Voices for Change: Balancing the Needs of Diverse Members, Brewers Guilds Strive to be Inclusive and Effective

Feature by | Sep 2015 | Issue #104

Illustration by Abby Borden

Stephen Colbert (or maybe it was Kevin Spacey as President Frank Underwood) walked into a bar and ordered a pint of beer. “I’m sorry, we don’t serve pints here,” said the bartender. If you think that joke is bad, imagine how bad it used to be for TV personalities real or fictitious who walked into a South Carolina brewery thirsty for more than four ounces of beer at a time. Credit the South Carolina Brewers Guild (SCBG) for getting the legislation through the state government and eventually across the governor’s desk. Since its passage in 2013, the Pint Law allows brewers to sell customers up to 48 ounces (three full pours) of beer made in the Palmetto State.

“South Carolina is not exactly known for being a progressive state,” wrote SCBG executive director Brook Bristow in a recent issue of the New Brewer. “My grandfather Carter used to say, ‘We have two speeds here when it comes to change—slow and stop.’” But that hasn’t prevented Bristow, 35, from helping to change state laws for the better in the eyes of beer lovers. Besides the aforementioned four-ounce sample limit, South Carolina also used to restrict producers to 6.5 percent ABV, making it a less than optimal place to open a brewery. But with the trade group’s industriousness, it’s heading in the direction of the other Carolina, which attracted three of the largest craft breweries—Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues—to build second facilities within its borders. Granted, the SCBG’s work on legislation known as the Stone Bill didn’t end up making the state more enticing to Stone Brewing, but the breweries that already operate in South Carolina are better off for it.

“We need more people who specialize in the impossible,” says Bristow, referring to the obstacles facing enterprising brewers. “While all the changes we want to see are common sense to us, they might not be for all those who are not intimately familiar with this industry. Some legislators or friendly parties won’t necessarily understand the business models or the beer culture. It is important to educate them not only on what craft beer is and represents, but also what benefit it has to economies, communities, and the jobs our industry can create.”

It’s a message that Acacia Coast, the Brewers Association’s state brewers association coordinator, works hard to communicate: Every brewers guild must educate, protect and promote. It’s taken the craft brewing industry some 35 years to be able to produce 12 percent of the beer bought and enjoyed in America. No one accomplished that feat alone. There is strength in numbers.

Brewers Count
According to Coast, 74 percent of the 3,700 or so brewers in the US are members of the national Brewers Association. Additionally, all 50 states and the District of Columbia now have their own guilds. One of the newer members of the community is the North Dakota Brewers Guild (NDBG). Formed in 2013, it represents the eight breweries in the Flickertail State, making it the country’s smallest guild, in the state with the fewest breweries. But it’s already helped pass laws allowing breweries to self-distribute and to own multiple taprooms. And it even held its first annual NDBG Beer Festival in Minot, meeting two of every state guild’s principal objectives: fundraising and awareness. Todd Sattler, NDBG president and co-founder of Bismarck’s Laughing Sun Brewing is pleased with their progress. “The small size works well because it is relatively easy to get all of our members in the same room to discuss guild business and to obtain consensus on specific legislation and policy matters,” he says.

Formed in 1989, the California Craft Brewers Association (CCBA) is the oldest in the country. Today, California has 578 breweries in operation, of which over 375 are members. And that’s not counting the 240 in planning. It’s natural that the first state to support its own guild would be California. Brewing pioneers like Anchor’s Fritz Maytag and Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman have steered the organization in the past. And while Grossman remains on the Board of Directors, the CCBA isn’t just for the state’s largest beer companies. Brian Hunt, who runs a veritable one-man-band in Santa Rosa called Moonlight Brewing, is also a board member. “I think everyone who owns a brewery in California recognizes we are stronger together than alone,” says David Walker, current president and co-founder of Firestone-Walker Brewing.

The forces in opposition to craft brewers range from anti-competitive industrial brewers to neo-Prohibitionists like Alcohol Justice. Based in San Rafael, Ca., the group defines itself as an alcohol industry watchdog and seeks to raise excise taxes, a practice that would negatively affect brewers of all sizes. “Working with the CCBA only confirmed my admiration for California craft brewers as you are forced to engage in all brewers’ challenges, not just yours,” says Walker. “When an issue is raised at the state capitol that has an impact on beer culture and enterprise, the ‘powers that be’ know they need to check CCBA’s pulse on what their members think. There was a time when we were not part of this dialogue.”

To date, the CCBA has sponsored or facilitated more than 40 bills, including Assembly Bill 774, which allows craft brewers to offer tastings at local farmers markets. “If the CCBA did not exist,” says executive director Tom McCormick, “there would be strict franchise laws in the state, there would likely be no self-distribution privileges, and retail sales allowances (especially in tasting rooms) would be drastically reduced. The value of the CCBA’s effort is crystal clear. Those who are not members are simply benefitting from our work while choosing to not contribute.”

The Breakaways
Coast’s job is to coordinate among the associations, but understands they each can’t create ideal situations for every respective and prospective member. “Craft brewing is a rather Bohemian industry,” she says. “There will always be non-joiners.” Like Coast, McCormick acknowledges that the CCBA struggles with how to be more inclusive. In response to this challenge, a few larger states now have more than one such organization. California has seven smaller, regional brewers collectives between San Diego and San Francisco. Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Mystery Brewing founder and North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild president Erik Lars Myers sees things in pragmatic terms: “Not every brewery is a member, but that’s okay. It’s a business decision and a return on investment value proposition, right? If you don’t think it’s worth ‘X’ amount of money, you don’t join. I think we show good value.”

The North Carolina guild initially formed in 2005, but Myers explains it was reborn in its current embodiment in 2010 with 26 members. Currently, the state is home to 138 breweries, of which about 70 percent belong to the guild. Good numbers considering it has the eighth highest excise tax rate in the country at $0.62 per gallon. To fund growth, create additional jobs and perhaps entice these holdouts into the fold, the NCCBG needs to lower that number.

The Asheville Brewers Alliance (ABA) incorporated in 2010 back when there were merely six breweries in “Beer City USA.” The ABA now claims 41 members even though Asheville’s Buncombe County only contains 21 of them. That’s because the Alliance has grown to support much of Western North Carolina, the state’s far less populated but much more prolific brewing region. Explaining that the ABA does work in tandem with the NCCBG, Jennifer McLucas, the ABA’s executive director who recently left to become the director of marketing and PR for Highland Brewing, notes that breweries in neighboring Charlotte, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., are looking to start their own local organizations, too. No one wants to be overshadowed. But no one can protect larger interests individually.

“They realized it was because we have an incredible fan base that extends far beyond Asheville,” says McLucas. “The founding members of the alliance said, ‘Whoa, we gotta get a handle on this or it’s going to get out of control. It can’t be chaos.’” The ABA’s dual emphases are on maintaining quality among the products that represent this premier beer destination and promoting the local beer tourism industry. “If people don’t have a good beer experience, Asheville won’t be all that,” she adds.

Myers says the ABA “came about when the guild was in its slump … There’s interpersonal politics involved … It took years to get the guild running smoothly and in that time you bruise an ego here or there. We’re getting along very well these days.” Egos aside, there are challenges that imperil not just one but every craft brewery within a state’s boundaries. “Legislatively, it’s been the North Carolina Beer and Wine Wholesaler’s Association,” says Myers. “They’ve been combative.”

Growing Pains
Sometimes it’s more than egos or separate regional interests that keep members from seeing eye to eye. In the Pacific Northwest, where the Oregon Brewers Guild (OBG) champions its convivial and collaborative membership, there’s a newly formed rogue coalition. Neither Rogue Ales nor Coalition Brewing are members, but since they produce approximately 100,000 barrels and 1,000 barrels, respectively, only the latter would be invited to join. The Oregon Small Brewers Coalition (OSBC) is the first such nonprofit organization geared specifically to beer makers of a certain size, chiefly those who produce fewer than 15,000 barrels annually, or 220 of Oregon’s 230 breweries. It’s the brainchild of Art Larrance, owner of Cascade Brewing and co-founder of Portland Brewing, a company that opened in 1986 but is now one of the brands under the umbrella of Costa Rican-owned Florida Ice & Farm Company.

In short, Larrance formed the OSBC to give it “a legislative purpose that the (OBG) does not want to address.” He maintains that the needs of OSBC members are different than those of Oregon’s bigger breweries like Portland Brewing and Widmer Brothers Brewing. But it’s worth noting that 30 years ago, both Larrance and brothers Kurt and Rob Widmer were among the then fledgling craft brewing industry’s representatives who lobbied at the state capital to pass the Brewpub Bill that legalized brewpubs.

“We’re supposed to all be working together,” says Larrance. “I saw a need for our representation in Salem as legislators attempt to connect with our needs not met by the guild … We’ve got to help ourselves.” In short, Larrance wants smaller breweries like his to have better access to retail through self-distribution and believes shipping laws should allow breweries to mail beer directly to consumers—something the wine industry already enjoys.

OBG executive director Brian Butenschoen sees things differently. “We were asked to remain neutral and would not have remained neutral if the initial proposals made were on raising the limit on self-distribution for brewpubs or if the proposal was for Oregon brewers to ship directly to consumers in other states,” he explains. “To say that we do not take political positions or to say small brewers are entirely on their own is simply untrue.” Whether or not large and small breweries share common goals, the situation puts OBG vice president Josh Grgas of The Commons Brewery in a difficult position. “I’m working both sides,” he says. “Oregon breweries are consistently collaborative, despite any differences, and I feel this can extend to the political side as well. I think both the OBG and OSBC can work in tandem.”

Back in South Carolina, Bristow is a bit envious. “I come from a region of the country where the concept of Portland can sometimes be a bit of a pipe dream,” he says. “The number and variety of breweries, the ability to have direct sales without limit, low excise tax rates, the seemingly non-existent regulation—it truly is Beervana.”