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Real enemy forgotten in craft beer revolt

Australia’s craft beer revolution is complete.

The lower classes of the industry have risen as one to toss out the oppressors in the big brewhouses.

So will beer ever taste the same again?

Most punters haven’t got a clue who owns the brewery that put the beer in their hand. Admittedly, that is complicated by corporate structures at Big Beer that would puzzle a Swiss bank manager.

However, most of the minor breweries, who sell around 8 per cent of the beer market, believe there needs to be transparency for the consumer as to who has what brand in which portfolio.

So they got enough numbers to kick out those who they believed were operating as craft breweries in disguise. Yet the definition of "craft" is more fluid that 10 HL fermenter.

In essence the Craft Brewers Industry Association has become the Independent Breweries Industry Association after Malt Shovel’s Chuck Hahn, one of the icons of the new beer movement, begrudgingly announced James Squire and other Lion entities White Rabbit and Little Creatures would leave the CBIA.

After all it was the will of the little people in the CBIA survey on the association’s future.

It also forced the CBIA to declare its hand, as we forecast last December.

“The CBIA will re-define membership eligibility based on independent (privately held) brewers without relying on an arbitrary definition of ‘craft beer’,” said an association statement in the wake of the Malt Shovel hand grenade.

“It is proposed that the board structure and the name of the association will both be changed to reflect the new direction. The CBIA’s proposed new direction will allow a renewed focus on independent Australian brewers, ensuring its time and resources are directed towards supporting those businesses as a collective.”

Hahn’s disappointment at leaving a group he helped found was palpable.

And he confirms that now Australian brewing is in two camps. That could be an issue when fighting common problems.

“There is a part of the industry that seems intent on defining itself not in terms of what’s great about craft – the quality beers, the passionate brewers and the characters behind them – but in terms of who owns what,” Hahn said.

“No matter who you are, you have to raise the funds to brew from somewhere, whether it be your bank, wealthy private investors, shareholders or otherwise. I don’t see how that should make any real difference to beer drinkers who generally only care about the quality and variety of the beer they are drinking.

“And if we measure brewers by their scale, and they need investment to achieve that scale, what message are we sending them – if drinkers love your beer and you grow as a result you are no longer a legitimate brewer?

But let’s cut to the chase.

The minor breweries get steamy ears at the prospect of working within the association alongside pseudo contemporaries that are actually just arms of AB InBev, Asahi, Coca Cola or CUB.

The fact that Big Beer owns so many taps in so many pubs and clubs means the minors don’t have the customer access to venues. There is a claim about level playing fields.

Locality is also important to smaller beer makers. Being local is a major marketing tool. So when Lion buys Byron Bay Brewing there is a concern that one of the big boys is simply buying a beer backyard as a marketing ploy.

However, the CBIA move isn’t going to result in the sale of one more pint.

There is no doubt some of the Lion subsidiaries contributed plenty of resources, which the minors don’t have, to the association. The sense of camaraderie that was such an endearing feature of the brewing community has a bit of a different smell. The door might not be answered the next time a small operation knocks for help.

Also, some of those that have stood on the soapbox on the Big Beer issue might not actually be boasting more resources than many believe. While some craft breweries like to portray themselves as a couple of blokes working hard to knock out kegs they are actually backed by millionaire businessmen and the odd cashed-up Brownlow medallist or surf superhero. The supposed nickel and dime operations can actually call on a cheque or two when needed.

That isn’t everyone. By a long shot.

There are plenty of one-man-and-a-dog brewhouses that might actually benefit from the CBIA’s change of focus. At the Great American Beer Festival last year the cry from the Brewers Association was that they were there to work for "small, independent breweries".

That might flow on in Australia although with more than 4500 members there are a lot more financial resources at hand for our American friends.

However, the division in Australian brewing could jeopardise the fight against the enemy common to all sectors of the industry, whether you sell 5000 or five million litres of the wonder nectar. It also irks those who buy them.

It is called excise. And it adds about $16 to every carton of full strength beer with that money collected by the maker.

Every brewer will win or lose in the push for a better, read fairer, taxation system for beer.

Such a fight requires a unified response.

Unfortunately, as Hahn points out, there is now a line between two industry camps.

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