State of the Guild 2017: Fighting for Transparency and Independence

This editorial from Executive Director Frances Michelle Lopez originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Beer Paper. For a digital copy of the entire June issue, click here:  Beer Paper June 2017

The 9th annual L.A. Beer Week is upon us and as we gear up for another power-packed celebration of all things beer, we want to reflect on the current state of the craft brewing industry and look ahead to what may be the most exciting and the most challenging times to come. The Los Angeles County Brewers Guild continues to grow with new breweries bringing our total to over 62 Guild members within L.A. County. It’s amazing to think that when Beer Paper was first founded, the number of breweries in our organization hadn’t yet exceeded a baker’s dozen. With every brewery added to our roster, a new story is told; a story about a locally-owned and operated business striving to make delicious beer and build community. Our growth as an industry is thanks to the continued support of our beer fans and its upward climb into the ranks of household vernacular is dependent on your commitment to championing for small and independent craft beer. The symbiotic relationship between brewer and beer drinker is more crucial now than ever.

If you’ve been reading the past issues of Beer Paper or follow along online at The Full Pint or beer communities like Beer Advocate or Reddit, you’ve probably already seen an influx of content tackling the topic of (former) craft brewers selling their businesses to Big Beer. The mergers & acquisitions of these companies into the folds of the world’s largest macro breweries (such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Miller Coors, and Heineken) may not immediately strike the average beer drinker – hell, it might not even concern the above-average beer drinker (perhaps even you) – but it should. It should be noted that the last thing we want to do is to make anyone feel bad about their own personal preferences or buying habits. But as an organization that exists to promote and protect small and independent breweries, we have a responsibility to our brewers and to our fans to speak out against the misleading rhetoric Big Beer and its acquired “crafty” brands are using to confuse the market and convince beer drinkers that “nothing’s changed” and that they are still part of the craft community.

Guess what? They’re not.

Our current craft beer landscape is in a state of immense change and we are now caught with having to protect the industry that we have built by further differentiating between an independently-owned craft brewer and one that has been absorbed by a non-craft international mega-conglomerate. The early days of our full-flavored beer movement have been co-opted by Big Beer in these acquisitions and so it’s important for us to show that it’s not just what’s in the glass that makes you “craft.” I may have just lost some of you, but I implore you to hear me out.

There are a multitude of reasons why we, along with independent breweries across the country, have been fighting for transparency in our industry. In the same fashion that differentiates a local mom-and-pop coffee shop from a Starbucks or a local farmers market from a Walmart, the difference between independent craft breweries and their “crafty” Big Beer-owned counterparts astonishing. For one thing, Big Beer has funneled exorbitant financial contributions to political campaigns and lobbying efforts that are deemed anti-craft in order to stifle the growth of the small brewer. Why? Because the craft sector continues to grow and we are taking some of their precious market-share. Big Beer also uses their deep pockets to affect the beer market in other ways where a small, local, and independent business can’t even begin to compete. This can come in various forms; from endless marketing dollars to shove their brands in front of you at every billboard, bus bench, radio, and TV ads to even knocking down their beer prices and operating on a loss just to push local brewers off highly-coveted retail shelves. And let’s not forget the countless times when giants like AB-InBev have used their power to illegally incentivize wholesale and retail partners. Or the times when brands that have been acquired have flat-out lied to consumers about even having an association with their corporate overlords. Our list of grievances is far too long to keep going but we hope you see our point.

Access to market and fair trade practices may seem like far-away concepts for beer drinkers. We get it – you want to drink delicious, well-crafted beer. Maybe your love of beer stops there and we can’t fault you for that. However, for you beer drinkers reading this who love more than the flavors in your pint and who have built relationships in your local tap rooms and bars, we hope that this post helps remind you to help us fight the good fight. Our breweries will not survive these tumultuous times without the full support of our fans. In fact, we’d also go so far as to challenge every bar, restaurant, and venue to take a more mindful approach to beer. If you have ever loved a beer brewed by a local independent craft brewer, we hope we are reaching you.

The new wave of our independent craft beer identity is not an assault on Big Beer and “crafty” brands. There is too much to lose by taking the low road with a smear campaign. It’s counterproductive. The power of our movement is in our honesty, our continued commitment to quality, transparency, and fostering our communities. We want to be your game day brew, your trivia night destination, your Sunday family day-drinking spot. We don’t just want you waiting in lines for releases, we want you to feel part of the family. We want our supporters to feel like they have just as much stake in our businesses as we do. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of choice. Be part of our revolution with every local and independent purchase you make.  Beer to us has always been more than the liquid and we want to make sure we keep it that way.

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