Beer Man

Coors, Miller, Bud will keep sponsoring GABF, despite craft vs. crafty controversy

When the Brewers Association blasted the nation's two largest beer makers last week for not labeling some of their smaller brands with the names "MillerCoors" or "Anheuser-Busch," the Boulder organization risked losing a lot of money. After all, the two companies kick in at least $20,000 annually to be a part of the Great American Beer Festival, which takes place in Denver. But neither company says it plans to back away from GABF, which is the largest and most complete beer competition in the nation, despite the controversy, which has become known as the craft vs. "crafty" debate.

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"We enjoy being a part of the craft community," says Tom Ryan, a spokesman for Tenth and Blake, the MillerCoors division that oversees Blue Moon Brewing, which was specifically targeted by the Brewers Association, and the corporation's other craft beer makers and craft-like brands. "And we have a lot of respect for brewers of all shapes and sizes, whether they're owned by a larger beer company, private investors or otherwise."

Ryan says Tenth and Blake has no intention of pulling out of GABF; the company typically wins more than a dozen medals each year at the competition.

The same is true for the makers of Shock Top, the other beer that the BA called out in its December 13 manifesto demanding transparency from the megabrewers.

"Anheuser-Busch has been a proud sponsor of the Great American Beer Festival for more than two decades and has no plans to change our support," the company said in a statement to Westword on the issue.

But that doesn't mean that the maker of Budweiser likes it. A spokeswoman for the company deferred other questions on the controversy to a statement from Joe McClain, president of the Beer Institute, which lobbies for the big brewers in Washington, D.C.

"The small brewers in this country are experiencing explosive growth -- their dollar sales were up 14 percent in the first half of 2012 -- and they represent the fastest growing segment within the industry, having added 442 new breweries in 2012 alone. This indicates that the craft brewing sector is doing just fine producing high-end beer for high-income consumers, despite a sluggish economic recovery impacting hard-working, middle class Americans," McClain says in the statement.

"It's also worth pointing out the important economic footprint that large brewers provide. Today, the major brewers are responsible for the lion's share of the beer industry's $223 billion annual contribution to our nation's economy, helping put more than 1.8 million Americans to work, from brewery workers to bartenders, from factory hands to farmers," he continues. "Ultimately, it comes down to consumer choice. And with a record number of brewers in today's marketplace, consumers have more choice than ever before."

The debate began last week when the BA, which represents small brewers nationwide, fired off its oddly-timed shot over the bows of MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, blasting them for selling "crafty" beers without labeling them as their products.

"When someone is drinking a Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer, they often believe that it's from a craft brewer, since there is no clear indication that it's made by SABMiller," the BA says. "The same goes for Shock Top, a brand that's 100 percent owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev."

BA spokeswoman Julia Herz admits the statement was written at the request of the association's members who are concerned about transparency on labels.

But she distanced the issue from GABF, where the megabrewers have competed for many years alongside small and medium sized craft brewers, saying the big brewers are needed to make it the premier beer contest in the country.

"GABF has and is an arena where big and small brewers compete head to head in a fair and even playing field," she says.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes