About five years back, I found myself on the phone with a brewer named Steve Luke talking about Anheuser-Busch InBev’s intentions for the then-still-growing American craft brewing industry. “It seems like they’re making gains in the craft segment enough to kind of satisfy them” for now, Luke told me, referring to the world’s biggest beer company, which at that point had acquired around 10 independent breweries as part of a decade-long buying spree designed to grab a chunk of the segment. “But once that growth stops for them… I mean, they always have to grow. That’s kind of my biggest fear.”

If you attended the 2018 Great American Beer Festival, you might recognize Luke’s name; he was the guy who wore a “F*CK AB-INBEV” shirt up on stage to accept a medal for Cloudburst Brewing Co., the small Seattle brewery he founded in 2016. So, y’know, not an objective observer (to the extent that such a thing even exists.) But the brewer’s ominous prediction was informed by firsthand experience watching his former workplace, Elysian Brewing Co., be ingested by Big Beer’s biggest player a few years prior. And it’s proven prescient: As the craft brewing segment’s growth has slowed, ABI has put the screws to its craft brewing division, laying off employees at the corporate level, pivoting beloved brands in confusing new directions, and even shuttering one brewery entirely.

Faced with that precarity and uncertainty, workers have begun to form unions at some of the company’s dozen-odd craft breweries — including Luke’s old employer, Elysian, where workers filed a petition for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board on July 27. Given ABI’s size and prominence in the industry, these efforts have the potential to spark a brush fire of organizing at the 9,700-plus breweries across the country. It’s an auspicious moment. And frankly, I’m surprised it took so long to arrive.

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But first, a quick history lesson. The basic labor dynamics of the post-Prohibition American brewing industry are: Consolidating macrobrewers built big facilities where the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International (BCTGM), and other unions represent big chunks of a given workforce. Union density has consistently and dramatically declined since 1983 (thanks, Reagan!), but that dynamic persists in some capacity today. With the notable exception of Coors’ Golden, Colo., brewery, where virulently anti-union Coors family leadership infamously busted its union in the late ’70s, most macrobreweries still employ union labor. Many beer distributors are the same, particularly in the more pro-labor Northeast and Midwest.

Craft brewing has always been different, for reasons I’ve covered at length: the entrepreneurial mythos, the shared “David versus Goliath” purpose, the geographical dispersion. Crucially, craft brewing was also a growth industry, until recently. Macrobreweries may pay better (especially the union ones) but they’re hardly an industry vanguard or a place to experiment before striking out on your own. But thanks to changing tastes, rising interest rates, and the enormous proliferation of craft breweries, striking out on your own has become a whole lot harder in recent years. Accordingly, workers across the craft brewing industry began realizing that their jobs were neither as swell as they’d been told, nor the stepping stone to the greener pastures of owner-operatorship they’d hoped. “There are people making money here,” said Scott Timms, who, when I spoke with him in 2018, had recently quit a production manager job with Falling Sky Brewing in Eugene, Ore., “But it’s not us.”

In the intervening years, the craft brewing industry has seen a smattering of labor organizing, but nothing like the groundswell I’ve been expecting, having heard and read workers’ accounts for years about the unequal pay, dangerous conditions, and predatory bosses they’ve endured across the industry. The Covid-19 pandemic triggered just a few union efforts at craft breweries; the “reckoning” brought about by Brienne Allan’s Instagram-abetted airing of the industry’s dirty laundry spurred none that I’m aware of. Now, as the industry struggles through a sales-sapping vibe shift, the stakes are higher than ever.

“Change is part of any industry, but the question workers in craft beer now face is how will the positive and negative changes be distributed?” says Anders Bloomquist, a part-time production worker at Fair State Brewing Cooperative (which went union in 2020) who also works as an organizer for UNITE HERE Local 17 in the Twin Cities. “Will the painful changes all flow downhill to workers that are often treated as replaceable parts while the profits and benefits accrue among executives and owners?”

“Workers having each other’s backs is the only way forward,” he adds.

Not that it’s easy to form a union. It’s not, even at craft breweries owned by ABI, which already employs thousands of union workers. For example, at Goose Island Brewing Co., which ABI acquired in 2011, workers had spent months gathering signed union cards from a reported 60 percent of eligible workers at the firm’s Clybourn Avenue brewpub when the company laid many of them off in June 2020. (Goose Island told The Chicago Tribune the layoffs were due to the pandemic, not the drive; workers say the brewery’s founder, John Hall, warned them that if they unionized, the Clybourn location would be closed. ABI didn’t reply to my request for comment for this column.) The drive, organized with Teamsters Local 705, fizzled.

Whether it was apathy, optimism, or opposition keeping them on the sidelines of the labor movement, there are signs that workers at ABI’s other craft breweries are newly interested in forming unions. Earlier this year, 54 workers at Widmer Bros. Brewery in Portland, Ore., voted to join Teamsters Local 162. A press release from the union heralding the victory calls out all the familiar issues — scheduling, safety, health care quality — and specifically notes that Widmer workers “are not being paid fairly in comparison to the parent company’s union breweries.” (A spokesperson for Local 162 declined to comment, citing ongoing bargaining; the worker quoted in the release did not respond to a request for comment.) And late last month, workers organizing with Teamsters Local 117 filed a petition for union representation for 34 Elysian Brewing Co. workers at the Seattle firm’s Georgetown production facility, which has been an ABI asset since 2015. A representative from Local 117 did not respond to a request for comment on the reasons animating the drive, but I have a few guesses.

88 workers split across two craft breweries does not a brush fire spark. But the significance of these drives, from where your humble Hop Take columnist is sitting, has less to do with those numbers, and everything to do with this one: 190,000. That’s how many workers were directly employed at craft breweries and brewpubs in 2022, according to the Brewers Association. These are not easy jobs to unionize, for all the reasons laid out above, but it’s a shitload of jobs, particularly when you consider that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that just 193,000 workers joined private-sector unions last year across the entire economy.

If workers at Widmer and Elysian can win contracts comparable to their Teamster counterparts at ABI-owned macrobreweries, they’ll be some of the most well-compensated employees in the craft brewing industry, and proof-positive to their colleagues at Goose Island, Wicked Weed, Blue Point, and every other craft brewery in ABI’s portfolio that the parent co. has been taking advantage of them. What then? Even a dozen small-to-mid-sized craft breweries across the country going union still isn’t a brush fire on its own. But it could be a spark for workers at non-ABI craft breweries across the country trying to figure out how to make this industry work for them, rather than the other way around.

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

If you were a chief executive of a publicly traded macrobrewer, reporting lackluster quarterly earnings results, you might be looking for a way to change the conversation from your own company’s performance to that of your rivals. But if you were Heineken CEO Dolf van den Brink, you’d take things one step further, responding to a question about Bud Light’s slide on CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” that companies like his (whose Q2 earnings report disappointed analysts earlier this week) needed to “stand for your values and your principles.” It was a savvy move that stirred up headlines — none of which were about Heineken’s own track record of unprincipled business dealings abroad. Funny, that!

📈 Ups…

In its Q2 earnings report, Molson Coors posted its best quarterly volumes since 2008… Heineken finally figured out how much price-taking was too much price-taking this quarter… Craft beer may be a flat category, but Tilray is getting huge growth out of Montauk Brewing Co. less than one year in… Congratulations to the world’s 10 most valuable beer brands of 2023…

📉 …and downs

The last batch of Anchor Steam was packaged last week at the erstwhile San Francisco brewery… Danelle Kosmal, the Beer Institute’s VP of research and a lovely person to boot, is leaving the org and the country this fall… Monster will route its newly acquired Bang Energy brand through Coca-Cola’s distribution network; sorry, beer wholesalers… The cannabis industry’s woes continue, with “weak weed” crops causing a supply crunch…

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