beer business

Who’s in and who’s out?

When you start up a club you have to work out who can join and who can’t.

Which means you need some membership criteria – and the clearer that criteria is the better.

That’s what I’ve taken away from the whole “big brewers leaving the CBIA” brouhaha that erupted this week. For more detail you can go read this or this or this. But if you’re of the TL:DR crowd, Malt Shovel (who makes James Squire beers), Little Creatures and White Rabbit have pulled the pin, spat the dummy, thrown all the toys out of the pram (choose whichever fits your own personal feelings in this matter) and left the CBIA.

In a statement about it brewer Chuck Hahn says he’s not a fan of the industry defining itself “in terms of who owns what”. Which he wouldn’t be, because there’s no way he comes out on the winning side of that debate.

“No matter who you are, you have to raise the funds to brew from somewhere, whether it be your bank, wealthy private investors, shareholders or otherwise,” Hahn said in a statement. “I don’t see how that should make any real difference to beer drinkers who generally only care about the quality and variety of the beer they are drinking. And if we measure brewers by their scale, and they need investment to achieve that scale, what message are we sending them – if drinkers love your beer and you grow as a result you are no longer a legitimate brewer?”

Now, at first I thought he had a point. But now I don’t. Because basing membership on who owns the place has nothing to do with being “a legitimate brewer”. I’m not one of those beer geeks who think the big guys brew megaswill. Seriously, to make a beer like VB taste the same with every single batch takes a high level of brewing skill (a skill I’d suggest some craft brewers don’t have). Sure,I don’t like VB but I can certainly recognise the talent and ability that went into making it.

As for whether ownership makes a difference to beer drinkers or not – that’s irrelevant. I doubt anyone goes into a bottle shop thinking, “I’m only going to buy beers from breweries that are in the CBIA”. It’s most likely not on their radar – and I don’t think it was supposed to be. At its heart the prime motivation of the CBIA would have been to help brewers, not drinkers (though raising the profile of the former, would likely affect the latter).

Hahn says instead of ownership, the craft beer industry should define itself by what’s great about craft “the quality beers, the passionate brewers and the characters behind them”. Now, any sort of criteria to decide who is a part of the “craft beer industry” will be fraught with issues but using one that includes intangibles like “quality” and “passion” would seem one of the worst. Who gets to decide what is and isn’t quality? Because there would be some beer snobs that’d suggest Squire beers aren’t “quality”. How much passion does a brewer need to have before they’re allowed to join?

At least linking membership to private ownership is much more clear-cut. Yes, it will create issues – what happens when a brewer decides to sell shares in their company? Do they get booted out? Will Mountain Goat now be ousted too? – but every definition will be flawed. Looking to leave out the big boys just seems to make sense. It’s hard to see how the interests of James Squire or Lion would be the same as, say Bacchus or Bridge Road. I’m sure excise tax relief or the breaking of tap contracts is far more important to the little guys than the big guys.

In fact, it’s hard to see why the big guys care so much about not being allowed in the club. I reckon they’ll do just fine.

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