Brewers highlight independent status
Upside down bottle seal differentiates local beer makers
In an industry that has been accused of lacking transparency in marketing, small brewers are looking to show customers they are independent of “Big Beer.”
“This is the best time ever to be a beer lover in the history of our country. However, large global conglomerate breweries are having challenges ... and many of those brands are no longer growing,” said Julia Herz, program director of the Brewers Association. That has led to larger companies either buying up local brewers that gain popularity or starting their own “local” businesses.
In response, the organization has developed the Independent Craft Brewer Seal, meant to verify a brewer’s authenticity. Since its introduction in June, brewers have been flocking to sign up for the credential, including in a buzzing Connecticut market that boasts more than 60 breweries statewide and counting.
More than 3,400 breweries have signed on for the seal nationwide, according to the Brewers Association. Use of the seal is free for qualified brewers.
“The response has been incredible from brewers and the response has been incredible from beer lovers,” Herz said.
Illusion of choice
American craft beer and local breweries have a growing foothold in the U.S. beer market, with well over 6,000 breweries nationwide in what is roughly a $68 billion industry, according to the Brewers Association.
Amid that growth, largescale companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev and Heineken are taking a hit.
“They are actually losing shares, so Big Beer is buying their way into the craft space by acquiring independent breweries and not putting their names on the beers they now own and purchased,” Herz said. “We call it illusion of choice, and it’s been referred to as craft washing.”
For breweries to be able to use the newly created seal, they must be small and independent. Almost the entire brewery industry has adopted the seal since it was started last year, with more expected to follow.
“It’s a chance for beer lovers to have transparency and see and know that the beer that they are purchastion with that seal on it is an independent brewery in the United States,” Herz said.
A number of Connecticut brewers are on board with using the seal, viewing it as a driver to move their market forward.
“They are all small startups for the most part, unencumbered by corporate backing and Big Beer money, and that is really what this is about,” said Peter Cowles, board member of Connecticut’s Brewer’s Guild.
The craft beer scene has hit its stride in Connecticut since state law opened its doors to brewers in 2012.
Cowles said small brewers pride themselves on being independent and community-oriented, and the seal is one more way for them to show it.
Cowles, who is also founder and owner of Aspetuck Brew Labs in Bridgeport, quickly signed up for the brewer’s seal to support the growing independent movement. It’s now featured on his packaging, front door and even the bumper of his car.
Once a brewer qualifies, the upside-down bottle logo can be displayed anywhere.
“I think the seal has been a really great statement,” Cowles said. “The seal is about education and about being proud of being independent. There’s not a lot of transparency in this business.”
Danbury-based brewer Scott Vallely sees the seal becoming a popular feature among Connecticut brewers, including his own Charter Oak Brewing Co.
He and his team have begun their process of applying for the seal and plan to add it to their redesigned packaging and within their new space on Shelter Rock Road.
As more brewers sign up for the seal, he said one of the biggest drivers will be added credibility. “What that label does is pretty much confirms and endorses that indeed you are independent without justificaing or rationalization,” he said.
Keeping it local
Whether beer lovers care where their favorite brews are coming from is debatable, but Kevin Fitzsimmons of the Hamden-based Eli’s Restaurant Group said a growing population of craft beer enthusiasts are leaning toward keeping things local.
“I’m a big beer guy,” he said. “I used to go to Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts to go to breweries. Now people are actually coming to us from out of state.”
Fitzsimmons and his partners own several beer bars that carry local brews, which has become common for restaurants and package stores statewide.
The health of the state’s brewery market is complementary to other businesses, particularly bars, restaurants and food trucks, which are often stationed outside breweries. For some towns, breweries have become the local watering hole.
Fitzsimmons said consumer preferences are geared toward local brewers rather than “Big Beer” brands, which has turned the nation’s beer market upside-down, which in turn inspired the seal’s design.
“If you know someone at the brewery, you’re going to be drinking that beer,” he said. “That’s the way that local (businesses) should work.”
Beers and breweries with the upside-down bottle logo, like these from Aspetuck Brew Lab, are crafted by brewers that are independently owned.