Craft beer lovers often navigate waters as murky as an oatmeal stout when deciphering who actually brews the beer on crowded store shelves. While we enjoy the endless beer options at our disposal, the manufacturing stories behind many of the beers we consume are hidden beneath layers of careful marketing.
When Big Beer purchases a small brewery, they often hide their ownership stake behind an iron curtain of deceptive indie-looking labels and folksy marketing to preserve the disconnect between the facts and fictions of their products.
But there’s a movement to pull back the curtain and give consumers a glimpse into the reality behind the beers we drink.
The national Brewers Association recently unveiled a Certified Independent Craft emblem designed for independently-owned breweries in America to place on their labels. With small craft breweries selling out to companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors at an alarming rate, craft beer lovers need help parsing out the reality of who’s really brewing our beer.
The Brewers Association defines a craft brewery as a brewhouse that brews six million barrels of beer or less annually, with 25 percent or less of the ownership by a brewery that is not craft, and brews beer with traditional ingredients.
“The sale of Wicked Weed had a huge effect on the brewing community,” said Anne Marisic, marketing and events coordinator at Maine Beer Company.
Marisic was referring to the sale of Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina, to AB InBev earlier this year, a move that shocked the craft beer world partly because Wicked Weed co-founder Walt Dickinson had often been a sharp critic of Big Beer. Maine Beer Company is one of a number of Maine breweries adding the Independent Craft label to its packaging in the coming weeks.
“Beer drinkers have a right to know who is brewing their beer. Many beer drinkers value independence, understand why it is important and want to support independent brewers,” said Maine Beer Company co-founder and Brewers Association board member Dan Kleban.
Maine Beer Company’s signature clean white labels already feature a 1% For the Planet logo to inform drinkers that part of the proceeds from sales benefit the nonprofit.
“We see the information we put on our labels as a way to tell the story of who we are and what we believe in,” Marisic said.
She noted that the Brewers Association is not forcing craft breweries to put the label on their packaging, and brewers don’t have to be members of the Brewers Association to use the label. They simply have to verify that they meet the aforementioned guidelines to be considered a craft brewery.
“I think that it’s an extremely important tool that will help consumers differentiate between truly independent breweries and the breweries that have been purchased by large conglomerates and are portrayed as small craft operations,” said Ian Dorsey, co-founder of Mast Landing Brewing, which plans to add the label to its packaging in the coming weeks.
“This seal opens the door to a discussion, and it is our job as brewers to get the message out about why supporting small independent brewers is so important to a vibrant craft beer community. Now, there are certainly some beer drinkers who may not care who makes their beer, and that is fine — even though I wish they felt differently!” Kleban said.
It wasn’t until researching the business practices of Big Beer for a piece earlier this year that I understood how bad a buyout can be for a craft beer community, largely because Big Beer lobbyists push for federal and state laws that directly hinder small breweries, and the companies purchase and control distribution in many areas.
In reaction to the Independent Craft label, breweries purchased by AB InBev put out a video response. It feels laughable for Elysian Brewing co-founder David Buhler to explain how to be “independent” and “truly punk”— it’s like your dad trying to give you advice on how to be cool. No, thanks.
Expect the “Independent Craft” label to appear on more and more bottles and cans both in Maine and nationally to make the waters that craft beer fans navigate a little more like a clear, golden pilsner and less like an opaque stout.
OTHER BEER HAPPENINGS
1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, 11 Mill Brook Road, Saco. $20 per ticket. brownpapertickets.com
With winter quickly approaching, soak in the final weeks of fall with a harvest celebration at Barreled Souls. The Saco brewery is releasing four beers for the event: an imperial brown ale with bourbon roasted apples and cinnamon, a barrel-aged rye wine, a rosemary pale ale and a pumpkin stout. The celebration includes food and desserts from Holy Donut, Dole’s Orchard and Quiero Café, as well as house-made pulled pork. Ticket includes a limited-release glass, your first two beers and food. Additional beers available for purchase.
Tasting room hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, 525 Route 1, Freeport.
For the past year, Maine Beer Company has been under construction as the brewery works toward completion of its two-phase expansion. The first phase consists of the construction of a new brewhouse with an entirely new 60-barrel brewing system. This phase of the expansion is set to be completed by January. I’m told by Maine Beer Company that the expansion will allow the brewery to better meet demand in its existing markets. Phase two of the expansion entails building a new tasting room where the existing brewery now sits. The larger tasting room will accommodate more patrons and ease the pressure of each release of Dinner, the much-lauded double IPA that causes a rush on the brewery when available. Phase two of the expansion is slated to be completed by fall of 2018.