Craft brewers fight for survival

By Matt Watson

In a classic David and Goliath matchup fought in the state capital, local microbreweries face off against lobbying firms and giant corporations for their right to get their product on shelves and behind bar counters.

Save the Craft is a Chicago-based grassroots campaign aiming to raise awareness about legislation going through the Illinois General Assembly that will allow brewpubs and microbreweries to self-distribute a certain amount of beer each year before having to go through a distributor. The Illinois Craft Brewers Guild has been working in Springfield, Ill., with legislators to gain support for its bills, House Bill 205 and Senate Bill 88. The ICBG said it’s almost impossible for brewpubs to gain market access with the current laws, which require small brewers to go through distributors that mainly cater to large corporations like Anheuser-Busch.

“We’re not trying to take over the world,” said Pete Crowley, president of the ICBG. “We’re trying to get small businesses to create more revenue and create more jobs. The whole point is to let small businesses grow and benefit from the ability to sell their product to the consumer.”

Ryan Hermes, Karl Klockars and Andrew Flach started in April 2010 as a forum to discuss new kinds of craft beer. When they heard about the legislation in late February, they decided to start Save the Craft on their website. Since then, the Huffington Post, WGN radio and dozens of local blogs have covered the issue. With growing media attention, Hermes said the fight won’t be easy.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle,” Hermes said. “The beer distributors don’t support this legislation and neither does Anheuser-Busch. Instead of letting the interested parties hash this out and have craft beer lovers sit on the sidelines, we thought we should get involved.”

Save the Craft posts daily updates on the legislation’s progress and what the law means for consumers. It also gives contact information for state lawmakers and urges constituents to contact their senators and representatives to voice their opinion.

“This is something we need to pay attention to, and obviously that doesn’t happen if everybody stays at home and doesn’t do anything,” Klockars said.

According to State Rep. Greg Harris, co-author of House Bill 205, Anheuser-Busch sued the Illinois Liquor Control Commission in federal court in March 2010 regarding its refusal to allow the company to buy a distributor. The judge ruled against Anheuser-Busch, stating this would violate the three-tier system, the current law requiring beer producers to go through distributors. The three-tier system has been in place since the end of Prohibition and was meant to keep checks and balances on large corporations.

Crowley said the precedent set by the judge applied to all beer producers, including microbreweries, which at the time were allowed to self-distribute up to 60,000 barrels of beer a year.

The current legislation, which was written by the ICBG, would give microbreweries producing less than 60,000 barrels the right to self-distribute again as well as brewpubs producing less than 1,300—1,400 barrels. According to Crowley, this would give small brewpubs the ability to get their product noticed by consumers.

“This legislation is about protecting the rights of breweries here in the state,” Hermes said. “If it fails, you would see craft beer dry up on the shelves.”

According to Harris, the Association of Beer Distributors of Illinois—a lobbying firm—and Anheuser-Busch are fighting the legislation and attempting to force small beer producers to compete with international corporations’ interests.

“They want to control the marketplace,” Harris said. “The small brewers want to be able to break into the marketplace. Then after a certain point, when they are able to compete with the big guys, they will go through distributors.”

While the amount of beer purchased in Illinois has remained the same in recent years, Harris said people have been buying more craft beer and straying away from big brands.

“It’s not like any of these [craft brewers] on their own are a threat to a gargantuan company like Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors,” Klockars said. “But if you look in terms of growth, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors have stayed flat while craft beer has jumped up double-digit growth. They see that and they want to nip it in the bud.”

Harris said the maximum capacity in which the microbreweries and brewpubs would be able to self-distribute is up for debate. Lobbyists and lawmakers are working on the details of the bill, which is currently in committee. Harris said because of the ABDI and Anheuser-Busch’s lobbying powers, craft brewers will need to come to a compromise for legislation to pass.

Meanwhile, Save the Craft continues its campaign to help who they refer to as “the little guys.”

“I would hate to see small brewers not be allowed to get their beer out there because craft beer drinkers would lose a great product,” Hermes said. “I’d hate to look back and say we did nothing to save craft beer in Illinois.”

For more information on the issue, visit