Tucked into the distraction of the holiday season in late December, BeerAdvocate (BA), the popular beer sniffer website and co-founder of the American Craft Beer Festival (ACBF), sent out a press release that effectively killed that event and ushered in a new one, the BeerAdvocate Microbrew Invitational.
Billed as a throwback to its roots, the June 3-4, 2016, fest will only include brewers that meet the microbrewery definition, which is to say that they produce less than 15,000 barrels per year. In addition, all of the hand-picked invited microbreweries will be required to brew one beer that will premiere at the Invitational. While noble in its talking points, this announcement has quite a few local breweries, larger ones in particular, scratching their heads; what does this mean for them, and what the hell happened to the American Craft Beer Festival?
For starters, the ACBF was not wholly owned nor solely operated by brothers Jason and Todd Alstrom, the co-founders of BeerAdvocate. It was co-owned by Harpoon Brewery, which also functioned as the co-sponsor and logistical distribution partner of many of the beers and breweries that were at the ACBF but that did not have an existing distributor relationship in Massachusetts, a legal requirement otherwise. Since its inception, the partnership seemed to have worked well—BA focused on the beers and volunteers, Harpoon handled logistics and the financials—and this allowed the festival to become the largest craft beer gathering on the East Coast within its first few years. With 5,000 attendees at each of the three sessions, the event was definitely a huge success, and culturally speaking it was a home run, bringing some of the best beers and craft consumers from around the country into Boston. So why kill it?
That’s a complicated question, creating even more questions than answers. Did it get too big too fast? Did the partners have a falling out? To say Harpoon doesn’t meet the new standards their new festival requires would be an understatement, so it’s clear they will not be part of it. As of press time, there is no official comment from BeerAdvocate, and the posts online have been vague at best; consumers seem to be curious if not a little confused by the announcement, based on limited comments among online threads. I did have a chance to speak to a few people at Harpoon however, and Fitz Granger, Asst VP Marketing at Harpoon Brewery, did offer me the following comment that seems to sum up what I heard.
“We loved the ACBF and we will miss it. It has been a pleasure welcoming great brewers from all over the country to our backyard. However after 8 years of producing the festival together, Jason and Todd had new thoughts on what a beer festival could be and wanted to move on. While it is sad to see the ACBF go, we look forward to what’s to come. It has been a great partnership and we have no doubt that we’ll continue to partner with them down the road.”
I also had a chance to speak with brewers and others working within the local craft beer industry, and almost all of them are not happy with the decision and don’t understand why it was made, some even accusing Jason and Todd of now thumbing their noses at the very brewers who helped them build their mini craft beer empire. As one brewer told me off the record—and for good reason, given the history of BA trolling and blackballing of brands that has taken place in the past—“If it wasn’t for us, there wouldn’t be a BeerAdvocate today. We’re not Budweiser and to make it sound like we’re somehow hurting the craft beer industry, or are no longer relevant because our brands have grown and become successful, is absurd.”
In the end, it sounds like BA drove the decision, and this may be a logical move on their part as the craft beer industry grows up and evolves, or it may be the beginning of the end of the website’s relevance among the very brewers and consumers who made it what it is today. Time will tell either way.