John Carlson, who has led the Colorado Brewers Guild for two decades, has taken a “leave of absence” from the organization while the state’s craft breweries try to sort out the direction in which they'll be heading next. The move comes two months after fourteen craft breweries — including the state’s four largest — broke away from the Guild to create a new organization with similar goals, but different leadership.
While the defectors had different reasons for wanting to leave the Guild, several felt that Carlson didn’t participate enough in the legislative debate last spring over whether supermarkets would be allowed to carry full-strength beer in multiple locations rather than just one. In the end, Governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill that will permit supermarkets to gradually add locations that sell full-strength beer.
In the past two weeks, however, several Guild members have expressed a strong interest in trying to reconcile with the fourteen members of the new group, called Craft Beer Colorado. As the result, the two sides have been talking quietly — and privately — with one another about whether that could happen.
But it was clear to Carlson that the talks needed to take place without him. “While there may be different opinions as to the best means and methods to move our community forward, all of us agree that it must happen with a consolidated voice from a single organization,” Carlson wrote in a letter sent last week to the Guild’s 200-plus members. “While it is unfortunate, I find it necessary to take a leave of absence in order to let the reconciliation process move forward between our two groups unencumbered.”
Carlson acknowledged that the past few weeks have been “tumultuous” for Colorado’s craft brewers and said it is more important for industry members to stick together than for him to remain as the director. He didn’t give a timeframe for a return or indicate whether he planned to come back.
Carlson didn’t return a call from Westword seeking comment.
Guild boardmember Chris Wright, the owner of Pikes Peak Brewing in Colorado Springs, confirms that Carlson had taken a leave of absence but declined to discuss specifics, saying, “We have just started the reconciliation process…. I know that both sides are interested in having a single group represent craft beer.”
In the meantime, he adds, Kevin Delange of Dry Dock Brewing will represent the Colorado Brewers Guild during working group meetings related to the supermarket bill, known as SB 197. The first of those meetings was held on August 1. Laura Long is representing Craft Beer Colorado at the meetings.
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Long, the former lobbyist for the Guild, is also a part of Craft Beer Colorado now; she declined to comment on Carlson or on the chances of a possible reconciliation.
Craft Beer Colorado was created in early June by Odell Brewing, New Belgium, Left Hand, Funkwerks and Renegade Brewing. The other members are: Oskar Blues, Epic Brewing, Great Divide Brewing, Bristol Brewing, Mountain Sun, Grimm Brothers, TRVE Brewing, Four Noses and Wibby Brewing.
In addition to stronger legislative, regulatory leadership and vision and transparency, the group cited Breckenridge Brewery’s leadership position and membership in the Guild as a problem. Formerly an independent brewery, Breckenridge was bought out by Anheuser Busch InBev, the maker of Budweiser, late last year. Many craft brewers say AB InBev has actively tried to limit their growth. As a result, they believe it is inappropriate for Breckenridge to be a member of the Guild, or to be on its board.
In July, the Guild membership voted to strip Breckenridge of voting power on the board. The Guild wasn’t allowed to vote on whether Breckenridge should be kicked out entirely, though.