The Craft Beer Seal is Hitting Shelves and Will Revolutionize How We Buy Beer

Nick Hines The Craft Beer Seal is Hitting Shelves and Will Revolutionize How We Buy Beer

7 minute Read

This summer, the Brewers Association, the largest representative body for craft beer, unveiled its “Certified Independent Craft” seal. Created to adorn labels, cans, and taproom doors, the moniker tells consumers which breweries qualify as independent and craft according to Brewers Association guidelines.

Now the first labeled cans are on beer shelves, and the logo has started appearing on brewery doors. Thus far, more than 2,000 breweries (or 70 percent of U.S. craft beer volume) have pledged to use it.

But the seal remains highly contentious. Critics say it will divide the beer industry, both craft and macro. Fans of good design disapprove of the logo, most prominently Kyle Kastranec of Good Beer Hunting, who called it “crude, clunky, and borderline unusable.”

The politics of labeling are inherently divisive, particularly within culinary communities where consumption links closely to identity. (Need proof? Ask a few self-described craft beer fans their thoughts on Budweiser.) Since launching in 2002 the USDA Certified Organic classification has alienated many, but it also spawned multimillion dollar businesses and directly influenced farmstands, Walmart, and generations of consumers. Could craft beer have the same future?

Understanding the independent seal

When the Brewers Association unveiled the seal, it pointed to a 2017 Harris Poll that found 81 percent of people who self-identified as craft beer drinkers recognized “independent” and “independently owned” as the biggest buzzwords for beer. Both terms had a “net positive” market return, the study found, meaning that if one or more of those terms was included in advertising, then people would be more likely to purchase that product.

“Many beer drinkers want to know who makes their beer,” the Brewers Association wrote in the blog post announcing the independent seal. “The independent craft brewer seal is a handy tool for enthusiasts to easily differentiate beer from craft brewers and beer produced by other, non-craft companies.”

In one sense, the seal validates the Brewers Association’s raison d’etre. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1978 to provide representation, promotion, and support to small and craft brewing communities. It publishes a digital magazine called Craft Beer, and hosts an annual consumer and trade event called the Great American Beer Festival. The association’s entire premise rests on the fact that people care about craft beer.

Breweries can license the logo for free from the Brewers Association, whether or not they’re members, as long as they follow three guidelines.

One: The brewery must provide a valid document filed with the Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. that says the brewery is legally allowed to operate.

Two: The brewery must meet the Brewers Association’s definition of a craft brewery. In short, it produces 6 million barrels of beer or less per year. Additionally, and importantly, no more than 25 percent of its operations can be owned or controlled by an alcohol industry member that’s not also a craft brewer.

Three: The brewery must sign a licensing agreement. This means that the Brewers Association can legally prevent a brewery from continuing to use the seal if it is sold or no longer considered craft.

Prominent brewers that are not included in the Brewers Association’s “craft” designation include Founders, Lagunitas, Goose Island, and others.

Passionate, die-hard craft beer drinkers in the Reddit r/beer forum filled a thread called “What Is the Independent Craft Brewer Seal?” the day after the announcement. The comments ranged from positive (“While the logo doesn’t look great, this looks like a nice step”), to neutral (“I guess I don’t see how the seal will hurt anything”), to negative (“piles of consumer behavior data says this won’t do crap”).

Members of The High End, AB InBev’s craft beer division, put out a video in response saying that the seal tears the brewing community apart rather than makes it stronger. But for the more than 2,000 craft brewers that agreed to use the seal, the positives outweigh the negatives.

“I’m guessing in the craft beer world, half of craft beer consumers really care [who makes the beer],” Jon Cadoux, the co-founder of Peak Brewing Company, an organic brewery in Maine, tells me over the phone. “If that’s true, I think this label is important, even if the other half of craft beer drinkers just says, ‘Well, O.K.’”

Lessons breweries can learn from organic

Organic food is a $40 billion-plus market in the U.S., but it didn’t come out of the gates swinging. The groundswell for organic eating began in the 1970s, around the same time the Brewers Association formed. Early certification programs “were decentralized, meaning that each state or certifying agent could determine standards based on production practices and constraints in their region,” according to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education organization. In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which established national USDA regulations, and in 2002 the USDA implemented a five-step series of guidelines for organic labeling.

Over time, as consumers grew to understand what the organic seal means and where to look for it, more and more producers went organic. The benefits of charging a premium for organic and getting a product in front of an affluent market often outweighed certification process costs. The seal is in large part responsible for the success of behemoths like Whole Foods because it helped turn organic eating into a lifestyle.

“Consumers gain by having a larger supply with lower prices and greater availability,” Richard Vanvranken, a Rutgers University professor and the department head for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, wrote in an email. “But also, they have a bit of assurance via the seal that the product is what is claimed.”

The seal essentially solidified organic’s place in American culinary identity. It appeals to the modern sensibility that authentic and small-batch is more valuable than mass produced. Buying something with the organic seal is almost as much (if not as much) a statement about who you are as it is a dietary decision.

Better still, it requires little consumer effort. Someone very interested in organic farming already knows which businesses make sustainable products. The Certified Organic seal is a way for less- motivated consumers to have all the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and diet without the cumbersome research.

The early takers and the never adopters

Vanvranken believes there are five types of businesses that adopt seals like the organic and independent labels. There are “early adopters” who try anything new, “often before it has any track record to show it works.” Following those businesses, there is a decreasing interest in new certifications until reaching the “never adopters.” The latter won’t try anything new “despite the obvious potential benefits to their farm operations.”

The “early adopters” in craft beer have already updated packaging. Surly Brewing Company put it on the bottom of its cans. Allagash has it posted on the front door of the brewery. Samuel Adams announced it’s working on adding the seal, and Dogfish Head released an ad saying why it supports the use of the seal. Others, like Peak Brewing, plan on including the seal when they phase in new larger label changes on their beers.

The “never adopters” are less vocal, but could include small breweries that only sell out of their tap rooms, and breweries that don’t have the capital to incorporate the logo into their packaging design. More vocal “never adopters” include Notch Brewing, which tweeted that it won’t use the seal because it disagrees with the Brewers Associations definition of craft.

On the consumer side, choosing to buy from the early adopters with the seal makes a statement. It says you support small business, enjoy innovative beer, and there’s a good chance you read beer forums.

Cadoux saw this firsthand at Peak, which has been organic since it opened and plans to integrate the independent seal over time.

“What we found is that the people who are interested in organic are super concerned and passionate about the seal being on there,” Cadoux tells me regarding the Certified Organic seal on Peak’s beers. “Because it’s amazing what you can say on a package these days. It borders on just straight-up lying.”

The likely future of certified independent beer

Given the speed of information dissemination in the digital age, and passion of craft beer drinkers, the Brewers Association’s seal could easily surpass the reach and impact of organic food labels.

First, more than 2,000 breweries (or early adopters) will use the seal. The average consumer won’t understand it, and might not even know it’s on the can, but a small number of people will buy certified independent beers and educate their friends about it. The Brewers Association and breweries will also go through an education period, doing as much outreach as possible. (Part of this outreach is already underway as general-interest publications like the Los Angeles Times and Milwaukee Magazine cover the seal’s release.) As more people learn about it, more people will seek out beers with the seal, and more breweries will join in.

Momentum will build, and a significant portion of the 5,000-plus breweries in the country eligible for the seal will adopt it. This will raise the bar for craft because corporate ownership will become more transparent. Those that don’t adopt the seal will be at a disadvantage, even if they technically qualify as “craft.”

“This seal is going to be all over or nowhere in 10 years,” Cadoux says. “It’ll be fun to see what happens. My gut is that people are going to use it and it’s going to catch on.”

The Upside Down

Admittedly, the organic seal is not a perfect comparison. The organic seal is regulated by the U.S. government, while the independent seal is a certification from an industry association. Organic can be used by any company that follows the rules, and the independent seal is designed to separate the small companies from the big companies.

Moreover, the U.S. government isn’t likely to change the organic requirements for a big organic producer, but the Brewers Association has changed what constitutes craft twice for large brewers — once to increase the barrel limit for Samuel Adams, and once to allow Yuengling to be considered a “traditional” brewery.

Given these fluctuations, if not enough breweries pick up the seal it could be a flop. Using the seal itself is free at the moment, but it’s expensive for breweries to pivot. Cadoux estimates that it could cost anywhere from a couple thousand dollars to $20,000 for breweries to adopt the seal whole hog.

Then there’s the fact that many people do not, and never will, understand the intricacies of craft labeling: why a brewery like Founders that’s 30 percent owned by a beer conglomerate in Spain isn’t “craft,” but a brewery such as Full Sail Brewing Company, which is owned by a private equity company in San Francisco, qualifies. (In speaking to the latter discrepancy, Bob Pease, the president of the Brewers Association, told Hop Culture that private equity investment can offer “expansion opportunities” without giving a brewery an advantage on sourcing raw materials like an investment from a major beer company like AB InBev does.)

Vanvranken pointed out that organic faced a similar problem. Companies circumvented official organic certification by capitalizing on consumer confusion surrounding the term “organic.” Instead of the seal, companies used terms like “natural” and “no chemical/pesticides.”

Those semantic punts weren’t enough to deter the impact of the organic seal, though. Words are powerful. Labels, even more so.

Craft breweries formulate nuanced brand identities through their can art and label design. Their willingness to alter carefully concocted artistic identities with a pre-fab independent seal at this early stage speaks volumes.

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