On Tuesday, June 27, the Brewers Association announced the launch of an “Independent Craft Brewer” seal, created to differentiate small and independent craft brewers and their products from Big Beer producers and products. After the announcement, Anheuser-Busch InBev reached out to share their perspective about the seal and what it means for the beer industry as a whole. Below is an interview with Felipe Szpigel, president of AB InBev’s the High End, a division responsible for the acquisition and growth of craft breweries.
What are your thoughts on the Independent Craft Brewer seal from the Brewers Association?
My first thought about it is that I think it was really smart. As a trade association, if you stand for independence, creating a program or seal that addresses it, I think, goes in the direction of what the Brewers Association is trying to do today.
I think it came out very respectful in terms of how they framed it — it’s really not about denigrating anyone — but the fact is, it is divisive, and the best thing we can do is unite the development of the [beer] category.
One of the big issues we have in the industry today is, because of a little bit of a slower rate of sale and a lot of variety, products are sitting on the shelf for maybe too long. I would like to have seen a bigger effort on quality and due dates.
The third piece for me is really related to the positive impact we have on the community [...] I think more and more people are going to care about it. I’m really proud of the contributions we’ve been having on our communities as well as our partners — creating jobs, providing great experiences, creating safe environments for our employees, supporting local nonprofits — we have [created] hundreds of new jobs, we have, to date, [made] millions of contributions to nonprofit organizations that are local. And that comes big and small. Good corporate citizenships don't come from size, they come from principals and the way you do business.
You don’t think it’s important to differentiate Anheuser-Busch products or other High End products or global beer products from other beer brands?
I think it’s definitely important to differentiate between individual brands. You’ve got to have your products, you’ve got to tell your story to consumers, you’ve got to have good community experiences. I think the whole point is, does the seal do that job? That, for me, is the question that consumers will answer.
Putting a seal [on breweries and beer products] addresses part of it but doesn't address it all. Today, you can get so much information from so many places. Forget about beer for a second — just as a consumer, you want to know the companies, the people, the faces behind the products that get out. You’re not going to stop at a seal, you're not going to stop at anyone telling you want to drink or what’s good or what’s bad... you're going to capture all sorts of information.
I understand why the Brewers Association did it, and I think it is a smart move as a trade association, but look at the consumer environment today and the availability of information. You cannot oversimplify or underestimate how to address it.
If this [independent craft brewer seal] is an important step, I would love to see the other steps in terms of quality, community outreach, looking forward... And we’re proud of the part we are doing. Unfortunately, this is another sign of lack of unity [within] the industry. Wine and liquor are much more united than us on developing their categories.
What are some ways you could introduce unity to “craft” and “not craft” brands?
Unity [in] the industry will really come from having category work. One example: We’re really focused on educating consumers in general, and our partners. We’ve got a program [to] partner with Cicerone to guarantee that not only our employees are educated, but that we use this level of education to support our wholesalers and retailers. That’s good for the category. What if 5,300 brewers had a bigger effort on that?
The second piece that we talked about, unity, to help unify everyone's commitment to quality. If everyone got behind [this] — if everyone had transparency on the [date codes] on beers. We believe, and many craft brewers are [doing this] as well, we should all be doing that, because that’s pro-consumer and unites us and doesn’t divide us.
As president of AB’s High End division, how do you define craft beer?
A lot of my work is to keep providing resources to our partners so they can improve the experiences they have in their market and how they tell their stories; community engagement; [and] supporting local causes. For me it’s beer, it’s story and it’s community impact.
In your opinion, is there a difference between craft beer and non-craft beer?
Absolutely not. Beer is the same process, small or big. Brewing is like cooking. One [way] is [cooking] for your significant other, and the other is cooking for 20 people. The difference is that in one, you have a small pan and small portions, the other is you have a big pan and big portions, and you have to put the same amount of love cooking small or cooking big if you want to get great products out there.
People will associate craft beer with unique ingredients and styles, but the process is pretty much the same... it’s brewed the same way. What we believe in is great recipes, amazing people doing it and the connection that we have.
How can you explain to me how it’s any better to be 100 percent owned by a bank or 100 percent owned by a brewer? That, I don’t get.
How do you think the independent craft brewer seal will affect consumers?
Time will tell. For the people who really care about it, I think they already know, and this is just a reinforcement of decisions they already make. If you think about the mid- to long-term and the challenge that we have to bring more people to the category... this is more of an industry trade conversation than it is a real consumer conversion.
The same consumer buying beer is buying coffee, is buying a product from Apple, or doing a Google search… in the end it is who you’re supporting, what do they stand for, and what they’re doing for the community. To be honest, our numbers show there are many consumers who like what we’re doing.
What numbers are those?
If you look at the IRI, our craft breweries are growing above 20 percent as a compound number. The industry is very low single digits, between 2 and 3 percent.