Commentary: Colorado Craft Breweries Have a Decision to Make

Although there is a lot more to the mess in the split of 14 breweries from the Colorado Brewers Guild, including the four largest in the state, it seems being proactive at the legislation level and who is on the board of the Guild are at the crux of contention.

The newly-formed Craft Beer Colorado wants transparency and efficiency going forward for the members it has gained so far. It’s something that the members of this new guild felt wasn’t happening in the original, which many of these members helped start in 1996.

It has been reported that members did not like the way the Guild has been operated for a few years now and had worked to change it from the inside. This break shows either change wasn’t happening fast enough, or just not happening at all.

The breaking point may have been a bill signed recently by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper that will let supermarket chains buy current liquor licenses and expand sale into 20 other locations over the next 20 years. It was a compromise that didn’t sit well with some breweries and it seems members that broke off to start Craft Beer Colorado do not agree with this law. The Craft Beer Colorado group was announced just hours after this bill became news.

Another sticking point that had some grumbling is that Breckenridge president Todd Ursy is a member of the Colorado Brewers Guild board of directors. Breckenridge was acquired by InBev in December 2015. That meant a brewery that is owned by “Big Beer” had voting power on a craft beer guild. That irked some.

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“Large breweries [like AB-InBev] have a lot of advantages,” said Funkwerk’s co-founder Brad Lincoln to Fort Collins newspaper The Coloradoan. He resigned his seat on the Guild’s board to join Craft Beer Colorado. “They have purchasing power and there’s challenges with access to the market. We want a voice for the independent brewers.”

The name of the new organization alone can point to what could be a major factor. Including the word “craft” in the name shows that the members care about being-independently-owned breweries. “Big Beer” won’t be allowed at the table.

Breckenridge and InBev scrambled to defend itself and push the line that all of them are on the same mission in making great beer.

“Some have shifted to drawing a line in the sand when it comes to independent breweries,” read a statement signed by both Ursy and Felipe Szpigel, the president of AB’s “The High End” craft brewery division. “From our viewpoint, this is divisive rhetoric is a distraction on what should really matter, namely the desire of all brewers to continue driving beer forward, both here in Colorado and across the country.”

It’s sure to fall on deaf ears among many of the 300-plus breweries in the state, including many of the 200-plus members of the Colorado Brewers Guild who don’t see a dime of profit from InBev-AB like Breckenridge does.

Speaking of money, raising capital could eventually be a factor as well with who has more say at the state level.

With Left Hand, New Belgium, Odell and Oskar Blues all joining Craft Beer Colorado, the four largest breweries in the state and with national pull, they come with the most resources.

Craft Beer Colorado has the lobbying muscle as well, employing Weist Capitol Group for its efforts. Up until a few weeks ago, WCG worked with the Colorado Brewers Guild. Having that history with the breweries and legislators gives the new group a leg up in putting forth their agendas quicker and without needing to play catchup.

The writing may have been on the wall in May, perhaps.

Back then, Oskar Blues announced it would be leaving the Colorado Brewers Guild and joined the Texas Craft Brewers Guild (the brewery recently opened a facility in Austin). At the time it upset consumers and sellers, but with all the cards now out on the table it seems clearer now as to why the company bolted from the Guild.

That seemed to be the first domino in what is sure to be a mess of things for a while in one of America’s great beer states.
It will be a business, political … and possibly ethical, decision for the 300-plus breweries in Colorado over the next few weeks on which way they want to go.

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