Beer Man

The Colorado Brewers Guild Has Fractured in the Face of Changing Industry

The Colorado Brewers Guild, which has represented the interests of the state’s craft breweries for the past twenty years, has imploded in the face of a rapidly changing industry.

At least fourteen independent craft breweries, including Colorado’s four largest —New Belgium, Oskar Blues, Odell Brewing and Left Hand — are forming a new organization called Craft Beer Colorado that “aspires to be open, responsive, proactive and effective on issues that impact its members.” Some of these breweries will remain as members of the Guild, but others will not.

Two Guild boardmembers, Wynne Odell of Odell Brewing and Brad Lincoln of Funkwerks, have resigned their seats in order to join the new group; Odell had served as president of the board, while Lincoln was the treasurer. The Guild’s lobbying firm, Weist Capitol Group, has left as well, so that it can work with the new organization.

These moves could deal a severe financial and political blow to the Guild, which is headed by longtime craft-brewing advocate John Carlson.

“This is in response to huge changes in our industry… including the efforts of the big brewers [like AB InBev] to control the market,” says Left Hand Brewing co-founder Eric Wallace, who sent out a letter to Guild members last week explaining that he was leaving the Guild to join Craft Beer Colorado, which he hopes will be more effective at dealing with those changes and threats.

Left Hand, which was a founding member of the Guild in 1996, is now a founding member of Craft Beer Colorado. The other founding members are Odell, Funkwerks, New Belgium Brewing and Renegade Brewing. “This was a very difficult decision for me to make,” Wallace says. “I led the charge in 1996, and I intend to lead the charge going forward.”

Other breweries that have joined Craft Beer Colorado include Oskar Blues, Epic Brewing, Great Divide Brewing, Bristol Brewing, Mountain Sun, Grimm Brothers, TRVE Brewing, Four Noses and Wibby.

Wallace says that some of the problems that independent breweries face right now include the pending merger of AB InBev and SAB Miller, as well as AB InBev’s recent purchasing spree of craft breweries, including Breckenridge Brewery in Colorado.

That last issue was one of the largest reasons for starting a new organization, says Wynne Odell. The Guild’s bylaws allow a representative of any brewery incorporated in the state of Colorado to serve on its board, including those owned by “Big Beer.” That became an issue late last year when AB InBev bought Breckenridge Brewery, because Breckenridge president Todd Usry sits on the Guild’s board of directors.

Opinions were split as to whether a company owned by AB InBev, which has been waging a consistent war against craft breweries even as it acquired them, should have voting rights in the Guild, or even be allowed to be a member at all; Guild members are currently voting on this issue (the election runs through June).

But Odell and others became convinced that the best thing to do would be to simply start a new group. “There have been efforts to change the Guild from within for years, but it became apparent that the best thing to do was start over,” she says.

But that was just one of several issues. “The other significant reason we wanted to start up a new organization is that we have been unable to move the dial legislatively and regulatorily. We’ve been in reaction mode for a long time,” she says. The primary example of this has been the debate over whether grocery and supermarket chains should be allowed to carry full-strength beer, something that many craft breweries have been opposed to, along with independent liquor stores.

Just hours before Craft Beer Colorado announced its existence, Governor John Hickenlooper, a former brewery owner himself, signed a “compromise” that will allow supermarket chains to buy existing liquor licenses and to expand their sales into twenty different locations over the next twenty years. Current law limits each chain to sales at one location in the state. The chains will likely continue to push beyond this law, however, with a ballot initiative this fall that allows them even more freedom.

“This bill is all we have been dealing with for a long time,” Odell says. “But we feel like there are all sorts of ways to create a more positive landscape. In other states, the guilds are being proactive rather than reactive. We want to be in the driver’s seat rather than in the trunk. We want to change the mindset.”

Guild director Carlson believes that the Guild, which includes 220 of the state’s 350 or so breweries, is capable of that and believes that all of these matters should be handled by the democratic process within the Guild. “As the membership expands, we have all shapes and sizes and lots of different inputs. We are constantly evolving, learning from the past and trying to apply those lessons to the future,” he says. “Our board has been very active and plans to be very active in the future.”

The creation of the new organization will have a severe financial impact on the Guild if the large breweries decide not to join again next year. It will also be politically confusing for state lawmakers, Carlson says. “It’s my hope that the membership feels that they are being listened to and that there are avenues for them to contribute their thoughts and ideas, and that, collectively, the best decisions are being made on behalf of the industry. I would hate to see that fractured.”

He also hopes there will be a reconciliation of the two groups after the Guild elections are over. “I respect their opinions. They are professionals, I think we can meet their needs, given a chance,” he says. “I am there to support them in any way I can, even in this new endeavor. I think it would be better if there was one [group]. But if they think this is in their collective best interest, I am not going to disagree with that. I would hope it wouldn’t have to come to that.”

But reconciliation may not be possible. Laura Long, who worked for Bristol Brewing for years before becoming a lobbyist for Weist Capitol Group, says “there is an appetite for an organization with a mission to do something more proactive.” Long worked for the Guild until two weeks ago, when Weist resigned to help Craft Beer Colorado.

“In 1996, when the Guild was formed, no one could have predicted the explosive growth of the industry, or that AB InBev would go around acquiring breweries. This is in response to that, and is not a repudiation of the Guild," she says.

Craft Beer Colorado will extend an invitation to every independent craft brewery in the state to join — and plans to vote on bylaws and board members in the near future. After that, it will come up with a regulatory and legislative agenda. 
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes