It was the final day of the 2018 Great American Beer Festival, and Bob Pease was in a good place. The President and CEO of the Brewers Association leaned against a wooden barrel high top table in the Colorado Convention Center, discussing GABF’s legacy and how craft beer has woven itself into every aspect of America, urban to rural. As he spoke, his omnipresent smile seemed inspired as much by the Association’s rapidly growing influence as it did with one particularly successful festival.
The conversation was wide-ranging, but it kept returning to the ever-present competition between macro-brewers and craft. This competition manifests itself on the airwaves, on grocery shelves and at GABF itself, where the hangover of the Association’s apparent exclusion of AB InBev-owned brewers still lingered in the air.
Pease has been part of Brewers Association leadership since 1993 and CEO since 2014. The retirement of founder and president Charlie Papazian has now placed him as the most prominent figure in the Association, its guiding force on both policy and publicity. The 37th annual festival – brainchild of Papazian and seminal beer-scribe Michael Jackson – appeared to be a moment to luxuriate in this role. With a fully sold-out weekend, GABF 2018 was the most robustly attended in its history. The Association’s Independent Craft seal is near-ubiquitous on craft beer labels. And the membership can certainly thank him for the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, a bright spot in the otherwise dire Republican tax bill of 2017, that lowered excise taxes for small brewers (the bigger players received a more marginal benefit).
The day before, Pease spoke at a Boston Beer Company event catered with Boston Lager and beer-infused breakfast food. He hailed the historical proliferation of small brewers in the US, the resurgence of moribund styles, and the ascent of beer in fine dining. He also introduced the Association’s new national TV spot. It is a slick piece of consumer engagement featuring images of pure weird-beer-nerdery: tatted-up brewers with snifters, richly tinted wood barrels, funky bottles illuminated like the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But Pease undersold the media on which this ad was appearing (Comedy Central, the Travel Channel, online), only casually mentioning NBC-Universal. The implication was that it would be airing between infomercials on Saturday morning. In reality, it is now appearing during major sporting events, jockeying against ads from big beer conglomerates whose market share is dwindling.
In the media lobby, Pease addressed the subject of independent brewers acquired by macro brewers. He struck a determinedly conciliatory tone. Last year’s fracas over AB InBev’s GABF stations was, he insisted, a “misunderstanding.”
“They were not correct in thinking they could only have one of their acquired breweries here. And the proof of that is this year,” he said (the 2018 festival had stations for two AB Inbev acquisitions, Wicked Weed Brewing of Ashville, North Carolina and Bend, Oregon’s 10 Barrel Brewing Co.). “We could have done a better job of communicating that to them.”
Pease also pointed out that GABF’s 2018 awards reflected an open forum for macro-acquired brewers. 10 Barrel medaled in the Berliner-Style Weisse, Fruit Wheat and American-Style Stout categories. This was of a piece with The Association party line, ostensibly diplomatic with just a hint of salt.
“All beer is good” Pease declared. ”The acquired brands are welcome, but the [Independent Craft] seal is just saying there’s a difference. If you want to support 10 Barrel because you think they make great beer, god bless you. If want to support Deschutes Brewing Co. or Bend Brewing Co. because they’re independent and local and potentially more tied to the Bend community, then the seal gives you the opportunity to do that.”
The perceived exclusion of crafty brands got an ambivalent response even from craft devotees. Throughout the weekend, some judges and attendees sheepishly lamented the absence of AB InBev-owned Goose Island’s Bourbon County beers. While acknowledging the existential threat that macro-acquisition poses to independent brewing, these folks nonetheless longed for some of the quality beers that crafty producers release. On the other hand, GABF was inundated with barrel-aged stouts. When you have Copper Kettle’s Snowed In Mocha and Epic’s Triple Barrel Baptist, it’s hard to miss Bourbon County. On other words, the absence of Goose Island seemed to be mourned more in the breach than the observance..
Certainly, Pease’s level playing field message was complimented by the media push that followed. In an era of ignorable internet ads, seeing a Brewer’s Association spot during NFL games feels like an inflection point: a slick, earnest response pressed in the same game break as Budweiser’s hostile, smug “Dilly Dilly” ads. Pease frames the whole craft strategy – the seal, the ads, the excise tax reduction – with the Platonic ideal of Consumer Choice.
“We want beer drinker pull, not supplier push, to be the dominant variable to determine what gets in the shelf and on the tap. And let the chips fall where they may,” he expressed.
This was craft beer’s gambit from day one: that most beer drinkers will choose a flavorful product over a bland one, an engaging product over a rote one, a local product over a mass-produced one.
“There is a segment of the consumer population,” he added, “not just in beer – in food, beverage, retail – who want to support entrepreneurs that have ties to the local community.”
The difference between then and now is that this message has been amplified significantly. Beer consumption in America is dropping, and while even craft beer’s growth has slowed, it nonetheless represents a growing slice of the pie. Every neighborhood in America has a local brewer, and brewers are finding innovative revenue and infrastructure sources to expand their distribution despite Big Beer’s best efforts to contain them. Now, the nation’s largest craft beer advocacy group has throttled its nationwide messaging to 11.
After many years of building the craft movement, developing a loyal consumer base, and fighting for shelf space, the Brewers Association is dropping its fusty, academic pretense. It’s punching back. And Bob Pease’s contented smile seems just a bit more knowing.