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The San Diego Brewers Guild Is Leading the Fight for Craft Beer

How the Guild is using consumer education to combat the negative effects of Big Beer


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Window clings are one aspect of the San Diego Brewers Guild program aimed at educating consumers. | Photo courtesy of the San Diego Brewers Guild

They say the best consumer is an educated consumer—that seems especially true for craft fans who want to know exactly what kind of company their beer is coming from.

During the past few years, there has been a lot of emotion and outrage over the creeping influence of Big Beer into the craft brewing community and, while that frustration and anger is certainly understandable, it unfortunately does not provide viable pathways for making the situation any better. This particular debate involves a lot of rather thorny issues, made all the more thorny by the fact that the potential foes of the craft brewers have nearly infinite resources, money, and influence.

So what’s the best strategy for fighting the negative effects of Big Beer? The San Diego Brewers Guild is convinced its best weapon is consumer education. A large number of craft beer consumers aren’t even aware that there’s a dividing line between “independent craft producers” and producers who appear to be “craft” but are really owned by big business interests.

And how do you teach consumers how to tell the difference between an independent craft brewery and one that’s owned by a huge corporation?

Part of the problem is that—right now—when you walk into a bar or down the aisle at a retailer, it’s really hard to differentiate who’s who. To remedy this, the San Diego Brewers Guild has been working behind the scenes to develop an action plan that focuses lots of energy on consumer education. In the coming weeks, the Guild will introduce a number of items that are designed to help craft breweries identify themselves—not only as independent, but also as members of the SDBG. The planned items include window clings and flags for hanging in tasting rooms and for use at events. There are also tap danglers in the works, which will identify local, independent craft beer tap handles at bars and pubs all over the county.

“We’re just seeking transparency,” says Jill Davidson, president of the SDBG. “I mean, when you look at the side of a Dasani water bottle it says PepsiCo on it, so we’re seeking that transparency for people who want to support local and independent. For us at the Brewers Guild, it’s also about supporting our members who, by the conditions of our by-laws, are independent. So we’re making sure the tools are out there so people can make the decisions that are best for them.“

[We want] consumers to have an understanding of exactly what they’re walking into when they go to a tasting room or brewery.

The new identifying items will be an important step in helping breweries make their identities known, and they will also help to engage the public in a conversation about big beer versus independents. “We want to have an emblem that supports the issues that are most important to us and that supports our members,” Jill says. “These are local, independent businesses that are putting their blood, sweat, and tears into this and we want that to be out there—front and center—so consumers have that understanding of exactly what they’re walking into when they go to a tasting room or brewery.”

Jill admits that the distinctions between true independent craft beer and beer owned by conglomerates is not an issue for everyone—and that’s okay; it’s analogous to caring about “organic” or “locally produced” labels on products. For the people who are concerned about supporting local business and knowing the provenance of what they eat and drink, the Brewers Guild feels it’s important that those consumers have all the information they need to make their purchasing decisions.

The SDBG is the largest city/county craft beer Guild in the nation and, partly because of that, Jill and her colleagues feel a certain sense of responsibility to lead the charge. “When you think about it, it’s not just an issue in San Diego,” she says. “Big beer is infiltrating beer all over, so this is an education effort that scales to a national level.”

Because there have been strategic acquisitions all over the country in recent years, the need for education has become a conversation that’s happening all over the state of California and all over the nation. And it’s not a new phenomenon. “This is a conversation that’s been happening in the industry for years,” Jill says.

After all the heated debate and the frustration over how to battle the increasing encroachment of Big Beer, it seems that even the simple steps of issuing official Guild identifiers will go a long way toward making members feel a tangible sense of progress in this fight. As Jill explains, “The window clings, flags, and tap hangers—among other things—are going to be great for identifying who our members are, and we want to make sure that is first-and-foremost what people are seeing when they come into the community. We want those consumers to understand that our members are part of something local, and great, and powerful. We want them to know that our community has helped to do a lot for craft beer as a whole—on a local level, on a regional level, and on a national level.”

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