Belgian Beer & Food first reported news that renowned Lambic producers Girardin and 3 Fonteinen would leave the High Council for Traditional Lambic Beers (HORAL). Known in Flemish as Hoge Raad voor Ambachtelijke Lambiekbieren, the organization has charged itself since 1997 with the “protection” of the terms “Lambic” and “Gueuze,” sort of like a super-powered BJCP, recently and famously (in the world of beer) compromising with Austin, Texas’ Jester King on guidelines of using “Méthode Traditionelle” to describe its spontaneous beers rather than “Méthode Gueuze.”
Neither Girardin or 3 Fonteinen offered reasons for their departure from the current 15-member board. 3 Fonteinen was a founding member of the group.
Werner Van Obberghen, who’s previously been cited as business manager of 3 Fonteinen, told Belgian Beer & Food that the company “can no longer find itself” sharing the values and direction of the organization. The publication also reported that Paul Girardin—who runs the eponymous brewery alongside his wife—would not participate in HORAL’s bi-annual Toer de Geuze event and plans to leave the board, but could be convinced to stay.
In an unattributed quote, Belgian Beer & Food shared a comment that suggested board members Dirk Lindemans and Pierre Tilquin visited Girardin and 3 Fonteinen to convince the owners to stay in the organization “because a platform for discussion is a nice thing to have. But we haven’t seen them at meetings for two years. If they quit now it’s not a huge surprise.”
With the exception of 2017’s interaction with Jester King, HORAL pretty much always stays out of the spotlight. This new announcement of changes within its membership may seem like a big deal given the reputation and close-knit structure of its board, but it’s actually more reflective of what’s going on around the world when it comes to connecting business and values in today’s beer industry.
In May 2017, the Australian Craft Beer Industry Association nearly unanimously voted across 136 members to change its name to the Independent Brewers Association and exclude major brewery-owned brands. Later that year, a group of Wild Ale producers from as small as Black Project (360 BBLs in 2017) to New Belgium (955,000 BBLs in 2017) formed the Sour and Wild Ale Guild. In 2018, members of the UK's Society of Independent Brewers voted against a change to its membership charter that would have allowed a select number of large breweries—Fuller's, for example—to join the trade body. The list of such actions goes on.
In much the same way that beer festivals have drastically changed in recent years from large-scale, one-size-fits-all events to specialty and curated gatherings (some even focusing specifically on women and people of color), there continues to be a schism in how brewing businesses want to not only connect with customers, but the peers with which they grew up. Politics is the topic du jour of how breweries can showcase their values, but when it comes to industry peers, sometimes the heart wants what it wants. And in these cases, it’s to follow a path set forth by an individual company, not a trade organization.
When more people want to be represented in explicit ways that best reflect their interests—whether on their own or with partnerships with others—the shining beacon of big tent organizations loses its luster.
In a way, this has continually played out in the U.S., where the Brewers Association has worked hard in updating and editing its definition of “craft brewer” to keep one of its largest and most valuable members in the trade organization. The move has little to do with the smallest breweries in the country, where about three-quarters of U.S. producers make fewer than 1,000 barrels of beer a year. As beer industries have grown around the world, long-standing representative bodies that set the groundwork for today’s growth are not being met with backlash so much as questions of where values stand and align with members.
“It’s easier to connect to this smaller guild,” Side Project founder Cory King told GBH last year when the Sour and Wild Ale Guild was announced. “I don’t have a connection with the [Brewers Association] at all. This is such a small niche, and they’re trying to appease everybody.”
As pointed out on GBH earlier this year, splinters within alcohol industries for trade groups is nothing new. WineAmerica is one nationally-focused group dedicated to U.S. wineries, but there are also state-level organizations like the California Association of Winegrape Growers, and regional bodies that break down further, such as Napa Valley Vintners. The Distilled Spirits Council represents U.S. liquor producers, but there are also groups focused on "craft" distilling like the American Craft Spirits Association as well as specific spirits like the Craft Bitters Alliance or the American Bourbon Association.
At some point in the growth cycle of any industry, commonalities among peers big or small are bound to take over. In the case of Girardin and 3 Fonteinen, differences between their beliefs and HORAL can be as simple as not having time to fulfill visitation requests or as complicated as no longer sharing certain values of production or business. Regardless, the fact that the lack of shared interests is enough to change relationships in some way is something more than insignificant, but less than surprising, given how things have changed outside of Belgium, too.