The beer industry is always trying to figure out how it can better emulate the spirits business. After all, distilled spirits volume has been growing steadily, while beer, overall, has been flat to down in most years.
Last year, for instance, MillerCoors unveiled Miller Fortune, whose marketing directly targeted spirits drinking occasions by playing up its whiskey-like hue.
It’s true that there’s a great deal that macro beer can learn from the distilling community, but it’s got little to do with consumer usage occasions or image advertising.
It was at the recent American Craft Spirits Association’s (ACSA) second-annual conference where a key difference between the beer and spirits categories became crystal clear to me: collaboration.
The sometimes uncomfortable relationship that craft and macro beer share seems to make headlines every month. Industry observers may say that big brewers are finally embracing craft by acquiring small brewers. However, as the peach-pumpkin-flavored advertising misstep I referenced in last month’s column proved, the macros’ attitude toward craft is more a grudging acknowledgment than full-fledged respect and admiration. They’re making acquisitions because they feel they have to, not because they want to.
But when it comes to spirits, there’s more of a cooperative dynamic beginning to play out between the mega-marketers and the burgeoning craft distilling segment. The Distilled Spirits Council’s (DISCUS) presence at ACSA’s conference in the event’s inaugural two editions has reflected that. But this year, a comment DISCUS VP for government affairs Michele Famiglietti made to the audience of artisanal producers perfectly encapsulated the relationship between big (DISCUS member companies) and small: “You are the face of the industry.” When the DISCUS team meets with members of Congress, the first thing they usually ask is “Do I have any distilleries in my Congressional district?” The crafts are a huge asset in the talking points of an organization whose membership is largely composed of foreign-owned conglomerates.
It’s odd that crafts don’t get the same recognition from the macro-brewers, which, after all, are predominantly foreign-owned entities.
When it comes to public policy, Famiglietti noted that DISCUS “actively and aggressively” supports craft distillers’ efforts to get Congress to roll back the excise tax on small producers. Meanwhile, in the beer world, macros and crafts are competing for Congressional attention on the tax front. Craft brewers, led by the Brewers Association, have been lobbying for the Small BREW Act, while the large companies, represented by the Beer Institute, have been pushing the Fair BEER Act. The latter’s tax cuts apply to all brewers, macro and craft, while the former’s only applies to craft.
The bigger issue is that the beer industry is not speaking with a single voice on Capitol Hill. Getting on the same page, as the large and small distillers seem to be, enables the industry to present a unified front—which is more likely to generate results favorable to everyone.
Small beverage producers have different needs than large ones, so it’s unrealistic to think that they’re going to agree on everything. But, as the spirits world already is demonstrating, there’s always some common ground to be found.