We’ve discussed the Brewers Association Independent Brewery seal once already. But recently, Jester King Brewery in Austin, TX announced that they would be adopting it—just not in the way the BA might've preferred. Jester King will put the seal on the cases their beer comes in and they will use the seal in their facilities. But you won't find it on their beers. After an internal discussion, it was determined that the seal would clash too hard with the aesthetic they’ve worked so hard to create on their bottles.
While they were on the topic, they also brought up the BA’s definition of independence and that it was time to change the way it was defined. Jester King would prefer that independent mean, simply, that a brewery is 0% held by any major corporations. Currently, the BA allows a brewery up to 25% ownership and still claim independence.
So, it's time to go back to the Fervent Few and find out what they think about the meaning of independence. Does Jester King leaving the BA seal off their beers affect the potency of the seal? Will this move prompt other breweries to publicly offer criticism as well? Are you ready to join the Fervent Few and nerd out on this kinda stuff with us going forward?
James Raynon: “I think it depends. For the casual drinker, they probably won't look for it because they don't know about the seal and probably don't care. If you know and care about independence, but don't know who Jester King is, it'd be better on their bottles since I don't know anyone that looks at cases, themselves. For beer nerds, they'd know already, I think. And they'd only look for the seal if they agree with the seal (I've heard some people who hate it) or if they don't know the brewery.
Basically, I think if breweries adopt the seal, it doesn't move the needle too much. I think that, generally, those that care about independence will already know or will educate themselves on it. Those that don't care, will continue to just buy whatever they want.”
Dave Riddile: “Jester King distributes very small amounts across the state and across the country. When it shows up to a retailer it will be boxed up, but after that, those bottles are on a shelf, not on top of a box or merchandised in some way to feature the box.
We have stickers up in our taproom clearly displayed on the front door and our bottle cooler door, but as a small, new-ish brewery with a lot of labels left to use, don't have any plans to add it to our labels. Also, I think it would stick out like a sore thumb on our labels and probably Jester King's.
I really don't think that part of the market (people that know what the seal means/buy Jester King) will care that much one way or the other. Overall, I don't think it will ultimately increase sales to any noticeable degree for any brewery, regardless of use. A for effort, though, to the BA.”
Caldwell Bishop: “I think Jester King has the right approach to it.
My assumptions (which could be very wrong) are that the people who care most about whether or not a brewery is independent will either already know if a brewery is, or at least know how to find that out—seal or not. I don’t think the average consumer is going to notice the seal on bottles, and even if they did, they probably won’t know what it means at the point of purchase. So unless there is an education campaign for the general public on the meaning and importance of independent craft, I don’t see the seal on bottles having an impact.
Having the seal in the taproom, however, seems like a great way to start a conversation. Assuming the folks working in the taproom know what it means (one place I went to in DC recently has someone behind the bar that had no idea what it was about), they would be able to have a conversation with a customer interested in it and explain its importance to the brewery.”
James Hernandez: “I think Jester King should use the new seal how they see fit. I agree with a lot of you that the seal will not help much other than if someone is looking for a independent brewery beer specifically. People are going to pick up what they like and are used to. I will always support local breweries when I have the chance, which is more important to me. I also think independent and local mean different things to different people sometimes. Much like beer, it's all perspective. Three out of the five local breweries around me have already adopted the new seal on their package and it's placed around their taproom. We distribute two of them and I've seen no lift in sales or buzz generated. It's more of a badge of honor for them, so cheers to them.”
Nick Bailey: “This issue is obviously very complicated. I agree with much of what’s already been said about the impact on consumers. If part of a consumer’s consideration set is 'independence,' they’re likely already educated enough to make their decision without the seal, because they’ve progressed to that higher level of decision-making. For the regular consumer, they’re likely motivated by style, taste profile, ABV, etc. before they consider the degree of independent ownership.
What I think is most interesting about this issue is really the fundamental benefit of a seal altogether, which is to communicate information that improves value to the consumer. If a seal is doing that, great. But, there are some clear parallels here to what’s happening with 'all-natural' and other claims/seals that appear on other CPG/food/beverage products. There are so many claims on packaging that consumers are largely confusing them or unclear on what exactly they mean, so if the BA wants this to stick, there has to be an industry-wide effort to educate consumers, which obviously will require agreement on the definition and consistent usage.”
Kristen Foster: “I think it's hard to say what's right for a brewery. Each is unique and the choice of whether to use the seal or promote independence (whether that's through a label or another vehicle) has to align with their values and general mo. In the case of Jester King, the fact that most are probably not at all surprised they're taking this approach and blazing their own trail is more a true sign that it's the right move for them more than anything.”
Daniel Lowe: “I do kind of think that’s totally up to [Jester King] as long as they follow the rules set out by the folks who own the IP for it. As for if consumers care or even notice, that’s really back to the long debate we had here earlier, but my view is that it’s really early days to be calling success or fail on their initiatives.”
Chris Koentz: “I agree with Jester King's use of the seal. I think that a lot of BA members will ultimately adopt the seal for taproom use and promotion around their beer. However, I think that the number of members that will end up 'supporting' in terms of applying it to labels, designs, and cans is probably limited comparatively speaking.
For Jester King, I do not think not having the seal on the bottle will make any difference as their proportion of people purchasing at the brewery or in and around Austin are very well aware of who they are and what they stand for.”
Jester King wants the Brewers Association to take a good, hard look at what independence really means. Are you still "independent" if you answer to investors and corporation?
Dave Riddile: “I know that has been a point of discussion for a long time, but now [we're] replacing 'craft' with 'independent.' By that definition, if my brewery were to sell a 25% stake to another local craft brewery, we'd still be considered independent even though there'd be a new voice in the room that could be driving us towards something outside of that definition? Seems a little confusing, and not specific enough for me.”
Zack Rothman: “I think if we're going to place such value on independence we have to do as Jester King suggested and raise the bar to 100% independence. I think they are going about this the right way by supporting the idea of independence and the value it has while pushing the BA to more clearly define the term. The current definition is far too open and does not fit with the traditional meaning of the word independent, thus diminishing the value of the term altogether. I support Jester King and their decision not to include the seal on its labels for both aesthetic reasons and to support the work of their artist. I believe consumers will still see the seal and appreciate it in some respect, even if it's not on bottles. By taking this approach Jester King is truly demonstrating its independence and leading by example.”
Johnny Swinehart: “Along with the concerns Chris Lohring of Notch Brewing Co. talked about recently in the podcast, it's an example of a trade group not always representing the full interests of all of its members/possible members. While Lohring said he doesn't want to join the BA because of interactions he has had in the past regarding session beer, Jester King is already part of the BA, but wants it to be known they do not fully agree with its direction. The BA is more likely to take a stance that is more inclusive, hence the 25% definition, rather than one that excludes major regional breweries. I don't think the label is as important as the overall conversation that breweries like JK are trying to facilitate, which is important as the industry grows and changes with the infusion of outside capital and the eventual cashing-out of the capital. Aside from obvious Big Beer buyouts, my larger concern is what will happen when VC money wants to cash out and move on from their investments in craft breweries?”
Chris Koentz: “As for defining Independence, it seems that the BA is willing to find definitions that help the craft category succeed in the marketplace. Take, for example, continually redefining 'craft' up to the limits of what Boston Beer is producing. That being said, I do not believe that the BA will redefine their position on independence, seeing as not allowing private equity or allowing up to 25% ownership by another alcohol producer broadens the category and ultimately helps the BA defined craft category as a whole. But if it was up to me, I'm with Jester King 100%”
The Brewers Association independence seal has given us plenty to talk about. As far as the definition of independence goes, that’s going to take some hard work on behalf of the association and its members. But while everyone argues about percentages and who can own what, Alex Marino brings up the point that maybe it isn’t the breweries that need to change—it’s the laws.
Alex Marino: “The second point is the heart of the issue. Big Beer's history of anti-competitive practices and legislative bullying has directly harmed growth of the craft category. But the solution to that isn't consumer education about independence via a seal or other means. The solution is working with state and local legislatures to change existing laws that promote competition and craft growth. That's something that craft beer is starting to get good at (listen to the Sun King GBH episode), but clearly doesn't have the firepower to match big beer's efforts on this front. But what craft beer has that big beer doesn't is a compelling story that's a political home run for a legislator to support. These are local small businesses that are being held back by anti-competitive legislation and regulation. Remove government red tape. Update archaic or arbitrary legislation to these small businesses grow in a really tangible way.”