This week I attended the annual Craft Brewers Conference. This year’s conference, held in Washington, DC, occupied much of the District's Convention Center, a massive space that reflects the continued growth of the craft beer movement in America.
In addition to sampling many excellent beers from around the country over several days, I sat in on a few educational sessions and spoke with several well-known brewers from around the country to gauge the state of the industry.
While demand for craft beer is growing across the country, it appears many small brewers are also bumping up against outdated federal and state regulations.
I spoke with Garrett Marrero, founder of Maui Brewing Company in Hawaii, the largest craft brewer in the state.
Demand for craft beer has helped Maui Brewing and other brewers in the state push to expand limits on production six-fold over the past few years—from 5,000 barrels to the current 30,000-barrel limit.
“It’s nice when there are issues where you can be aligned with your competition, and I think that was an obvious one,” says Marrero.
Federal regulations also vary. They’re in flux in large part because of the explosion of beer choices over the past couple decades.
“You reach a tipping point,” Daniel Kopman, co-founder of Schlafly Brewery in St. Louis, tells me. “The consumer’s demanding more variety.”
“Before, you had Anheuser-Busch and you had Miller and Coors, separately,” says Kopman, “and maybe a few years ago you had a few other players that all operated under the same basic playbook. And the rules were very well written and they had significant control over the flow of beer essentially from the brewery—and the raw materials behind it, and all of the packaging materials, and everything that went into the supply side. They had control of the process all the way through to the consumer. And essentially the consumer was in step with them.”
“So now, all of a sudden,” Kopman says, “the consumer steps to the side—and another side and another side. It’s now moved such that [large brewers] can no longer control everything that’s going on. And so that also puts pressure on the regulatory framework, because the regulatory framework was built along the previous paradigm of a few… major brewers.”
Craft brewers expressed a variety of regulatory concerns at the federal level.
I spoke with Bill Sysak, Craft Beer Ambassador for Stone Brewing Company in Escondido, California, who’s known as “Dr. Bill” in the craft beer community.
Sysak tells me that two of the main concerns of those who took part in a craft beer lobbying day on Capitol Hill that coincided with this year’s Craft Beer Conference were barrel taxation and threats that regulations meant to crack down on so-called “alcopops” might unintentionally ensnare craft beer producers.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the conference I witnessed took part during a question-and-answer session that followed a talk by Art DeCelle, an attorney with the firm of McDermott Will & Emery who previously served as general counsel with the Beer Institute, an industry lobby group.