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Craft Beer Delivered: Lots of “craft” beer is brewed by Anheuser-Busch – here’s how to spot the real stuff
As Big Beer has snapped up craft breweries, it’s grown harder to tell who the true indies are. But a new industry effort hopes to clear up the confusion by declaring their ownership right on the bottle.
More than 800 breweries – including Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium – will soon begin printing seals on their beers that identify them as “Certified Independent Craft.” The initiative, which was spearheaded by the trade group for independent craft brewers, is intended to differentiate “true” craft beers from those made by the likes of MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch and Heineken.
To qualify to use the seal, breweries cannot be more than 25 percent owned or controlled by any alcohol company that’s not itself a craft brewer. Its annual production also can’t exceed six million barrels.
The growth of the craft beer segment, once in the double digits, has slowed dramatically since those multinationals entered the fray: from 18 percent in 2013 to eight percent three years later. Some believe they could stem some of that decline if consumers realized some “crafty”-looking beers weren’t actually made by independent brewers.
“We’ve been hearing from our members for almost two years that there is a lot of confusion in the marketplace, fueled by the Big Beer acquisitions,” said Bob Pease, the chief executive of the Brewers Association, which represents the independents. “This is a way to give beer drinkers more transparency and more information.”
Small breweries have grown increasingly anxious about Big Beer’s incursion on their limited turf. Five international conglomerates – Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors, Constellation/Crown Imports, Heineken and Pabst – already control more than 80 percent of the U.S. beer market, according to the National Beer Wholesalers Association.
That market dominance has given the big corporate brewers significant advantages over their independent competition. On the brewing side, large companies can leverage their volume, and their capital, to score more and better hops. Thanks to the fact that these companies brew at multiple facilities in different markets, they can also react more quickly to local demand and, theoretically, supply a fresher product.
The larger issue, however, lies in distribution. Because the five Big Beer firms represent the majority of business for the middlemen who move beer from breweries to taplines and retail stores, they exercise enormous influence over how their beer is displayed and promoted.
Distribution contracts frequently allow major beer brands to dictate where their beer is placed on shelves, for instance. And Big Beer has successfully driven independent beers out of some stadiums, music venues and chain restaurants by asking distributors to stock their crafts brands instead of independents.
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