Commentary: ABI Not Doing Anyone Any Favors With Their BA Response

In last week’s news roundup, I noted the latest volleys fired in the conflict between craft beer and Big Beer. The non-profit craft beer trade group The Brewers Association unveiled a "Brewers Association Certified Independent Craft" logo that can be displayed on packaging, websites, in taprooms, and elsewhere. Craft beer DOES have a specific definition from the Brewers Association, mostly centered around ownership stakes, and this logo can help better-inform customers about who is making the beer they choose to drink. A-B InBev’s High End, the group of former craft brewers now under the ABI umbrella, responded to the new logo by releasing a video featuring the head of the High End as well as the founders of Wicked Weed, Elysian, 10 Barrel, and others. In this video, these gentlemen spend more than 4 minutes trying convince us, the consumers of craft beer, how they continue to be JUST LIKE the little guy brewing in a small warehouse space in YOUR VERY OWN hometown. Walt Dickinson of Wicked Weed, the latest brewery to “sell out to the Evil Empire”, even dares to STILL unironically refer to Wicked Weed as a “smaller independent”.

Indeed, of everyone in this video (in which they seemingly dragged all of these guys to their “crafty wall” at ABI HQ to do their talking heads), Dickinson seems to be the most clueless--perhaps he’s just still in that star-eyed honeymoon phase. He advocates growing the beer industry as a whole, which will mean that “everybody’s got a great space in the market”. Of course, this sounds like a great idea! But use of the phrase “space in the market” is an unfortunate one, as it amplifies one of ABI’s biggest bullying tactics. ABI will use bribes—I’m sorry, “incentives”—to occupy as much shelf SPACE as possible in superMARKETS, beer distributors, and other shops. The amount of ABI-dedicated shelf space grows all the time, forcing true independent craft beer off of the shelves of those same retailers. Now, if this is all being done legally, and there is some question to that, then so be it—the laws should be changed, usually in state legislatures. But that's another commentary for another day. And Walt Dickinson and ABI should not be talking about how hard they are working for EVERYBODY, because this is a straight-up lie.

Dickinson’s (and others’) next fallacy is that beer is dying because of the ongoing beer “civil war”, and that market share is continually being lost to wine and liquor, whom Dickinson equates to a massive armada poised to wipe out all the entire beer industry while the various beer factions all also work to destroy each other with ole' timey muskets. Now, ABI’s market share absolutely is dwindling, and wine and liquor MAY BE picking up some of that, and perhaps those two are gaining ground overall. But craft beer is also growing, and despite ABI’s continual attempts to warm up to craft beer enthusiasts (this video isn’t their first “Kum-Ba-Ya” attempt), craft beer IS the biggest threat to ABI. If it weren't they wouldn't be buying up so many craft breweries.

Elsewhere, Garrett Wales of 10 Barrel claims that the Brewers Association is limiting customer choice by putting a label on a bottle. Going back to the bullying/bribery for space issue, there is no doubt that ABI are the ones limiting choice by putting more and more of their own brands on retail shelf space. Supporting independent craft brewers IS a factor many beer drinkers use in decided which beer to drink next—it may not be a critical or deciding factor, but it DOES influence people’s decisions, no matter what Felipe Szpigel, ABI’s High End head, says. This isn’t limited to beer—you see “buy local” initiatives for all kinds of products. In the spirit of Walt Dickinson earlier in the video, Szpigel later again tries to refer to the High End members as “small business[es]”, which is laughable.

Finally, like many others, I don’t quite understand why ABI continually tries to equate themselves to the small, independent craft breweries. I would imagine that a great deal of the demographic they are targeting, craft beer drinkers, are more educated about what they are drinking. And they can see right through ABI's ruse when they see their favorite brewery get swallowed up by Big Beer, which leads to some sort of production problem (see High End original Goose Island’s BCBS contamination problems in 2015), or they can no longer get their favorite craft beer at the supermarket because that market got paid to give ABI more space to hold Golden Road and Wicked Weed. We all can easily see through this level of falsity. ABI insists on being the “Evil Empire”—they are buying up these former craft breweries to try to hold on to market share. They need to stop trying to kowtow to the little guys and their fans.