Indiana Statecraft (Part Two)

(Full disclosure: I am a director on the board of the Brewers of Indiana Guild. However, my thoughts are strictly my own, and do not reflect official guild policy. Part One of this column is here)

“I promote local pride, not jingoism.”
— Greg Koch (Stone Brewing, San Diego CA)

The Brewers of Indiana Guild stages three yearly beer festivals, with these events providing the bulk of the non-profit organization’s annual operating revenue. The festivals are Winterfest (held in February in Indianapolis), Bloomington Craft Beer Festival (April; Bloomington) and BIG Microbrewers Festival (July; Indianapolis).

The format is similar at each one. An admission fee is charged, which permits the ticketholder to taste small samples of numerous beers over a specified period of time. There is food and music. A percentage of the proceeds are donated to a good cause.

The Guild always has welcomed sponsorship monies to fuel the fests. Indiana wholesalers specializing in craft beer have been among these sponsors. In the past, these sponsors generally have featured a broad array of their products at the Guild’s events, including out-of-state beers from American craft brewers.

I’m the first to concede that there have been shifting interpretations of (shall we posit) “acceptability” when it comes to deciding what is appropriate to be hawked by sponsors at a Guild event. As standards of localism have evolved, and as the number of Indiana brewers has exponentially increased (63 currently), we’ve come to see that (for instance) multinational subsidiaries don’t quite fit the thematic purpose. They’re not Guinness fests.

At the very least, sponsoring fest participants need to be local just like us.

Let’s go back and review the Brewers of Indiana Guild’s mission statement.

BIG exists to unify and support Indiana brewers. As I sought to establish in Part One of this essay, the Guild’s purpose is purposely limited. It acts on behalf of brewers in the state of Indiana, a seemingly self-centered notion that is entirely justifiable given the state-centric reality of brewing regulations and legislative control.

The guild’s task is to create conditions in which more Indiana beer is sold, and of course to further the success of the craft beer segment as a whole – but under the logic that what we do to make Indiana brewing stronger must make the whole of American craft brewing stronger, too.

For this reason, I believe that when it comes to the beers offered for sampling at the Guild’s three annual signature festivals, these should be limited to those brewed in Indiana. My Indiana wholesaler friends probably disagree with this point of view, and that’s perfectly understandable, although I’d ask that they hear me out before jumping to conclusions.

Wholesaler portfolios generally include beers from all of America and the entire planet, with Indiana brewers making up a comparatively small percentage of their overall selection. In the past it has been customary for craft brewers in other states having Indiana distribution to be included in the three annual Guild festivals, owing primarily to the desire of wholesalers (who tithe sponsorship monies) to exhibit their transcontinental product lines.

However, as I’ve labored to demonstrate, these three Guild festivals by definition must have as their primary aim expounding the theory and practice of Indiana brewing. It simply does not make sense for Indiana taxpayers to fund sales opportunities for breweries in Colorado, California or Maine.

Granted, when there weren’t 63 Indiana breweries to contribute to three yearly Guild festivals, it was pragmatic to act in whatever way that ensured there would be enough beer to go around. This no longer is an issue, and Indiana has plenty of its own beer. The training wheels can come off now. Evolution should be encouraged to continue in such a way that displays Indiana-brewed beer to its best possible advantage, while not neglecting the educational mandate of such Guild festivals – insofar as education is possible amid 5,000 of your closest revelers.

Naturally, it would be neither wise nor neighborly of me to advocate the exclusion of non-Indiana breweries from future guild festivals, and so I won’t.

At the same time, it makes little sense for the Guild to accept sponsorship money from a wholesaler in the absence of terms under which the wholesaler’s participation is defined; after all, there are dozens of gatherings, tastings and showcases sponsored each year by a wide range of entities, ranging from homebrew clubs to civic organizations to the brewers and wholesalers themselves, and these are perfectly calibrated to promote the length and breadth of American craft beer under less narrowly restricted conditions. The Keg Liquors Fest of Ale today is one of them.

Now that Indiana is a state fairly blessed with brewers, should non-Indiana beers still be a component of these three yearly Guild fests?

Of course … under conditions and circumstances channeled by the guild itself, which to my way of thinking, means orienting guest beers according to their own state guild structures, and not by their Indiana wholesalers.

My solution has the merit of gently nudging Indiana wholesalers sponsoring an Indiana guild-administered festival to better support those Indiana brewers already on their sales rosters. It also provides a compelling reason for other state Guilds to become better organized, and to refine their message.

Just picture it: Instead of a wholesaler tent at the BIG Microbrewers Festival, with craft beers from America jumbled together, there could be separate tents for guilds from Kentucky, Michigan and other states. Existing wholesalers could feed beers from those states into the guild tents, and the educational message emanating from these tents would be about beers from Kentucky and Michigan – not beers from a wholesaler. This might even facilitate the involvement of tourist bureaus fro these states. Attendees might be able to learn about state beers and state traditions, sans mercantile spinning.

The wholesalers’ interests would not be compromised, either, because if a fest attendee becomes enamored of a beer from Illinois, the three-tier distribution system ensures that at a certain point in the chain, a wholesaler still receives its customary cut of the action.

It’s a plan that makes sense to me. It emphasizes Indiana-brewed beer at Guild fests, and still provides for lifting the craft beer segment as a whole. What do you think?

  1. I work for a wholesaler that has been a major sponsor of Brewers of Indiana Guild events for many years and in my opinion, I don’t really see any need to disagree with you, Roger.

    World Class Beer has always tried to abide by the rules that the Guild sets. We’ve had disagreements at times but always within the rules that the Guild has laid out. We do not seek to operate outside those rules. They’ve asked us to limit the products that we bring to craft breweries only (“craft” as defined by the Brewers Association) and that’s what we’ve done.

    Our request, in response for funding a large portion of the events that you speak of, has been to allow our out of state craft brewer partners (not international brands) to be present as other out-of-state brands are presented by other distributors, many of whom pay no sponsorship fee at all. In return for our sponsorship we simply ask to be treated fairly.

    In the end, the Guild determines what is presented at the events, not us. And should the Guild decide to pursue Indiana brand only events I don’t see why we’d be upset. I would only suggest that it would be unfair of us to ask our out of state craft brewer partners to pay the bill for an Indiana only event. But as the largest distributor of Indiana brewed beers, we’d still be proud to participate.

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