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Indie or imposter?

By thirsty hack Ignatius Rake

Posted July 21, 2017
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Thumbs up: It's independent. © Ignatius Rake

How do you know your craft's what it claims? SIBA and the BA might have the answer.

The term 'craft beer', which originated in the US as a response to the industrialised mass-produced brews of the market majors (Big Beer), is somewhat nebulous to say the least.

Whereas 'real ale' is quite easy to define (as done so by the UK Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) here, for example), what constitutes craft depends more on the nature of the producer rather than the beer itself.

Indeed, while the US Brewers Association (BA), which describes itself as "the not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent American brewers", doesn't explicitly define what craft beer is, it does define an American craft brewer as being "small", "independent" and "traditional".

But even these terms can be hard to pin down.

Small, according to the BA, means an "annual production of 6m barrels of beer or less (approximately 3% of US annual sales)".

Ignoring the fact that that should be 'fewer', that translates into just under 7.2m hl (or 1.3bn UK pints) and, based on 2016 statistics, some $3.2bn (£2.5bn), which is a fair old whack in anyone's book.

Certainly, though, it would appear that the popular perception of what constitutes craft beer is that the brew in question is not simply mass-produced in a giant factory for the sole benefit of a faceless corporation's shareholders.

For instance, market research commissioned by the UK Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) in 2016 found that 46% of beer drinkers surveyed regarded craft beer as being 'made by small brewers rather than large corporations'.

At the same time, 35% identified craft breweries as being 'artisanal' (whatever that actually means) while 22% associated the term with 'small' and 14% with 'local'.

Ten per cent of drinkers, perhaps understandably, were unsure what the term meant at all.

One thing is for certain, though: the popularity of craft beer is on the up, despite the often hefty price tags that accompany it.

ba 2016 us beer sales
US beers sales stats for 2016: Craft ups its share in an overall flat market.© BA

Unsurprisingly, Big Beer is keen to get its mitts on some of this money, either by launching their own craft-style brews (such as Hop House 13 from Diageo-owned Guinness or Blue Moon from MillerCoors) or via bolt-on acquisitions.

Admittedly, this is nothing new.

In 2011, for example, Anheuser-Busch InBev bought Chicago's Goose Island brewery for $38.8m (£29.9m) while that same year Molson Coors shelled out £20m ($26m) to buy up Cornish real ale maker Sharp's.

However, unless the craft beer bubble suddenly bursts, this strategic shopping spree by the majors only looks set to escalate over the short-to-medium term.

In London alone, the past two years have seen Meantime bought by SAB Miller; Camden Town by AB InBev (for a reputed £85m ($110.3m); and, at the start of this month (July 2017 for future historians), London Fields by Carlsberg.

While it could be argued that this is just capitalism doing what it's always done, the fact remains that the drinker looking for an independent pint now finds the water increasingly muddied.

However, to this end, help is on hand in the form of SIBA's newly launched Assured Independent British Craft Brewer (AIBCB) seal, which denotes that the brew bearing it is not a Big Beer product in disguise.

Indeed, as well as not being owned by what SIBA terms "a global beer company", companies using the seal, of which there are already more than 850, must also maintain an annual beer production of below 200,000 hl while abiding by the SIBA Food Safety & Quality Standard.

siba aibcb seal
Seal of independence: The SIBA AIBCB seal. © SIBA

"Buyouts such as that of London Fields by global beer company Carlsberg are made in the hope of capturing the original customers and target market of an established, previously independent craft beer brewery – customer bases which were built on the back of the brewery being relatively small, independent and brewing quality, flavoursome beer," says SIBA CEO Mike Benner in a press release.

"Consumers deserve to know that what they are buying is a genuine craft-brewed beer as research clearly shows that most beer drinkers believe craft beer to be produced by relatively small, independent brewers."

"SIBA want to see far greater clarity in the market place and as such launched the Assured Independent British Craft Brewer campaign, whereby truly independent craft breweries and the beers they brew can carry a seal highlighting them as such."

"It's a simple accreditation which can be instantly recognised by beer drinkers on bottles or cans on supermarket shelves or on pump clips at the bar."

"London's thriving independent craft beer scene," adds Ed Mason, SIBA south east regional director and head honcho at London-based Five Points Brewing, "has been built on the passion, investment, sweat and tears of genuine independent brewers and we know that beer drinkers care about the provenance of their beer."

"The purchase of the London Fields brand by Carlsberg raises a number of questions about genuine independence and ethics in the brewing industry."

"SIBA's AIBCB Assured Independent Brewers seal will help ensure that customers can tell which beers are truly independent."

ba seal of independence
Meanwhile in the States: The newly-launched BA seal. © BA

Perhaps further proving that great minds really do think alike, the launch of the AIBCB campaign came just a matter of days after the BA unveiled a similarly-envisioned seal in the States.

Described in a press release as "featuring an iconic beer bottle shape flipped upside down", the graphic, the BA says, "captures the spirit with which craft brewers have upended beer, while informing beer lovers they are choosing a beer from a brewery that is independently owned".

Independence, the Association states, "is a hallmark of the craft brewing industry and it matters to the brewers who make the beer and the beer lovers who drink it".

Indeed, echoing SIBA's findings, a recent study commissioned by Brewbound, the BA notes, "found that [the terms] 'independent' and 'independently owned' strongly resonated with the majority (81%) of craft beer drinkers".

Increasingly, it continues, these drinkers "are looking for differentiation between what's being produced by small and independent craft brewers versus Big Beer and acquired brands".

"Beer drinkers, especially Millennials, expect transparency when it comes to their food and beverages," it says, adding "that transparency and underlying ownership can drive their purchase intent".

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"Independent craft brewers continue to turn the beer industry on its head by putting community over corporation and beer before the bottom line," says BA president and CEO Bob Pease.

"They continue to better beer and our country by going beyond just making the beverage."

"These small businesses give back to their backyard communities and support thousands of cities and towns across the US."

"As Big Beer acquires former craft brands, beer drinkers have become increasingly confused about which brewers remain independent."

"Beer lovers are interested in transparency when it comes to brewery ownership."

"This seal is a simple way to provide that clarity – now they can know what's been brewed small and certified independent."

While small and independent craft brewers, the BA reports, represent 99% of the more than 5,300 breweries currently on-stream in the US, they make just 12% of all beer sold in the country, with the remainder accounted for by Big Beer and imported brands.

As large brewers "continue to have unprecedented influence and acquire millions of barrels of formerly independently brewed beer", the seal, it asserts, "differentiates in a crowded and increasingly competitive marketplace".

Commenting on the initiative, Rob Tod, chair of the BA's Board of Directors and founder the Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, states: "Craft brewers build communities and the spirit of independent ownership matters."

"When beer lovers buy independent craft beer, they are supporting American entrepreneurs and the risk takers who have long strived not just to be innovative and make truly great beer, but to also build culture and community in the process."

The seal can be freely used by any independent US craft brewer, whether a BA member or not, provided that they have a valid TTB Brewer's Notice; meet the BA's craft brewer definition; and sign a licensing agreement.

At time of writing, more than 1,400 breweries had adopted the seal.

More information can be found here.

See also US breweries reach record high, posted 2/12/15.

Ignatius Rake is an artist and writer who has visited more than 70 countries on six continents. He has been known to like a pint.


Rake & Herald interdimensional liaison officer Gabrielle Fish-Pint by Ignatius Rake. Prints, T-shirts, etc here.

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