At a time when tensions between “craft beer” and “big beer” are running high, the craft beer industry’s primary advocacy group, the Brewers Association, has decided to reassert its alliances using possibly the largest piece of leverage it has: the Great American Beer Festival.
Originally launched in 1982, the Great American Beer Festival has become the country’s largest and most popular beer competition. Winning a medal at this prestigious event has always been an honor for breweries large and small. But for this year’s festival – set to be held in Denver from October 5 to 7 – though brewers of all sizes will continue to be allowed to participate, for the first time, breweries who don’t fit the definition of “craft brewer” as determined by the Brewers Association won’t be able to purchase sponsorships at the event. “Effective immediately and in support of the BA’s mission and purpose, only breweries that meet the BA craft brewer definition are eligible to be a Featured Brewery sponsor at GABF,” the BA wrote in an email to a past sponsor, according to Brewbound. Sponsors receive perks such as larger exhibition booths with more prominent placement.
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The Brewers Association finds itself in an interesting position on this issue. As a trade association for craft breweries, the group obviously has to stand up for its members. But also as the organizer of the Great American Beer Festival, the BA needs to maintain the integrity and relevance of the event. Apparently, the group believes that accepting entries from big beer brands while refusing them sponsorships allows it to toe that line. “With the growth of the industry, we continue to see more demand for featured brewery sponsorships and we have limited inventory,” Brewers Association event director Nancy Johnson told Brewbound. “Additionally and more importantly, the purpose of the Brewers Association is to promote and protect craft brewers. The GABF serves as a wonderful platform to promote all BA brewery members. Limiting brewery sponsorship to members that meet the BA definition of craft brewer allows us to better serve our independent members and focus on our purpose.”
To put things in perspective, last year, the GABF had eight sponsors that will not be eligible this year: 10 Barrel and Breckenridge, which are owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev; Blue Moon and Leinenkugel, which are produced by MillerCoors; Ballast Point, which is owned by Constellation Brands; Lagunitas, which was recently acquired entirely by Heineken; Magic Hat, which is a part of the North American Breweries conglomerate; and Pabst.
2017 has been a busy year for beer industry in-fighting. Recently, a couple of moves from “big beer” have led to retaliation from the craft community. In May, after Anheuser-Busch bought out Wicked Weed, the formerly independent Asheville, North Carolina brewery eventually had to cancel its annual Funkitorium Invitational event when nearly every participating craft brewer pulled out. And this month, a number of craft brewers requested their beers be removed from RateBeer after it was disclosed that Anheuser-Busch InBev’s ZX Ventures had bought a stake in the beer rating website. Whether non-craft beer brands will return the favor for the Great American Beer Festival is yet to be seen – though much like countries set aside their differences for the Olympics, it would be nice if at least once a year everyone could get along.