Sunday, 5 April 2015

British Breweries And The Brewers Association of North America

Could some of our young, well-loved British craft breweries be on the verge of joining the Brewers Association of North America? Perhaps more importantly, should they?

Sat in the newly renovated and refreshed Horseshoe in Hampstead, North London, I was captivated by Chris Lennert of Colorado's iconic Left Hand Brewing as he spoke to the room with confidence and experience. Before him, we had listened to the evening's co-hosts, Logan Plant of Beavertown and Jasper Cuppaidge of Camden Town Brewery, tell us a little of their brewing history and about their beers. However, these two tall poppies are barely five years old, despite their successes they are infants in terms of the wider industry. Although they've seen rapid growth they both still have long journeys ahead of them if they are to achieve something remotely similar to Left Hand.

Left Hand Brewing have always gone against the grain. Back in the 90's, when all and sundry around them were brewing increasingly more potent India Pale Ale, they built their brand on the back of a stout. A brew that's now pretty iconic as far as beers of the craft revolution go. Lennert tells the gathered crowd of the Longmont brewery's twenty-two year history, of gruelling legal battles and trademark disputes, of hard graft and obstacles overcome. Left Hand's success wasn't just handed to them on a plate, they made it happen themselves. 

When the topic of Lennert's address changes to that of the Brewers Association of North America I detect a change in his tone. It's an increased note of seriousness mixed with real sincerity, as he talks about an organisation for which his passion is obvious. The Brewers Association is an industry run trade body that has more than 44000 members from over 2500 of North America's 3000 plus breweries, as well as incorporating the American Homebrewers Association. Its purpose is simply to protect and promote American craft brewers with the biggest beneficiary being the people that choose to drink its members beers. They run, amongst other things, the Great American Beer Festival, the Craft Brewers Conference and the bi-annual World Beer Cup. They provide education both technical and financial, tools that help both young and established businesses, including legal advice, as well as significantly increasing both the awareness and knowledge of craft beer on a consumer level. Put simply, there's no other trade body in the industry quite like it. 

After his speech, Lennert makes sure to sit at every table and introduce himself to every guest dining at The Horseshoe this evening. When he finally reaches my table he continues to speak with passion about the work the Brewers Association does and shoves some literature into my hand, as he does with everyone else before the conversation is over. I'm puzzled as to why a trade body based in the United States is so eager to push its message onto drinkers from the United Kingdom but after a little observation and some careful thought it begins to come clear.

I watch Lennert speak to Plant and Cuppaidge as the guests begin to depart and the night draws to its close. He continues with the same sense of seriousness, bordering on urgency, whilst the two owners of successful yet fledgling British breweries look on with apparent reverence. Could these two breweries, who arguably exist in part because of the work the Brewers Association has done, be on the verge of becoming some of their newest members? What benefit could joining a trade body operating in another country possibly bring to their businesses?

Both Camden and Beavertown have export operations that have been key to their growth. Countries such as Sweden, Australia and for Beavertown, even the US, have provided key export markets. The Great American Beer Festival, unlike its British counterpart only serves American beer, it is the Great American Beer Festival after all. It's also a festival that sees 49000 attendees and last year sold out its ticket allocation in just 32 minutes. If there's one festival that any brewery looking to crack the North American market, the largest in craft beer, wants to be seen at then surely it's this one. It's just one of a myriad of reasons why joining would make sense, that plus a deep well of experience and support that no other trade body is able to provide. Quite simply, the existence of the Brewers Association has been and will continue to be one of the reasons beer has become as widely successful as it has.

One of their actions though, stands out for me from all others. In a sea of fierce debate and indecision, in order to protect its members and help them grow, the Brewers Association defined craft beer. It's not perfect and you may not agree with it but it exists and not one other trade body has had the stones to do the same. If Britain's various trade bodies can't work together to make this decision, then I would say the Brewers Association is the organisation that the industry really needs. With their combined ability to help businesses new and existing grow and to both educate and excite consumers, I also think it's the organisation we all want. 

33 comments:

  1. In reference to GABF only selling American beers; if GBBF only sold British beers, how many geeks do you think would stop attending the event?

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    1. Well that's easy, all of them.

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    2. Depends on the geek, we are talking about CAMRA after all, but if you mean beer ratin', BA RIS sippin', Copenhagen trippin' beer geeks, quite a lot initially. But if that change in the festival line up changed a lot of other things about it, including the beers that were chosen, who serves them and how they are represented, then in the years following quite a lot would come back. GBBF won't change though. There's no motivation or incentive to do so when it forms such a big portion of CAMRA's income and revenue generation from memberships sold there. Still, I like to imagine one day it might change, but not for a long time.

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    3. Meanwhile... other festivals will change, adapt and of course, grow in size.

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    4. It would be a good metric to see how many care about British beer against how many are just in it for the bragging rights.

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  2. Shouldn't you have said all of US? ;-)

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    1. Nah I'd still go for a mooch and a chinwag on trade day even without the imports :)

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  3. Hey Matt,

    Just thought I would clarify something for your article.

    At Camden we are already a member of the BA, and have been for years. At little creatures we were also always a member. There is a category of membership for international breweries whereby we get the monthly magazine 'the new brewer' and get full access to BA industry data and support. Very cost effective at only a few hundred dollars per year... It is a fantastic service.

    Main point is that the british industry needs to have a body that supports a progressive industry. SIBA is already there with hundreds of members. Rather than throw the baby out with the bath water, I think Brewers in the UK need to unite and somewhat revamp SIBA as it does seem to be very cask-centric, exactly like CAMRA, and doesn't necessarily reflect the state of modern brewing. Whilst saying that, SIBA is in fact a good source of info and support for small UK Brewers as it stands, just needs a broader scope.

    Cheers,

    Alex

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    1. Hi Alex, thanks for commenting and thanks especially for the industry insight.

      I'm right with you in that, although the British Industry does have the support there in the form of groups such as SIBA it needs to adapt at the same speed the industry is progressing. I think the BA have the advantage of seeing this rapid change over 30 years and using that time to work out what their members really need. I can see the same happing in the UK over the next few years.

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    2. This is an excellent insight, Alex. Thank you for sharing with us. It's great to see perspective from an excellent brewer.
      Dan.

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    3. Maybe the UK needs to take a leaf out of Ireland's book and have an organisation like Beoir.

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    4. Isn't Beoir more a consumer focused organisation like CAMRA as opposed to something like the BA though?

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  4. Also wanted to say... I think cask ale is fantastic and is something distinctly British and deserves all the support it gets. I just think that sometimes all else is treated as a threat. I would love to see a British keg stand at the GBBF one year, standing along side the Cz, German and Belgian stands...

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  5. They define "craft beer" as a marketing term to suit their members, that is. And they keep changing it, witness how the traditional, old (by American standards!), family brewery Schell now being back in the fold, where they used to be blacklisted. Schell didn't change anything.

    Also not so sure I agree with how important the existence of the BA has been to the growth of non-macro-beer in the US. It was a natural American thing to happen: exploit a great big gap in the market.

    I have long toyed with the idea of returning to Oregon (been in Europe for >10 years now) and starting up a brewery. And then NOT joining the BA. Now, *that* would be punk.

    (Now you've got me wondering who the hundreds of non-members are.)

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    1. America's a big place, the non-members are likely small, community-led brewers that have no intention to expand and are happy making sure the locals don't go thirsty.

      It's not a marketing term though - in fact that's an incredibly cynical view. It's a definition that's been put in place to help identify progressive brewing that's led by quality ahead of profit rather than the other way around. Have you ever stopped to consider that they keep changing the definition because the industry keeps changing? Staying static will do nothing to help their members, they have to change as the businesses they support change around them.

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    2. Without wishing to rain on anyone's parade, the Brewer's Association is just that - a trade body set up to market and promote its members' best interests. That's not to say that its members don't make amazing beer, but it's important to remember that the members pay an annual subscription to be part of the Association, and all the benefits that it confers.

      To suggest that anyone pointing this out is cynical puts you clearly in the opposite camp - naive.

      The Brewers Association promotes its members interests because that is what it is paid to do - that is why it exists. So if you're "puzzled as to why a trade body based in the United States is so eager to push its message onto drinkers from the United Kingdom" its because they see the UK as a valuable export market.

      British breweries would join because there isn't a UK-based trade body that will represent is interests in the same way that the BA does. Frankly, I'm amazed that some imaginative freelancer - Pete Brown, yourself, me - hasn't set up a similar body for UK breweries - but the Americans have always been much more pragmatic about business matters than we Brits.

      There's nothing wrong with any of this - I'm not suggesting is some Malcom McLaren type scam. Bit clearly it needs to be stated again.

      It's important to remember that when one talks about the beer business, it's easy to focus on the sexy bit - beer - and ignore the dull bit that makes everything happen - the business.

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    3. Great comment Zak, thanks. You're right in that I do look at the US beer scene with rose tinted spectacles and this does breed some naivety on my part.

      I think the question this poses is that also, yes the American's do tend to be much more pragmatic about business, why haven't we started something similar. However do you not think that an industry body of this nature is something that brewery's themselves should be proactive in creating, as opposed to writers, journalists or marketers?

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    4. Maybe you're better-read than I am about the origins of the BA, but my fear is that UK industry would struggle to present as unified a front as its US equivalent.

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    5. I doubt that very much Zak - but I agree with you here, there are at least two or three distinctive beer cultures here in the UK, maybe more and tying them, or at least some of them together would be a huge challenge. Fancy it?

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  6. The BA do not define "Craft Beer", they define "Craft Brewers".

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    1. And what do the Craft Brewers that fit their definition make?

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    2. They define craft beer as beer made by a craft brewer, I believe. Neatly sidesteps the issue of defining the beer, but I think defining craft brewer is significantly easier in their industry.

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  7. I attended the SIBA conference a few weeks back and Bob Pease CEO of the BA was a keynote speaker. Made some notes but can't find my pad!
    He did say they define craft brewers not craft beer. They leave that up to the brewers. I did wonder whether it was going to be a pivotal year for SIBA but we shall see what direction they go in.
    They do have keg & bottle regional/national competitions. I did leave with the sense SIBA could do with starting to shake up the status quo a little.
    Even think a bit more creatively to be honest in their approach to publications and festival/events. Be interesting to see what unfolds.

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    1. Agree, it's time for SIBA to get with the times. People need to lead progressively and not just sit back and wait till something miraculously happens. The uk needs it's own assoc to be proud of.
      Dan

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    2. I really wish I could've made it up to Beer-X and the SIBA conference this year as it sounds like it was a really productive session. The only way I genuinely see SIBA making waves is by merging, or at least increasing their current level of cooperation with CAMRA and perhaps other organisations such as BBPA and Cask Marque.

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    3. Funnily enough that was one of our recommendations from CAMRA's Fit for Purpose Review - that is that CAMRA forge much closer links to SIBA, BBPA etc and meet with them regularly and report back to members. I must ask what's being done about that.

      Of course our former Chief Exec Mike Benner is now CEO of SIBA, so who knows.

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    4. If you do find out what's being done, I'd be interested to hear about it.

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  8. Robsterowski posted this which reads like a belated Appril Fool's gag: http://bit.ly/1GYdWkh

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    1. I think the trick with Craft Beer is that if you have to label yourself with it then you don't quite get it.

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    1. I've had my eye on these guys since they contacted me last year and I'm certainly watching with interest. Although so far activities seem to be focussed around where they're based in Berlin. They certainly look the part, time will tell if they've got the substance to match the style I'm sure.

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