Big beer companies hope you don't pay attention

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John Trump



Thursday, October 25, 2018

What’s craft beer, really?

Is it made and distributed locally? Or is so-called “stealth” craft, mass produced and distributed internationally?

It’s becoming increasingly tougher for consumers to discern between the two. Beer labels are vague and nonspecific in regard to who really makes the beer — unlike labels on spirits, in which the word “distilled” offers insight into where it’s made; or wine, which lists on the label the region where the grapes were grown.

For the uninformed beer consumer, it’s largely a guessing game.

That said, consumers ultimately decide what beer to buy. The large brewers are right when they say more brands mean more choice. True competition means a marketplace free and open to all without restriction.

It’s tough to disagree. But it’s important to pay attention. Big beer companies aren’t transparent, nor are they required to be.

It’s not easy for even the most zealous lover of beer to stay on top of things, but, as drinkers who care about beer — and about craft — we should try. Then, all things now considered, we can choose — whether that choice is NoDa’s Hop Drop n’ Roll or Goose IPA, now made by Anheuser-Busch InBev.

"That's always the case, right?” says Todd Ford who, along with his wife, Suzie, founded NoDa Brewing Co. in Charlotte. “It ultimately falls on the consumer to do their research and do their homework, and what the big companies are counting on ... is that they won't.

“I'm in the industry, been there for seven years, and I can't tell you who makes these beers a lot of times. I can't keep up with it. If you look at the back of the label, you're not going to find anything that clears up the mud. I think that's the point. … The large breweries have taken the ability to muddy the field, and they've used it to their advantage."

The stealth market isn’t new.

As I wrote last year, big brewers are gulping down craft brewers to get in the game, an apparent effort to offset waning sales for mass-produced adjuncts.

As the Charlotte Business Journal says in a recent story, five beer makers own more than 50 percent of the worldwide market, and those brands, obviously, dominate supermarket shelf space. Incentive programs from big brewers, who award distributors who place and sell large percentages of a client’s product, further tilt the proverbial field.

Ford and his fellow craft brewers don’t necessarily debate the quality of beer produced by the big guys, or how those brewers make the beer.

Yet sometimes the big brewers’ ability to promote, market and incentivize their products go down like a swig of bad ghost pepper stout.

“I think what they've decided to do long ago was, they can't be sexier than our brand, but what they can do is capitalize on the convenience of their distribution networks, their incredible amount of advertising dollars and all the other stuff,” Todd Ford says. “So, they can buy craft breweries ... and actually become owners in the craft beer industry, if not organically then directly by purchasing. And then they can take those brands, which have a good following in the craft beer industry, and turn them into international brands, brands that help the bottom line in Brazil and Belgium and other places, even though they're not sold there.”

Craft beer guilds and associations are inventing ways to differentiate their products. The Brewers Association, for example, has come up with a seal — an upside down bottle symbolizing how craft brewers have turned the industry, well, “upside down.” Brewers in Charlotte will soon adorn their products with a red cap reading “CLT Certified Beer,” the Carolina Business Journal reported.

These initiatives are worth noting, and they may well help the craft brewers.

But, again, it’s the buyers who will decide what beer to buy and from where, and there are myriad options. Many grocery stores have decent selections, and some stores are exceptional in that regard. But — and beer geeks already know this — people new to beer should get to know their neighborhoods, to seek out niche retailers, bottle shops and tap houses. To visit their local breweries.

Ford doesn’t fault brewers who sell to large corporations and conglomerates. Why not capitalize on that interest? Why not take advantage of a free market that rewards entrepreneurship and innovation?

When, that is, lawmakers allow it.

Ford and NoDa are part of an ongoing lawsuit filed against the state seeking to end enforcement of the state’s distribution cap — now at 25,000 barrels per year — and franchise laws on breweries.

"I support anybody that makes a decision on how to run their business,” Ford says.

He offers a caveat for brewers who sell to a bigger concern.

"If you do make that decision, it does change everything. Does it change the beer? No, the beer's probably the only thing it doesn't change, at least initially. … But ultimately what changes the day they sign on the line is they aren't independent.

"I think there are a vast majority of people who are, like, ‘Hey, I care where my money goes. I'd like to spend it locally ... especially if (a product is) just as good if not better than what I would get from a big box store that sells things by the pallet load versus by the case. ... I would like to know who makes this and where that money's going. In that case, I think we're going to win. …”

John Trump is author of “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State.” He lives in Cary.