Hop Take: The Biggest Challenge Facing Craft Breweries Is Increasingly Other Craft Breweries


3 minute Read

Hop Take: The Biggest Challenge Facing Craft Breweries Is Increasingly Other Craft Breweries

Photo By Bell's Brewery

There’s a growing rift in the beer industry, but it’s not between Big Beer and craft beer — it’s within craft beer itself.

As the definition of “craft” continually changes, so too do the interests of first-wave craft brewers and the newer, smaller upstarts that followed them.

We see this most recently in New Jersey, where a group of brewers has banded together to start a new brewers guild, the Brewers Guild of New Jersey, launching in March. The new guild will be separate from the existing New Jersey Brewers Association. Thus far it’s comprised of Cape May Brewing, Flying Fish Brewing, Kane Brewing, Carton Brewing, Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant, Riverhorse Brewing, Cricket Hill Brewing, Beach Haus Brewing, and Spellbound Brewing.

According to a report in Brewbound, the Brewers Guild of New Jersey aims to accommodate the growing demands of a group whose needs are no longer being met within the New Jersey Brewers Association. The latter is “more focused on the needs of newer, taproom-focused breweries,” these upstarts say.

The Brewers Guild of New Jersey’s founding members make up more than 75 percent of New Jersey’s craft beer community, reports Brewbound. Many, if not all, will be rescinding their membership with the original guild.

Ryan Krill, co-founder and CEO of Cape May Brewing (and a past president of the New Jersey Brewers Association), told Brewbound he “can’t emphasize enough” that the new guild is not intended to be a competitive force, but rather an organization representing the group’s interests, such as franchise reform, self-distribution rights, and e-commerce.

“It’s just recognizing that as the industry has matured […] there are multiple business models and there’s no one-size-fits-all association that can represent all of that,” Krill said.

New Jersey brewers’ dual trade groups follow a similar fracture that occurred among Colorado brewers in 2016. At that time, more than a dozen brewers left the original Colorado Brewers Guild to form a new guild, Craft Beer Colorado. Their reasoning was a bit more specific: Breckenridge Brewery, owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, was still a board member of the original guild. The group recombined just five months later.

Krill’s testament to the situation seems sound. Under the current definition of “craft,” as per the Brewers Association, breweries producing anywhere from one barrel to 6 million barrels of beer per year are lumped into the same category. The breweries at either end of this spectrum have very different goals and needs.

We like where your head’s at, Brewers Guild of New Jersey — do you — but if Colorado is any indication, dividing things up further isn’t going to get you very far. It’s not your guild that’s the problem. It’s the changing craft beer landscape and consumer demand. Smaller brewers are taking over, one hyper-local taproom at a time.

Bell’s Brewery Files, and Fails, Legal Action Against Innovation Brewing

Another way the competing interests within craft brewing have reared their ugly heads is with trademark disputes. This week, we learned that Bell’s Brewery, a regional craft brewer based in Kalamazoo, Mich. (with much of its production taking place at a second location in Comstock), lost its fight against Innovation Brewing, a much smaller company based in Sylva, N.C.

North Carolina news website, Mountain Xpress, reported that the Sylva-based Innovation Brewing won the more than two-year battle against Bell’s to keep its brewery name.

Bell’s filed the action against Innovation based on the belief that the brewery name was an infringement on Bell’s slogans, “inspired brewing” and “bottling innovation.” The Trademark Trials and Appeals Board in Virginia ruled the confusion unlikely.

I’m inclined to agree. Innovation and inspiration, like the moon and stars, belong to everyone.

Naming Your New England IPA ‘New England IPA’ Is Missing the Point

Another David and Goliath tale is New England versus the rest of the country. Lately, bigger craft labels and regional brewers such as Boston Beer Company (whose production mostly takes place in Breinigsville, Pa.), Schlafly (based in St. Louis, Mo.), and ABI-owned Blue Point are co-opting, or perhaps just copying New England’s “trendy” beer style. Yes, we’re talking about the New England-style IPA.

The NEIPA, a style whose hype is dependent on limited availability, is showing up more and more among the brands of these regional brewers. Boston Beer, which released the “sneak peak” of its Samuel Adams New England IPA in 16-ounce cans in February, is set to roll it out nationally in April. The haze craze-inspired so-called NEIPA will be available year-round. In doing so, these brewers are taking a trend rooted in its scarcity and making it available on a much larger scale. We’re not as mad as the New York Times about it — everyone deserves some tropical aroma in their life — but the branding is a little too on the nose.

Labeling your national, year-round beer as “Hazy and Juicy” and naming it “New England IPA” is totally not cool, man. The NEIPA is innately local, limited, and purchased at or near the brewery that made it. It’s not meant to be mass-produced, nationally distributed, available at Walmart, or even shelf-stable. True NEIPA brewers won’t even admit they’re brewing NEIPA. Branding a beer like this is a built-in contradiction to its authenticity.

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