Piss and Vinegar: Red Robin and the Brewers Association Make Strange Bedfellows

Red Robin at GABF 2017.

Take Craft Back! It’s the clever publicity stunt rolled out yesterday by the Brewers Association, a tongue-in-cheek $213 billion dollar Kickstarter campaign to buy global mega-brewer A-B InBev in order to prevent the conglomerate from buying up any more craft breweries. The campaign ties in with the BA’s new “Certified Independent” logo that they unveiled earlier this month at their signature annual event in Denver, the Great American Beer Festival 2017.

Which leads me to a topic that has been bothering me for over a year.  At the last couple of GABFs, I’ve been surprised to see the high visibility that the Brewers Association has given to national hamburger chain Red Robin.  Sure, I understand that selling sponsorships is a way to make ends meet on such a big production.  But a national chain restaurant doesn’t seem to fit the entrepreneurial craft beer ethos that the BA promotes and defends.  After all, the Brewers Association has taken it upon itself to precisely define the term “craft brewer”, and takes such a hard line on corporate ownership that their definition excludes a number of breweries that any reasonable person would consider to be producing craft beer.  According to the BA, a craft brewer must be small, independent, and traditional — and breweries that have sold more than a 25% stake to a non-craft brewer fail their definition of independence.  Corporate beer is out, but apparently corporate food is not a problem, as the association has no objection to partnering with Red Robin — a publicly-traded chain of over 500 restaurants in 46 states and provinces.  It seems odd to me that their pickiness over breweries does not extend to places where beer is served, especially since beer/food pairing is another angle the BA uses to promote good beer.

Can you spot the non-craft breweries on this map at my local Red Robin?

Over the years a lot of beer writers have pointed out the flaws in the Brewers Association’s somewhat capricious rules for who deserves the label of craft brewer:  for instance Andy Crouch in 2007, Brian Yaeger in 2012, yours truly that same year, and Michael Kiser in this excellent commentary on Good Beer Hunting just a couple weeks ago during the height of GABF 2017.  To get right to the point, can’t we just call it “beer”?  If you have to label something, say it’s good, or it’s bad, or it’s mass-produced, or only one keg of it was ever made.  We used to get by just fine without the phrase “craft beer.”  This thorough history by the always articulate Stan Hieronymous points out that it only really picked up popularity in the mid to late nineties.

The phrase itself is not objectionable, it’s the fact that the Brewers Association enforces a stringent but changeable definition of it. No one can fault the BA for supporting and encouraging small, local breweries.  It’s a good thing that the industry has such a powerful and well-organized advocacy group.  But I would argue that power is diminished by drawing sharp lines between companies making similar quantities of quality beer, based solely on some of the owners.  To take a recent example, it’s ridiculous to exclude Lagunitas from the “craft beer” clubhouse simply because Heineken owns it.  The beer didn’t change overnight, and if it did, criticize that.

One of the most consistent champions of the “small, independent, traditional” criteria is Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company, which brews Samuel Adams.  It’s a pretty bold stance, given that the BA once had to triple the definition of “small” to keep Boston Beer in the club (and according to Good Beer Hunting may soon have to fiddle with the definition of “traditional” to continue to include Boston).  Why does ownership matter?  In an editorial this year in the New York Times, Koch stated:

It matters because independent American breweries create beers for their local regions. They invest in their communities. They employ local workers. And they pay taxes — local, state and federal. American craft brewing is American manufacturing that doesn’t outsource these well-paying American jobs.

Boy, that is some motherhood and apple pie right there.  But it’s not exactly on target.  Am I helping my community here in Portland by reaching for a cold Sam Adams because I refuse to drink a Widmer beer?  Widmer is excluded from the craft club because of minority ownership by A-B InBev, despite being an outstanding example of the laudable local qualities mentioned in that editorial (full disclosure: I own a small number of shares of stock in Widmer’s parent company, the deviously named Craft Brewers Alliance).  Koch and BA President Bob Pease made similar arguments recently during a presentation to beer writers at the GABF, along the lines that independent brewers can treat their employees and communities better, since they’re not trying to maximize profits for shareholders.  I don’t doubt either man’s sincerity, but it sounds like “righteousness” might be the next criterion added to be a craft brewer, in which case you might see some surprising changes to the list.

Featuring GABF-winning PBR!

But I digress.  What I really wanted to rant about is the Brewers Association getting into bed with Red Robin.  Hey, Red Robin is fine for hamburgers and fries, just as you could say that Goose Island, Elysian, and 10 Barrel serve up some tasty beers.  But is Red Robin small, independent, and traditional?  For the sake of argument, let’s just give them “traditional.”  How small is Red Robin?  Its total revenue last year was only 33% more than that of Boston Beer, $1.3 billion.  That’s not McDonald’s, but they’re not exactly a mom-and-pop.  Here’s the thing: they definitely fail a Brewers Association-style definition of independence, as a publicly-traded company whose executives do not own a controlling percentage of shares.  (Note that Boston Beer, while publicly traded, is independent.  It is structured so that Jim Koch is fully in control).

Would you like a Light, a Light, or a Lite?

That is the main thing that bothers me about the Brewers Association letting them in as a sponsor.  If Red Robin happened to be a brewer, the BA would not call them a craft brewer.  Turn the telescope around.  Suppose there was a Craft Dining Association, advocating for small, independent, traditional chefs and restaurants.  At their annual convention, larger every year, they offer a sponsorship to MillerCoors.  There would be howls of derision from the craft brewing community and probably the Brewers Association itself.  It would be war.

But there’s something else that rankles.  Red Robin’s embrace of craft beer is obviously just a veneer of local flavor and quality over a generic corporate experience.  Take a look at the menu shots here.  The happy hour one proudly touts Pabst, using the GABF logo to promote its 2016 gold medal.  Sorry, Brewers Association, the honeymoon is over!  The beer page in the full menu is topped by Coors Light, Bud Light, and Miller Lite, and Samuel Adams is the only BA-acceptable brand on there, along with no-longer-cool Lagunitas.  This is much like the “illusion of choice” that Jim Koch talks about.  If you needed more proof that Red Robin only has a half-hearted interest in good beer, notice that the beer menu includes Not Your Father’s Root Beer, which isn’t even anyone’s father’s beer.  WTF.

Again, nothing against Red Robin, it is what it is.  I wouldn’t have found any cause to complain about them if not for them being embraced by the Brewers Association.  What the Brewers Association gains from the relationship, I can’t imagine.  Strange bedfellows indeed.

Bill Night
Bill Night

Discussion

  • Pat
    Pat
    Tue Oct 17, 2017 11:59 PM

    Did you interview Red Robin executives for this story?

    • Bill Night
      Bill Night
      Thu Oct 19, 2017 1:21 AM

      Nice one, Pat. I didn’t. In my defense, the Red Robin marketing executive that put this deal together left Red Robin a few weeks after the first GABF outing.

      Also, this is an opinion piece, not a deep investigation.