Brewers Association Unveils “Independent Craft” Seal — Cannabis is Next
Independent craft breweries have flourished in recent decades, as the market share for craft beer has grown by more than 300% since 2009. But recently, international beverage giants like In-Bev Anheuser Busch, makers of Budweiser, and Constellation Brands, makers of Corona, have begun acquiring a stable of well-known, formerly independent craft brands like Ballast Point, 10 Barrel, and Goose Hollow. Armed with a portfolio of formerly craft names (the Brewers Association calls them “crafty”), and backed by the enormous marketing budgets and powerful distribution networks, the conglomerates have begun pushing truly independent brands off of hard-won shelf space, threatening independent brewers’ access to markets and limiting, once again, consumer choice.
This begs the question: do consumers really care whether the beer they are drinking is authentically craft? The conglomerates are hoping not. But the Brewers Association, the trade association representing independent craft breweries, believes that they do. That’s why they have recently unveiled an “Independent Craft Brewers” seal and logo that will be available only to brands that meet the Brewers Association’s definition of craft.
“All other things being equal, if you have two brands next to each other, one independently or family owned, and the other owned by Big Alcohol, I think most people would choose the small, independently owned brand — no doubt about it,” Tom McCormick, head of the 500 member California Brewers Association, told NPR last week.
Craft cannabis producers and processors, especially those in newly legal states with long traditions of home (or otherwise) grown production such as Oregon and Northern California, now face a similar quandary. Large companies and deep-pocketed investment funds from other states and even other countries are coming in and snapping up locally owned brands or starting their own. At risk is not only the livelihood of hundreds of small business owners, family farmers and artisans, but also the incredible biodiversity of cannabis cultivated in these regions, and the economic futures of entire communities.
Here in Oregon, which is arguably the birthplace of the craft movement in America, with a strong craft beer industry, a fast-growing craft distilling industry, a world class artisan wine industry, and a very strong local food scene, there is every reason to believe that consumers DO care about these things. And that defining craft in the cannabis sphere, and making a strong pitch to consumers telling them the Oregon craft story, and inviting to participate in the burgeoning craft cannabis movement, is not only the right thing to do, but also a smart marketing decision.
While the craft beer industry defines itself narrowly (small production and independent ownership,) cannabis producers, coming directly out of the shadows of its own 80 year prohibition, with all of the harms that it created, have a broader set of values that they feel are important to the label of craft. That is why the Craft Cannabis Alliance, the only industry association in Oregon that is both values-driven and dedicated entirely to supporting and celebrating the craft market, is working with its members and others to set standards for authentic Oregon craft cannabis that reflect a vision of the kind of industry they want to create.
These include clean product, sustainable methods, ethical employment practices, substantial local ownership, community engagement, and meaningful support for more rational and humane drug policies overall.
Yusef Guient, owner of Medicinal Roots, a recreational license holder and grower in Southern Oregon, is organizing a cannabis farmers’ co-op in his rural community. He sees great value in defining craft cannabis and engaging consumers in a partnership that could save hundreds of locally owned farms and businesses across Oregon who are growing some of the best weed anywhere.
“It’s not just small farmers, though they will be the first to be wiped out by huge, out of state corporations buying up farms and brands and dominating shelf space behind enormous marketing budgets,” he said. “It’s Oregon-owned cannabis businesses large AND small, those who care deeply about their people, their communities, their ecological footprint, the economic future of the state, and about the plant itself. There is a strong core of the Oregon industry that shares these values, and envisions an industry that adds, rather than extracts value at every step of the process.”
Guient continued. “Oregon has been growing some of the best cannabis on the planet for three, four generations, and cannabis lovers around the country and around the world know that. When the walls come down, and we are able to export Oregon cannabis to other states and internationally, we will have a multi-billion dollar industry here. The question is, who will benefit from that, and what will it look like?”
Can craft cannabis bring consumers into a movement that supports and celebrates a values-driven industry that is substantially locally owned? To that end, it has some distinct advantages over the craft beer movement.
Alcohol prohibition ended in 1933, but, primarily due to tight legal controls on the industry, and particularly to a continuing prohibition on home brew, it would take more than fifty years for small, local brewers to come into existence. And by the time home brewers began opening small brew pubs and selling and distributing their creations, they faced an uphill battle both for shelf space, and perhaps more importantly, against the tide of more than half a century of brand loyalty to familiar and well-marketed names.
Craft cannabis doesn’t face that issue. There are no Budweisers or Coors with the advantage of long term consumer loyalty to fight against. And in states like Oregon and California, relatively low barriers to entry mean that production is not limited to huge companies with tens of millions of dollars needed to secure an artificially limited number of licenses.
“We believe that being a part of the craft cannabis movement and becoming recognized as such is crucial at this time” says Lisa Denney of Ebb & Flow Farm near Ashland, Oregon. “The industry is growing exponentially and it is hard to differentiate between brands and whether or not a cannabis product is produced ethically or with the consumer and community in mind.”
Ms. Denney continued, “We see great value in telling the craft cannabis story that is happening here. And we believe that when we do, and when they see a Craft Cannabis label, consumers will know that those producers are dedicated to those values, and that it is an ethical and smart purchase.”
The Brewers Association, in launching their “Independent, Authentic Craft” campaign believes the same about beer consumers. Let’s hope they’re both right.