The timing was perfect for UpCountry Brewing Co. The day after owner John Cochran sent the final art to the printer for cans of Bogey Free Session IPA, the brewery’s first packaged product, the Brewers Association released its “certified independent craft” seal.
“Immediately, I called [the printer] and said, ‘Hold up — let’s put this on there,’ so it worked out great,” Cochran says.
The seal features a beer bottle shape flipped upside down, which, in the words of the not-for-profit trade association, “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. These breweries run their businesses free of influence from other alcohol beverage companies which are not themselves craft brewers.”
The seal is available for use free of charge by any of the more than 5,300 small and independent American craft brewers that have a valid Tax and Trade Bureau Brewer’s Notice, meet the Brewers Association’s craft brewer definition and sign a license agreement. It is available to both association members and nonmember breweries. According to the tally on the Brewers Association website, over 1,700 breweries have adopted the seal.
“Not everyone that buys beer knows about [the ownership of breweries or] cares about it. But there is a certain subsegment of the craft beer drinkers [for whom] it’s an important thing,” Cochran says. “You see them whenever a new announcement’s made that a big conglomerate bought the little local guy. They’re the people who say, ‘Oh, I’m never going to drink that again,’ or ‘Oh, I have to reconsider it.’ That’s who the seal’s made for.”
Joining UpCountry, Catawba Brewing Co. has placed the seal on cans of ENO Pilsner, Ted Light Lime, Astral Bootie Beer IPA and Festbier. Brewery marketing director Brian Ivey says other year-round beers will soon carry the seal as dictated by label printing needs, as will all limited-release and specialty-series beers going forward.
“Independence falls very high on the list of attributes that today’s beer consumer values. But in the current crowded and confusing marketplace, it isn’t always easy to determine if a supplier is or isn’t truly independent,” says Catawba owner Billy Pyatt. “This seal brings it out in the open.”
Multiple local breweries aren’t in as fortuitous a position as UpCountry and Catawba when it comes to packaging, but many plan to add the seal once their current stock starts running low — or, in the case of Asheville Brewing Co., French Broad Brewing Co. and Hi-Wire Brewing, as they update their packaging. “We order in bulk, and art changes are time-consuming, so it is difficult to change quickly,” says Courtney King, public relations and event coordinator for Hi-Wire.
Similarly, Green Man Brewery has what operation manager Jon Spath calls “a comfortable volume of printed labels and carriers,” but is working on a new design that includes the seal on its packaging. In the meantime, Green Man will use the seal in its social media and publications and on its website. New Belgium Brewing Co. has also implemented the seal online, and spokesperson Jesse Claeys says it will be included on the brewery’s packaging starting in the fall.
Giving it a miss
But not all local producers are interested. Pisgah Brewing Co. talent buyer and events director Benton Wharton says the brewery will not be using the seal at this time: “We are independent since forever, so we haven’t seen the need to add any other validation of that fact.”
Also abstaining, but for different reasons, is Wicked Weed Brewing. Now part of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s The High End portfolio, the Asheville brewery doesn’t qualify to use the seal. The logo’s announcement sparked a response video from The High End in which six brewers and executives within the company’s division offer their opinions of the seal, including Wicked Weed co-owner Walt Dickinson, who views the Brewers Association’s action as a sign of unnecessary infighting within the brewing industry.
“We’re all doing the same thing: We’re beer. And we’re fighting this bigger battle, which is wine and spirits, and we’re losing margin every year to them,” Dickinson says. “We need to band together and grow this market as a whole. … And good product wins, so that’s the point of this whole thing, and I was hoping that we could just get back to talking about beer, but I guess we’re not there yet — but hopefully soon.”
Cochran sees Dickinson’s point but doesn’t think it’s relevant to other Asheville breweries. “When you’re sitting in the big chair — Anheuser Busch — yes, you can sit and look and say that wine and spirits are taking over and running into the business,” he says. “But when you’re a small guy, and you’re selling only in one town … that’s not on your radar.”
Also in The High End’s rebuttal video, Elysian Brewing Co. co-founder David Buhler posits that to be truly independent or “punk,” breweries would refuse to conform and put the seal on their products and instead follow their own rules.
“I think they’re completely missing the point,” says Highland Brewing Co. President Leah Wong Ashburn. “I think that they’re losing market share to independent brewers, and so they’re buying independent breweries, and they’re confusing consumers about who’s independent — intentionally.”
Ashburn, who sports a sticker of the seal on her laptop, says Highland is still mulling over how to implement the imagery on its packaging and on-site but is committed to using it. Like Cochran and Pyatt, she sees the seal as a quick visual way for discerning beer drinkers to identify independently owned products and support values that are important to them.
“As a country, we celebrate and covet our independence as U.S. citizens because we get to make our own choices and we get to create our own paths,” says Ashburn. “As beer-makers, we have the same values, and the result is that consumers get more variety and choice from independent brewers. Most people don’t recognize who’s independent or not because it’s hard to, so [the seal] may have a small effect, but any effect is valuable and that’s why I think it’s worth doing.”