The Fight for Independents

Unfiltered by | Apr 2016 | Issue #111
Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

The term “craft beer” has taken a bit of a beating recently, with one critic calling it a “prissy, lazy and often misleading phrase.” That line, which appeared in my column last month, was part of an exploration of the increasing irrelevance of the main moniker for flavorful ales and lagers in a world where even the biggest brewers are making tasty beers.

Small brewers tout the need to distinguish between the efforts of so-called macro brewers and those unaligned with such concerns. Long lurking just below the surface of the industry’s extended and absurd linguistic debates, the concept of “indie beer” is enjoying a recent revival in use. Reflected in the Brewers Association’s own definition of what constitutes a craft brewer, the principle of independence from big corporate operations is built into craft beer’s DNA. And the resurgence of the indie label is born of the belief that larger, corporate brewers are appropriating craft beer and its brewers. To stand out against a sea of macro-produced faux-craft or “crafty” beers, proponents of indie beer believe that small brewers need a term to differentiate themselves and their products.

Part of the impetus for this debate is the acknowledgment that macro producers are now either producing or have purchased producers of high quality, flavorful beers. In a world where the big guys realize that the future of beer lies not in peddling uniform widgets differentiated only by crass television ads but in flavor, how do small brewers stand out?

With some equilibrium in beer quality and flavor, the only remaining question is one so fundamental to the future of small brewers as to spark a thousand never-ending debates: Do consumers actually care who makes their beer? Non-macro brewers and hardcore beer geeks alike continue to stress that providence is key for consumers, all while massive sales for Goose Island and other macro-affiliated products seem to suggest a contrary reality. The big guys also note that there are millions of beer drinkers who just understand two types of beer: the beer formerly known as beer (macro lager) and everything else. They claim with some persuasiveness that it’s a little ridiculous to think that brewery ownership is going to matter much to Bud Light drinkers who start to enjoy Blue Moon or Allagash White.

Putting aside risible debates over arbitrarily drawing craft beer boundaries based on what percentage of a small brewery is owned or controlled by a larger “alcoholic beverage industry member,” there is some value in helping consumers differentiate between the big brewers (and the smaller breweries they purchase) and those so-called independent brewers. Heritage and identity remain powerful motivators for many consumers, including millennials. And there is no doubt that acquisition by a macro brewer comes with countless benefits, putting recipients at a substantial advantage compared to their peers. The concept of independent beer as a point of distinction then, appears from a distance to have some value.

Often lost on those touting independence as a virtue in the great beer debates though, is the truth that nearly every brewery, whether small or large, has investors and is thereby beholden to outside interests of some form. As in the music world, where acts once loudly promoted the idea of independence from corporate record labels, when it comes to business, all things are corporate to some extent. Indie ceases to be so when the band needs to pay rent or gas up the van. Craft brewers should realize this by now. They’ve got rent to pay, too.