Over the past 20 to 25 years, beer has seen a renaissance in America. Once dominated by the big breweries, a few imports and a dwindling set of regional players, the flourishing of craft brewing has added hundreds of labels to the marketplace. It has also led to countless varieties and flavors for beer lovers to enjoy. Some of these labels even manage to stick around and become regional favorites themselves like Memphis-based Wiseacre Brewing Company.
Success, however, breeds familiarity. For craft beer aficionados, it represents a loss of luster. What was once special is now commonplace and, potentially, mass produced. It can also draw the attention of larger players looking to capitalize on another brewer's craft and buyout potential competition.
To help beer lovers spot the real deal, the Brewers Association has developed a certification for independent craft brewers.
Wiseacre Brewing Company is one local craft brewer that competes in this ill-defined playing field. The brewer received its certification from the Brewers Association last year.
“It seemed like a good idea for us. And I believe about half of the independent breweries in the country have adopted it,” said Kellan Bartosch, Wiseacre Brewing Company founder.
In the first year of availability, signups have been strong as 55 percent of the Association’s craft brewers have been certified. Tennessee’s adoption rate ekes out the national trend at 57 percent.
Founded five years ago, Wiseacre has expanded its reach. A regional name, it now has markets in eight states including Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama as well as Illinois and Pennsylvania. Currently, all of their beer, about 21,000 barrels per year, is made at their 2783 Broad Avenue brewery.
Plans are being made for a second brewery, which could increase production to the mid-40,000-barrel range, with possible expansion of up to 115,000 barrels.
So, with their customer base growing, truth in advertising is important to the brewery’s future.
“I feel like the underlying message is that customers want to know and deserve to know the truth. There’s a big conversation around illusion of choice,” said Bartosch. “An example would be: one of the major breweries in the world has bought six smaller breweries and say those breweries are the only options available at a bar. Instead of thinking you’re buying beer from different small breweries, you are actually buying beer from one big brewery.”
To meet the definition of a craft beer, certain criteria have to be met. In addition to the under six-million barrels maximum, less than 25 percent of the brewery can be owned or controlled by an industry member that is not a craft brewer. There also needs to be variety, with traditional or innovative ingredients, and brew techniques.
“There’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace today because all four of the big brewers have acquired independent breweries in the last few years. Yet, when they do that, these formerly independent brewers, do not have the new name of the parent company on the bottles or cans. So, the beer lovers cannot tell who’s independent,” said Julia Herz, craft beer program director with Brewers Association.
Take the case of Goose Island. Starting with a single Chicago brewpub in 1988, it added a brewery in 1995. The expansion payed off as it grew into a regional favorite. Taking notice, Anheuser Busch, Budweiser’s bottler (itself, an Americanized version of the famed Czech beer, Budvar), purchased the label in 2011. Today, it can be found in most bars and grocers while still marketing itself as a craft beer.
Other large brewers have followed suit, snapping up more and more independent brew houses.
“It’s not about who makes better beer. It’s not about quality. It has to do with the fact that these small brewery businesses are having a harder time than ever in the marketplace ... especially because of these acquisitions of formerly independent brewers by big beer,” said Herz.
And the problem is exacerbated by the mislabeling of the beers. Craft brewers, which are by definition small, are being squeezed out by larger competitors with national reach and unfathomable advertising budgets. Others cannot reach the sunlight to see an inch of growth.
By distinguishing these smaller labels from their larger competitors, the brewers are protecting the integrity of the product, too. They are also protecting jobs. All those thousands of small breweries employ thousands of workers, after all.
“The small breweries are small businesses and what they bring to our country and our culture, I don’t think gets enough attention: 135,000 full and part-time jobs directly from craft brewers. They contribute exponentially to tourism — more than 10 million people toured craft breweries in 2014. They donate millions to charitable causes that are local, regional and national — more than $70 million in 2016,” said Herz.
So far, the seal isn’t on individual bottles of Wiseacre brews. Some packaging materials lack it as well. As the old materials run out, new branding with the seal will be circulated in.
“It’s taking time to incorporate the seal into what we are doing. We aren’t just going to throw away all the packaging materials we own that doesn’t have it on there. Right now, it’s been incorporated onto boxes and the doors of the brewery. In time we will transition all packaging including the label to display the seal,” said Bartosch.
But, seal or no seal, when it comes to beer there is one thing that trumps all for craft brewers.
“We do think it’s (the seal) important, and people should be informed. But we want people to drink our beer because it’s good,” said Bartosch.