OPINION: What If Craft Beer Drinkers DIDN’T Line Up For BCBS?

Opinion and Commentary

You know what I love about the craft beer industry? How much time do you have? The people who create award-winning, memorable offerings every single day. The innovation behind the ideas they bring to the brew kettle. The willingness to go against the grain to produce a unique product. The enthusiasts who seek these creations out, ferociously devoting time, energy, and money towards tasting and critiquing. The passion of hundreds of thousands of people to push an idea, an industry, a culture forward against an international conglomerate that fancies the beer world remain in their own mold and vision…one that’s suited their bank accounts well for decades. I love the collective middle finger against that notion. And, it goes without saying…I love the liquid itself. I could go on and on, but let’s move on.

Beer enthusiasts lined up at Caliente Pizza & Draft House in Bloomfield prior to 8am for not only 2017 BCBS, but a diverse lineup featuring many barrel-aged beers from local, regional, and national brands. Photo courtesy of Brendan Titchworth.
Beer enthusiasts lined up at Caliente Pizza & Draft House in Bloomfield prior to 8am for not only 2017 BCBS, but a diverse lineup featuring many barrel-aged beers from local, regional, and national brands. Photo courtesy of Brendan Titchworth.

You know what I don’t love about the craft beer industry? The fact that many beer enthusiasts spend the better part of their year questioning the tactics of Anheuser-Busch InBev – from their jab-laden commercials about craft beer and its fan base to videos denigrating the efforts of the Brewers Association to create movements that distinguish the differences between independent beer and breweries who chose to join the ABI ranks to behind-the-scenes maneuvers that make it increasingly difficult to find smaller brands throughout various markets – yet willingly battle crowds, traffic, and surly weather conditions to line up and purchase a small allocation of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Barrel-Aged Stout that hits the streets every Black Friday.

In case you didn’t get the memo, Goose Island is owned 100% by ABI.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. Those of us who love the results of a beer after it has sat quietly inside a bourbon, whiskey, or rum barrel owe a lot to the forward-thinking folks at Goose. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, Bourbon County came to life thanks to a chance meeting between Goose Island Founder John Hall and Booker Noe of Jim Beam at a beer, bourbon, and cigar pairing dinner in 1994. Hall asked Noe for the barrels that housed the first batch of Bourbon County for 100 days and were released as an exclusive, unadvertised pub offering that no one saw coming. The rest is history.

In 2011, Goose Island sold to Anheuser-Busch. It wasn’t the first brewery to make this move, but it was one of the first and perhaps, at the time and even to this day, the most prominent. If this is the exit strategy a brewery and its owners choose, so be it. There are many out there who question whether this is the right decision for a craft brewery to make, citing the fact their founding ideals and philosophies are suppressed in the face of the all-powerful dollar.

At the end of the day, we aren’t in that room when negotiations take place. One can only assume that hundreds of pros and cons are weighed before taking that final step, trading in years of reputation for a life-changing pay day. The final decision and its blowback rests on the shoulders of the ones who put pen to paper and make it official.

So here’s where I get upset: a brewery makes the decision to join big beer. But they don’t own the decision. They claim to still be craft, true to their roots, *insert fluff line from ABI’s welcome packet here.* They want to create confusion in the marketplace and lead consumers to believe they’re supporting an independent brand when they’re truly not. They want to maintain relationships they forged in the craft sector even though they’re no longer part of it…

And when consumers go on excursions to get BCBS bottles on Black Friday and utilize their social media accounts to talk about how wonderful the beer is and, most confusing and irritating of all, that it doesn’t matter that ABI owns them because it tastes good, it further damns the efforts of those trying to unblur the blurry lines between big beer and independent beer.

I’m not condemning the liquid. I’m sure it’s good. Undoubtedly, a ton of work has gone into overcoming the infection fiasco of 2015’s BCBS release. But at the end of the day, this is an ABI product. And they’re probably laughing their asses all the way to the bank when they see their haters support them in such strong fashion, even if for only 24 little hours. That money helps support the initiatives you question the other 364 days of the year. Is it worth it?

Imagine if we woke up on Black Friday and just basked in the glory of a Thanksgiving well-spent. I friggin’ hate Black Friday and that’s a subject for another day, so let’s cut shopping out altogether. Let’s just say we tapped into our stash of other beers or visited a local brewpub or watering hole and didn’t make plans to stand in the cold at 6am for a hopeful score of BCBS. What might this do?

These numbers are insanely rudimentary, gathered through various social postings in craft beer groups and friends who cashed in their “Love ABI For One Day Free” cards. On the conservative side, one bottle of BCBS, in any of its variants, is $18. Most patrons were limited to four. So $72 times each location’s allocation times the number of locations per market times the number of markets BCBS sells in. You don’t need an abacus to tell you the enormity of that final sum.

What would change? Well, aside from less money raised to potentially choke off independent beer’s supplies and shelf space, it would send a message that craft beer drinkers support craft beer 100%. Line up in 2018 at your favorite distributor or bottle shop and, instead of purchasing BCBS, find the best offering from an independent brewery that hits you in the feels and buy that. I can guarantee you this: the location where you bought your 2017 BCBS stash has something of the independent variety right on par with the BCBS/ABI brand.

You know what? Let’s make this real. Let’s all make a collective pact to brave the elements on Friday, November 23rd, 2018 (Black Friday 2018), stand in line at our suppliers of choice, and when we cross that threshold, find something local and/or independent and purchase that instead. Will this make the BCBS brand vanish? Absolutely not. But that message of support for our independent brands could make an impact that helps smaller brands enhance their visibility throughout the entire year going forward.

Can we make it happen? A boy can dream. I’m all in.

Many breweries have embarked on barrel-aging programs, the results of which has been some pretty exceptional liquid. Some are packaged, some you need to visit the taproom to experience. Either way, consistently supporting the independent brands is what we strive for every other day of the year. Let’s keep that mission consistent across the board. That first sip will taste even better when you make that important choice.





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