Craft Brewer Austin Beerworks Has Choice Words for ACL Music Festival

If a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, does beer once considered craft still get to call itself by that label if it's owned by a larger company? Not according to one Austin brewer, who posted a thread of rather pointed tweets about one of the beer sponsors for the 2018 Austin City Limits Music Festival.

Karbach Brewing Co., based in Houston, is one of the festival's sponsors again this year. The ACL festival website also lists Karbach's beers on the lineup for the Barton Springs Beer Hall, where it says: "Don't miss out on the Barton Springs Beer Hall, where you can choose from different craft brews and catch the weekend's biggest NCAA and NFL games on the jumbo screen in between sets." Other brewers on the list include Austin Eastciders, Independence Brewing Company, Twisted X Brewing Company, Bell's Brewery, and Uncle Billy's Brewery.

Austin Beerworks Craft Beer ACL Festival
ACL Music Festival

Michael Graham, the co-founder of local brewery Austin Beerworks, took exception to the label of craft beer for Karbach. He tweeted:

So far, the tweet has been liked over 600 times and retweeted by over 200 people. The tweet kicked off a discussion over the definition of craft beer and what local really means. Karbach even contributed to the thread by replying to Austin Beerworks, saying:

Graham went on to clarify his position by noting that it wasn't Karbach's sponsorship of the festival that bothered him. He agreed that festivals need sponsors that can provide funding, and small brewers aren't generally able to provide that kind of financial support. The bone he wants to pick with the festival's organizers is the "craft beer" label.

According to the Brewers Association, an industry organization that supports small and independent craft brewers, a craft brewery is defined as one that produces six million barrels of beer or less (around three percent of annual sales of the total United States market), brews using fermentation of traditional or innovative brewing ingredients (in other words, not flavored malted beverages), and is less than 25 percent owned or controlled by a non-craft brewer.

It's a label that has caused a great deal of discussion as more small breweries are acquired by large companies like Anheuser-Busch (AB InBev). And there's no doubt that some companies will misuse the craft beer label, like Walmart did with their beer labeled and sold as exclusive craft beer but made by a large company that produces beverages for retailers.

In 2016, Karbach was aqcuired by The High End, which is a business unit of Anheuser-Busch that works with U.S. craft breweries, including other well known beer makers like Goose Island and Devils Backbone.

Many of these breweries keep their local control -- it's the same employees brewing the same beer in the same location. The benefits for the small brewer is wider distribution and easier access to better ingredients and equipment. However, according to the Brewers Association, those brewers are no longer considered "craft" because they are mostly owned by a non-craft beer company.

The team at Karbach sees it a bit differently. "To answer your question about how we define craft beer, to us it's about what's in the glass -- quality, style of beer, innovation, passion, and ingredients. We started as a craft brewery years ago and I'll always define myself as a craft brewer," Eric Warner, Karbach's brewmaster, said in a statement to Austin station KVUE. "I'm extremely proud of the incredibly hard work of our brewing team and the craft beers we're making on Karbach Street every day where it all began."

While the Brewers Association is clear on their definition, as a trade organization they only have so much power over who calls themselves a craft brewer. It's not a legal or government-regulated definition, so it's up to small brewers to protect the definition and beer drinkers to educate themselves. So far, while there are strong feelings on both sides of the fight, some beer drinkers just want to drink what's good, regardless of where the money is coming from.

Graham is holding firm on his position, saying that he wants the festival to be transparent. He told KVUE that he's happy Karbach is a festival sponsor, he just wants them to be honest about who they are.

"It frustrated me because there's a clear definition of what craft beer is, and Karbach was pretty recently acquired by AB Inbev, Anheuser Busch, the largest brewing company in the world, and that's kind of the opposite of what craft beer is," said Graham in an interview with the station.

ACL is in October, so it's possible (but unlikely) the festival changes their terminology before then.

Austin Beerworks is located in Austin, Texas. Their local brews include Pearl Snap, a German-style Pils, Bloodwork Orange, a seasonal Blood Orange IPA, Flavor Country, a hoppy pale ale, Heisenberg, which is a kristallweizen, and a Double IPA they list in their Heavy Machinery category of beers.

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