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The Boulder-based Brewers Association announced a surprising new partner on Monday: Buffalo Wild Wings.
The national chicken-wing chain, which doesn’t boast any prior notable connection to the craft beer industry (it serves beer, at least), will be an official sponsor and have 3,600-square-feet at the Great American Beer Festival in September 2018. Specifics about how the space will be utilized are a bit underwhelming (beer—duh—and TVs for sports are the only confirmed draws), but the most exciting part of this announcement is that GABF award-winning brews will be featured at Buffalo Wild Wings locations nationwide.
This deal with Buffalo Wild Wings comes a little over a year after the Brewers Association banned macro breweries from sponsoring GABF. From a business perspective, replacing big beer with big food seems to make perfect sense for the microbrewing industry, which currently holds nearly 13 percent of the national beer market by volume. But the partnership continues a long-held conversation about how much responsibility, if any, craft brewers shoulder to fiercely maintain their independence from large corporations. Look at what happened after Anheuser-Busch Inbev bought Breckenridge Brewery. The Brewers Association no longer considers Breckenridge a craft brewery and, last year, denied the local brewery a booth at GABF.
The Brewers Association’s move to partner with a restaurant that doesn’t represent craft beer—or craft anything, for that matter—left some, such as Chicago-based beer journalist Josh Noel, scratching their heads. Local beer representative Emily Hutto admits she was a bit taken aback by the announcement. Although she says BWW’s sponsorship of the event isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Hutto points to the passion behind microbrewing, which makes it difficult for craft brewers to make deals with large corporations. “Craft brewing is an agricultural and artisanal industry, you know? People dedicate their whole life to this and there’s a lot of emotion that comes from the homebrewing side of things,” Hutto says. “There’s a certain romanticism and idealism in craft brewing, and brewers don’t feel like they need to sell out in order to make a living.”
Renegade Brewing founder Brian O’Connell says that if there’s an organization that appreciates that kind of culture, it’s the Brewers Association. O’Connell, who calls the deal a “great win for the Brewers Association,” says that big business has been involved with GABF for the more than 10 years he’s had beer at the festival.
“I don’t think the decision has any bearing on craft brewing other than saying, ‘We like craft beer and want it in our restaurants,’” O’Connell says. “This is a big-ass, expensive fest, and finding partners who support what we do is great.”
That seems to be in-line with the Brewers Association’s reasoning behind the deal, as Brewers Association official Ann Obenchain wrote in an email that this partnership is “a great opportunity to extend the reach and highlight offerings from small and independent brewers.” The reach of a place such as BWW, which last year sold to Arby’s owner Roark Capital Group for $2.4 billion, seems aimed at accomplishing exactly that. “We run the risk of being snooty and exclusive in craft beer,” Hutto says, “And incorporating a gateway establishment like [BWW] can be a way to introduce more people to craft beer.”