers Association.
Molson Coors has acquired multiple breweries. Ballast Point Brewing Co. — a once independent brewery that sold to a larger entity — has done likewise. And Heineken is now positioned to buy independent brands including craft beer pioneer Lagunitas Brewing Co.
“The kicker is that all four of those big brewery conglomerates that have acquired independent breweries never put their parent company on the label,” Herz said. “They have never said ‘Brewed by Anheuser-Busch InBev’ or ‘Parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev.’ ”
This lack of transparency leaves consumers who care about craft beer unable to discern the true source of what they are drinking. It makes it difficult for the owners of independent breweries to differentiate themselves from those owned by large brewing conglomerates. Hence the seal.
The Brewers Association has long been the industry arbiter for what makes a brewery “craft.” Its definition, originally created in 2006, aims specifically at differentiating craft brewers from the large corporate brewers. It incorporates three pillars: small, independent and traditional.
The definition has been a source of some controversy almost from its inception and has been amended over the years in response to changing realities in the beer industry.
The Brewers Association now defines “small brewer” as one that produces 6 million barrels of beer or less annually; a barrel of beer equals 31 gallons. This number was revised upward from 2 million barrels in 2010 as Boston Brewing Co. — makers of Sam Adams — approached that limit. The loss of Sam Adams, at the time the largest craft-beer brewer by far, would have meant a significant loss of market share for the craft segment.
For many, it is a stretch to call a brewery producing 6 million barrels small. While the number is dwarfed by the more than 60 million barrels of beer made by the mega-breweries every year, it is far beyond the norm for the craft segment, which is around 1,500 barrels annually. Even D.G. Yuengling & Son — the nation’s largest craft brew, according to the Brewers Association, at 2.8 million barrels of annual production — doesn’t approach it.
To quell this complaint, the Brewers Association in 2014 added a parenthetical phrase stating that 6 million barrels is equivalent to about 3 percent of total U.S. annual beer sales. Viewed in the context of the total market, 6 million barrels doesn’t seem so large.
As of 2014, a traditional brewer is one “that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavors derive from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation,” according to the website of the Brewers Association. In layman’s terms, this means that most of a brewery’s production consists of beers produced with malt, hops, yeast and water. It also allows for the use of alternative grains and other ingredients that produce flavor.
Before 2014, the definition excluded breweries whose flagship beers were brewed using corn or rice, a move aimed at the megabreweries whose flagships include large quantities of those grains. The change was made in response to public uproar when it was realized that this limitation also excluded small and very traditional brewers such as August Schell Brewing Co. in New Ulm, Minn., where Deer Brand and Grain Belt are brewed with corn, as they have been for more than 150 years.
The third pillar of the craft beer definition is “independent.” The Brewers Association defines independent as less than 25 percent ownership or control by a beverage alcohol industry member which is not itself a craft brewer.
In 2012 the Brewers Association unleashed a firestorm when it issued a statement identifying breweries that it called “crafty” — non-craft breweries masquerading as craft, the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. Aimed at brands owned by conglomerates but not marketed as such, the statement drew criticism when it also named small, independent breweries such as Schell’s and Yuengling because of their use of rice and corn.
The public backlash prompted the definition changes of 2014. It also brought about a shift in how the Brewers Association framed its advocacy of craft beer to emphasize ownership and independence.
The response by brewers
To date, 3,677 of the nation’s more than 6,500 breweries have adopted the Independent Craft seal, according to the Brewers Association website. That number represents about 80 percent of the total volume of craft beer produced annually, the association’s Herz said. The hashtag #seektheseal on social media has more than 3,000 mentions. To Herz, that suggests that brewers see a need.
“When we have a new certified mark, and on the very first day — on June 27, 2017 — 432 breweries signed up to get this certified mark, you know that something is going on that many brewers are going to want to use,” she said.
Although Schell’s Brewing has not yet added the seal to its labels, brewmaster Jace Marti concurs that there is a need for it. “In the era of consolidation, acquisition and deceptive labeling,” he said, “I do think the seal is an important moniker to help consumers make informed decisions about the beers they buy and the breweries they support.”
The idea of informed consumer choice is important to local brewers who have adopted the seal.
“It’s just so you can make a choice,” said Surly Brewing founder Omar Ansari. “It’s not saying, ‘Here’s what you’re supposed to do.’ My message is not ‘Don’t have a Miller; that’s bad.’ I had one this week. I just want you to know. You get to make the choice. You get to decide what you want to do.”
For consumers who want to support independent breweries, the seal offers an easy way to identify them.
Ilan Klages-Mundt, the co-founder and head brewer of Insight Brewing in Minneapolis, cites local economic impact as a reason to guide consumers toward small, independent breweries.
“When you have a brewery that’s not independently owned, the money gets funneled in different directions,” he said. “If you look at the biggest brewery in the world, it’s a Belgian-owned brewery now. So that brewery — which is very successful — is making profits, but those get moved away.” Supporting independent breweries helps keep those profits in the local community.
Herz put numbers to that claim. “Breweries across the U.S. are enhancing their backyard communities and advancing the culture in each state that they exist in,” she said. Small breweries made more than $73 million in charitable contributions in 2017. Small breweries contribute 135,000 full-time and part-time jobs.
Which matters most?
But not everyone in the industry is on board with the seal. When it was first announced in 2017, many criticized its design.
Well-known beer writer Stephen Beaumont wrote in a post on Facebook, “Why is the bottle upside-down? Is it empty? Is it being tipped so that all its yeast and other residue can be mixed with the beer inside for the cloudy, turbid appeal? Is this some new way to store beer that has thus far escaped my notice?”
Others complained that the seal was hard to read — that splitting the word “independent” into three lines undercuts its primary purpose.
There are a number of reasons that brewers might opt out of using the seal, including the high cost of designing new packaging. There is concern that its absence will lead consumers to make incorrect assumption of their ownership status.
“You have to have 100 percent of independent craft brewers using it,” said Dave Anderson of Dave’s BrewFarm in Wilson, Wis. “Otherwise it creates the potential for somebody not realizing that they are independent, but they just don’t have the logo.”
Others worry that consumers will interpret the seal as a guarantee of quality, i.e. if it has the seal, it must be good.
Referencing a growing issue of package failure caused by brewing process flaws among craft brewers, Kristen England, the head brewer at Bent Brewstillery in Roseville, said, “I do find it amusing people would not buy a beer without this logo on it, but not blink an eye at buying an exploding can of fruit ‘beer’ with it.” (Cans can explode from continued fermentation after packaging.)
Others see the logo as a solution in search of a problem, that consumers care more about what is in the bottle than who made it.
My own informal social media poll of 40-plus dedicated beer drinkers — the very audience the Brewers Association is targeting — indicates that this skepticism may be right. Of those surveyed, 70 percent were aware of the seal and 65 percent had noticed it on brewery packaging.
However, only 14 percent indicated that the presence of the seal influenced their buying decisions. More than half (55 percent) said that if the beer is good, they would buy it regardless of who makes it.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.