When Williamsburg’s Alewerks Brewing Co. unveils its Imperial Pumpkin amber ale Saturday, October 14, the label will feature some timely art.
There will be a nod to history, with a drawing of a military officer in uniform. With Halloween a few weeks away, there will be an orange pumpkin where the fellow’s head should be.
And in a corner next to a warning label, there will be a small black-and-white image of an upside-down beer bottle.
As an initiative of the Brewers Association, the upside-down bottle logo is a fairly recent phenomenon. But its appearance in Williamsburg dovetails with a larger trend: a battle for market share.
Conglomerates such as Anheuser-Busch have scooped up a string of craft breweries recently. Among the acquisitions are Virginia’s Devil’s Backbone and Asheville, N.C.’s Wicked Weed, which Anheuser-Busch acquired in May.
“The land grab for the concept of being a craft brewer is on,” said Julia Herz, craft beer program director of the Brewers Association.
Anheuser-Busch did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
A beer lover’s “right to know”
According to the Brewers Association’s Herz, though, there are roughly 5,600 breweries in the United States. Of that number, according to Herz, 98 percent are independent and small — which to the association means they brew six million barrels per year or fewer.
“The desire to differentiate is definitely on,” Herz said. “Access to market is a big discussion.”
That’s where the logo comes in. A non-independent craft brewer’s corporate parent might not be disclosed on a beer’s label — and might not be clear to consumers unless they do some research, she said.
“We feel the beer lover has a right to know,” she added.
Also at issue is how beer gets onto store shelves and into customers’ glasses. Large corporate brewers control a disproportionate share of beer-distribution networks and that poses a threat to independent craft brewers who want access to markets, Herz said.
Overall, she is optimistic independent craft brewers will embrace the logo.
“We think over time we’re going to continue to get very strong adoption,” she said.
It’s business, not personal
Still, in Williamsburg, the dynamics are complicated.
For starters, independent craft brewers live and work in the shadows of Williamsburg’s Anheuser-Busch brewery, which has long-standing ties to the area.
“So Anheuser-Busch is very much a part of the fabric of this community,” said Geoff Logan, brewmaster and managing director of Alewerks.
Some of his colleagues used to work at the Anheuser-Busch plant and many Williamsburg residents have a family member who works for the brewer, he added.
Also, Anheuser-Busch employees are fellow brewers, part of a family of workers from the same field, he said. He and his wife went to the brewery’s September open house, which featured the company’s Clydesdales.
In the professional arena, though, there’s less room for being cordial.
“Once you go into the business end, each has to look after his own,” Logan said.
Alewerks, which opened a tasting room at the Williamsburg Premium Outlets in September, is the first Williamsburg-area craft brewer to display the independent brewers’ logo on its label.
Market share is “the hardest part”
Other craft brewers in the community are weighing what to do.
Virginia Beer Co. has posted the independent-beer logo in the taproom, but not yet on its labels, according to co-founder Robby Willey.
Being a craft brewer in Williamsburg is unique, he said, because Anheuser-Busch has been in the community so long.
“And everyone’s looking for market share,” he added. “That’s the hardest part.”
Brass Cannon Brewing Co. is also considering the logo, according to owner Tony Artrip.
“We’ll probably end up using it, but we’re not 100 percent,” Artip said. “The whole concept is still relatively new.”
That means Alewerks, which opened in 2006, is on its own at the moment.
Logan said he imagines most craft brewers in Williamsburg will follow Alewerks eventually, though he recognizes some brewers may not wish to be boxed in.
“But we decided it would be a good idea,” he said. “To support the brewers association. We believe in what they do.”