Good Beer Hunting

Adaptation & Natural Selection — Brewery Guilds Splinter and Regroup as an Industry Evolves


Evolution, by definition, is a slog. It's slow, and it can come in starts and stops, but it's always moving forward.

At times, changes within beer can feel the same way. Distribution is just one example in which adaptation is taking place in a tier filled with companies historically opposed to it. Yet the ones succeeding are ones adapting to a new landscape. There may be some kicking and screaming, but the market is finding its way.

So maybe it's worth taking a deep breath when sudden adjustments occur. What if the things that seem like a big deal are actually just…stuff that’s supposed to happen?

In February, a collection of Garden State businesses agreed to create their own representative body, the Brewers Guild of New Jersey, in lieu of long term participation in the New Jersey Brewers Association. The action may have been more an inevitable outcome created by commonly aligned interests instead of a declaration of “civil war.” After all, not everything is life or death.

“We’re concerned that we’re not going to have an opportunity to talk about things that are important to us like franchise reform, maintaining self-distribution rights, talking about forming strategies for things on the horizon, like addressing ecommerce,” Cape May Brewing Co. co-founder and CEO Ryan Krill told Brewbound.

On the surface, the incident paralleled a similar action taken by a group of Colorado breweries in 2016, who splintered over disagreements due to “legislative and regulatory leadership,” transparency, and an interest in removing Breckenridge Brewery’s spot on the organization’s board after its Anheuser-Busch InBev buyout. The group included national names like Great Divide, New Belgium, and Left Hand. Just five months after the splintering, they regrouped.

In Colorado, renegade businesses rallied around their belief of small and independent brewers. In New Jersey, nine companies decided to create their own group because, as they “base their business models around outside distribution instead of tasting rooms sales, they need to pursue their own priorities.” Even last year, a collection of breweries formed the Sour and Wild Ales Guild to connect over a passion for supporting a growing section of the industry. It wasn’t about thumbing their nose to their state guilds or national representation from the Brewers Association, either.

“It never occurred to me to work with the BA on this,” The Rare Barrel’s Jay Goodwin told GBH at the time. “I don’t know all the internal workings of the BA, but this gives us the ultimate freedom.”

But it was a comment from Cory King of Side Project that put it into perfect context: “It’s easier to connect to this smaller guild. I don’t have a connection with the BA at all. This is such a small niche, and they’re trying to appease everybody.”

Whether it’s on a local, state, regional, or national level, this is stuff that’s bound to happen when you have an industry with more than 6,000 members and plenty of ways to handle business plans, operations, process, and so much more. Finding your clique isn’t giving a middle finger to the establishment. It’s high school on repeat. Just with rents and budget lines and way more insurance. Probably more beer, too.

“Sharing business knowledge, models, and aligning interests? This is some shit that tire shops do,” HenHouse Brewing co-founder Collin McDonnell says with a half-laugh. “There are plenty of industries that are really crowded, and small guys band together to promote a community or specific things like a local restaurant bureau or tourism guide. This is the nature of small business.”

To put in context, WineAmerica is one nationally-focused group dedicated to U.S. wineries, but there are also state-level organizations like 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 American Bourbon Association.

And even though the Automotive Service Association represents repair professionals across America, there is still the region and purpose-specific Automotive Aftermarket Association of the Carolinas and Tennessee, and yes, the Texas Tire Dealers Association still feels it can represent the needs of Lone Star State pros better than the U.S.-focused Tire Industry Association.

A difference when these kinds of things happen in beer, McDonnell tells GBH, is it’s because beer is fun. “You hear, ‘Oh, they’re forming a guild?’ and it seems exciting.”

But it’s also practical economics.

McDonnell is currently on a steering committee tasked with helping create one of five regional chapters of the San Francisco Brewers Guild. His focus is on the North Bay, with colleagues also creating chapters in South Bay, East Bay, Santa Cruz-Monterey Bay, and the city itself. It’s not part of an effort to splinter or cause strife. It’s simply acknowledging that each pocket has novel attributes unto itself and business owners would be done well by organizing around their geographic connectivity, not just relying on the overarching guild to represent the unique needs of every brewer in every area.

San Francisco members, he admits, have no reason to get into the “nitty gritty of what sells beer in the North Bay,” but recognize that each locale benefits from being able to advocate for themselves and what they need as companies is an ideal sharing of insight and resources.

“Oakland is 40 miles from my brewery and we do very well in Oakland, but we meet people who say they only serve local beer,” McDonnell says. “You’ve got to be kidding me. But it’s definitely part of this whole thing. Part of the modern brewing landscape is remaining local and understanding what that means for any given set of consumers and your business.”

This is a common denominator that runs through all these guild-or-not-to-guild decisions, and even plainly stated as a reason for the shenanigans in New Jersey. Brewers weren’t trying to start a war—they wanted a model that advocated for a specific set of interests. Membership to the new Brewers Guild of New Jersey is only available to breweries and brewpubs that sell at least 2,000 barrels. To put that in perspective, nearly three-quarters of breweries in the entire country make 1,000 barrels or less.

“It’s definitely not a ‘we’re taking our toys and going home’ scenario,” Cape May’s Ryan Krill told Brewbound. “It’s just recognizing that, as the industry has matured, there are multiple business models and there’s no one-size-fits-all association that can represent all of that.”

The birth of the new guild, while undoubtedly surprising and upsetting to some in the Garden State, represents the potential of a young industry. American “craft” beer has existed for roughly 50 years, and the latest wave of businesses that are finding their way and forming new alliances is maybe a quarter of that amount. As laws and economic models change, it’s a natural progression that new opportunities are created based on similarities between businesses and friendships built on shared interests and concerns.

It’s not the end of the road. It’s just a fork.

“A lot of what you’re seeing is normal shit that other types of business owners see and are like, ‘You guys are just getting to that?’” McDonnell says. “I grew up stealing Sierra and Sam Adams from my parents, so for me, it could feel like craft beer is the way things always were, but it’s still a very nascent industry. A lot of this is just regular, healthy development of a market.”

—Bryan Roth