Nov 16, 2021 - Business
The future of craft beer in a post-craft beer world
New Belgium's brewery in Fort Collins. Photo courtesy of New Belgium Brewing
New Belgium's brewery in Fort Collins. Photo courtesy of New Belgium Brewing

Colorado's beer industry is at the center of an existential question: What is craft beer?

Why it matters: Craft beer is part of Colorado's identity. Its economic impact in the state comes in at $3.4 billion, ranking No. 1 nationwide per capita.

  • The term's cachet is core to its value proposition in the marketplace, but the lines are blurring with new offerings and consolidation from international beer players.

State of play: Colorado considers itself "the state of craft beer," and Boulder is home to the Brewer's Association, the industry's national trade group.

Yes, but: The recent union of Fort Collins-based New Belgium with Michigan's Bell's Brewery — under the umbrella of international beer conglomerate Lion — is renewing the soul-searching within the industry.

What's happening: New Belgium and two other well-known Colorado brewers owned by big beer companies — Avery and Breckenridge — consider the term irrelevant and want to redefine what it means to be a craft brewer.

  • New Belgium's CEO, Steve Fechheimer, tells Axios the association's definition is not the benchmark — it's more about each brewery's approach. "Craft beer consumers care about how you operate your company and the beers you make," he says.
  • Bell's and New Belgium "come from the early days of the craft beer world; they still contain that DNA from the craft revolution," Larry Bell tells Axios. "That's still the spirit and feeling around the companies and around the beers."
  • The challenge, Fechheimer says, is that "it takes some time to prove that to people and earn their trust."

Between the lines: New Belgium's sale to Lion in 2019 didn't hurt the company's bottom line, company officials said. In fact, Lion's acquisition helped New Belgium become carbon-neutral and expand its sales to become one of the fastest-growing full-flavored beer-makers.

The other side: Bart Watson, an economist at the Brewers Association, says industry surveys show most consumers care about who makes the beer and favor independent breweries in their purchasing decisions.

  • The association developed a seal for its members to put on bottles and cans as a way to help educate consumers about which breweries qualify as craft beer.
  • ​​"Does it matter for every consumer? No. But we are trying to give information to the consumers for whom it does matter," Watson said.
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