Redefining Membership? Consider These Three Steps

Industry evolution led the Brewers Association to update its definition of a craft brewer and add a new member category to make membership more inclusive. Three steps to take if you’re considering a similar move.

Defining who and what a member is can be tricky.

The aim is to be as inclusive as possible while drawing some basic parameters around your membership base. That can be especially challenging if you’re in an industry experiencing rapid change—like craft beer, which has seen exponential growth in the last decade.

These days, local beer is widely celebrated, and some regional breweries, like Bell’s, Dogfish Head, and New Belgium, have become common household brands.

As the industry grows, so do breweries, which are pushing the boundaries of what craft beer is. Brewers have added new and experimental drinks like hard ciders, lower-alcohol session beers, and even kombucha-style ales.

“The craft beer industry is evolving, and as craft brewers have done more and more with innovative products, the definition needs to keep up with the times,” says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. Otherwise, BA might risk excluding members because they don’t meet a craft brewer definition for membership.

BA defines a craft brewer as a “small and independent brewer,” but what constitutes “small” and “independent”? The organization’s board redefined those terms late last year and made other changes that may seem small, but they’re significant. (For starters, the updated definition removes the word “traditional”; more on that in a minute.) The December action was the fourth time in 11 years that the BA board has amended its definition of a craft brewer “to keep up with innovation and brewing trends.”

In a blog post, BA Chief Economist Bart Watson writes that a member “is no longer required to have a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beer. That means that companies that produce across beverage alcohol categories can be considered craft brewers if they meet the other requirements: produce less than 6 million barrels (of beer globally) and remain independent.” The update means about 60 brewers not previously eligible for membership can now join BA.

At the same time, BA added a new taproom membership category, which gives breweries with a front-of-house tavern or bar greater influence and visibility in the organization, including a designated committee and opportunities for representation on the board.

Before making these changes, BA took time to study the evolution occurring in the industry and to gather member input. Here are three steps that Gatza says any association should take before redefining what membership is.

Identify gray areas of membership. If your industry or profession is experiencing rapid growth or change, start by surveying members to find out where opportunities and challenges exist. BA identified the representation gap for breweries with taprooms via a survey. “Our bylaws put them in a gray area, where they were selling more than a quarter of their beer on premises, but still selling out in the market too,” Gatza says. That helped to spark discussion about creating the new member category.

Consider market forces affecting members. Boston Beer, brewer of the Sam Adams brands, is the second-largest craft brewery in the United States. The definition change—to be more inclusive of nontraditional brewing techniques—was directly related to changes the company made. In the last few years, Boston Beer launched new alcoholic seltzers, ciders, and hard iced teas, which didn’t fall into BA’s “traditional” beer definition. Rather than exclude one of its biggest members, BA saw an opportunity to be more flexible in response to market forces. “We acknowledged upfront to our members that the timing was related to Boston Beer,” Gatza says. “Our board didn’t want to leave [Boston Beer] out there to hang.”

Offer a member comment period. Feedback was key to the member definition change. BA’s board gave members a chance to weigh in during a comment period. That feedback was considered before the board vote and helped ensure transparency throughout the process, Gatza says. “In 2014, the last time the last time the definition changed, it just changed, and members were notified after,” he says. “That didn’t go over as well in terms of transparency. It wasn’t a huge issue, but it was a lesson for the board.”

Have you updated your member definition or classifications recently? Why was a change needed and how did you implement it? Post your comments below.

(Eshma/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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