It’s the single largest beer festival and premier beer competition in the U.S., put on by the Brewers Association (BA) each year since 1982. In both 2015 and 2016, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) saw attendances of 60,000, which was an increased capacity from 49,000 each of the previous five years. In addition to being able to taste from over 3,800 beers poured by 780 breweries, last year’s festivalgoers were provided opportunities to participate in chef-led pairings and to learn from professional brewers.
For the 36th annual GABF there will be nearly 900 breweries in attendance, and popular awards and attractions—including the Golden Ticket Giveaway, Heavy Medal Booth and Support Your Local Brewery Pavilion—will return. New for 2017: additional Meet the Brewer booths (over 150 participating), an expanded Brewpub Pavilion with 48 breweries representing each region of the country, a beercation pavilion hosted by CraftBeer.com, and new rules excluding macro-owned breweries from sponsorship.
Up until 2017 the BA policy about who could be a lead brewery sponsor for GABF was somewhat loose. That has changed this year, and if you take a look at the page listing the festival’s Featured Brewery Sponsors, you won’t see quite a few of the logos who helped populate that page in years past. Featured sponsors receive significant perks beyond other exhibitors like prominent signage, larger booth spaces and prime locations.
The BA decided this year to only permit independent craft brewers to be featured sponsors for GABF. That means breweries who are owned by “Big Beer” companies like AB InBev, Heineken, Molson Coors and Constellations Brands will no longer be eligible for sponsorship at the granddaddy of beer events.
“Since the BA’s mission is to promote and protect small and independent brewers, we recently made changes to sponsorship eligibility for GABF, where only brewers that meet the BA craft brewer definition can be featured sponsors,” said Julia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewers Association.
Goose Island, Ballast Point, Lagunitas, Blue Moon and over a dozen other former craft breweries are all excluded this year. In fact, AB InBev’s first craft beer acquisition, Goose Island, is also missing from the GABF list of participating breweries, along with cohorts 10 Barrel, Breckenridge, Elysian, Golden Road and Wicked Weed. Breweries now banned from sponsorship are more than 25 percent owned by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
“No more than 25% ownership of a brewery would still give the independent craft brewer significant control over his or her business,” said Herz. “The prevailing thought is if an outside beverage alcohol entity owns more than 25% a brewery it isn’t independent. Some brewery deals have deliberately stayed under 25% ownership. This shows the value of being within the lines of the craft brewer definition.”
Announcement of the new policy came in early June this year, following an interesting and controversial few months for the craft beer industry. The drama had heightened in early May when — in the span of one week — AB InBev both announced its acquisition of Wicked Weed Brewing of Asheville, NC and was caught executing a blockade, denying American craft breweries access to valued hop varieties from South Africa. These events helped to refuel ideological battles surrounding Big Beer’s meddling in craft brewing.
Amid one of the debates that took place at the time, the Brewers Association was criticized for accepting sponsorship from breweries who don’t meet its craft brewer definition, more specifically for accepting money from InBev-owned breweries.
— Good Beer Hunting (@goodbeerhunting) May 22, 2017
The Good Beer Hunting (GBH) tweet was in response to that site being placed on a Brew Studs list of InBev-affiliated brands called “The Cut Off.” GBH is owned by Michael Kiser, who is Executive Editor for another beer blog, October, which is also on The Cut Off for its funding from AB InBev investment arm ZX Ventures.
It’s not apparent that a Twitter exchange triggered the BA’s GABF policy change, but it is interesting to note that eligibility was first revoked just a couple of weeks later. Fairly likely is that the BA planned the change as a part of an even larger initiative, the launch of the Independent Craft Seal, which happened on June 27.
Like The Cut Off, the Independent Craft seal is intended to allow consumers to distinguish actual craft breweries from ones owned by companies who may aim to harm the craft beer movement. Already over one third of America’s more than 5,500 craft beer producers have adopted the seal, allowing their beers to stand out on shelves being muddied by many of the brands now banned from GABF sponsorship.
“The BA’s membership is made up of more than 70% of the U.S. breweries, and we’ve heard loud and clear from them that there is confusion in the marketplace about ownership,” said Herz. “Small and independent craft brewers established the term ‘craft’ and gave it so much value that now many others are looking to be considered ‘craft’ including Big Beer.”
As a gesture to the early adopters of the seal, the BA has placed an asterisk next to their names on the list of participating breweries at GABF, which will be held October 5th through the 7th at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. If you’re one of the 60 percent of beer drinkers who care who makes the beer, you may want to show your support by prioritizing their booths and letting them know you appreciate that they display Independent Craft.