Betsy Weber, Flickr creative commons

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New Belgium Brewing recently formed a political action committee, which is thought to be one of the first for a craft brewer. Photo of New Belgium’s Fort Collins, Colo., facility via Betsy Weber, Flickr creative commons.

A few days before this year’s midterm elections, campaign-weary voters in Western North Carolina were treated to an unexpected set of attack ads—a series of lighthearted online spoofs promoting New Belgium Brewing’s lineup of craft beers.

“Can we really trust a beer that spends its afternoons lounging on sunny porches?” one asked.

“Biscuity malt, balanced hops, a bike on every porch,” another touted.

Despite the jokes, New Belgium takes its politics seriously.

Earlier this year, the brewer took steps to form a political action committee (commonly abbreviated as PAC). The step is believed to be a first for brewers in the exponentially growing craft beer industry.

Along with filing paperwork to form a PAC on the federal level, the employee-owned company also moved to establish PACs on state levels where it has a brick and mortar presence, forming groups in both Colorado and North Carolina—where it’s currently building a $175 million, 133,000 square-foot brewery in the heart of Asheville’s River Arts District.

The move comes at a significant time for New Belgium, the nation’s third-largest craft brewer having produced more than 760,000 barrels of beer in 2012. It also comes at a significant time craft brewers across the country, who continue to chip away at a market share long held by industry stalwarts like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch.

While large-scale brewers and wholesalers have been long-active on the political scene, New Belgium’s foray into the field indicates the craft industry is beginning to find its niche.

Not to be confused with super PACs—the often-dark groups known for filtering unlimited amounts of money on the behalf of preferred candidates—political action committees have been operating for decades. The groups, which typically are formed around a businesses or labor groups, are limited in their abilities to donate to both campaigns and political parties.

In a specific election, a PAC is allowed to contribute only $5,000 of its funds to a candidate.

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When contributing to political parties, the groups are limited to $15,000 a year.

Although it may not be big money, the formation of a PAC still represents a symbolic step for New Belgium, and the development may potentially play a role in future elections in the Asheville area, which has become renowned for its craft beer scene.

So far, New Belgium’s PAC has yet to report raising any funds. No contributions have been made to any candidates or parties, but that will likely change in coming years.

Andrew Lemley, government affairs specialist for New Belgium, told Carolina Public Press that the company’s PACs would seek to champion candidates who supported the craft beer industry, along with core issues New Belgium was already actively engaged in supporting, like water quality and alternative transportation.

Lemley added that the bulk of funds would be raised from New Belgium’s 560-plus employees, along with the 140 workers planned for the Asheville brewery.

“These new organizations are a continuation of [New Belgium’s] ongoing advocacy efforts like testifying on behalf of clean water, philanthropic donations to nonprofits working on water stewardship, alternative transportation, sustainable agriculture and youth environmental education, advocating for employee ownership, and generating on-site renewable energy,” Lemley said in an emailed statement to Carolina Public Press. “We see joining our resources to support worthy candidates as a natural evolution in our sustainable business practices.”

The PAC’s areas of focus should not come as a shock to anyone remotely familiar with New Belgium’s ongoing commitment to sustainability. Chris Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, said he was not surprised to learn of the formation of the company’s political offshoot, but added that the action highlighted specific policy interests which distinguished the craft-brewing industry from other larger-scale brewers.

“It suggests that [New Belgium] has some distinct policy priorities that are different from the macro-brewers,” Cooper said. “If there weren’t any separate needs, they wouldn’t need to form their own PAC. I think that shows the maturity of the craft beer industry in some ways, that you can segment out the needs of macro-brewers versus the needs of craft brewers.”

An apparent focus for the PAC will be supporting items of legislation similar to the “Small Brew Act,” a bill which was put forward in 2012 that would have reduced the excise tax on beer for brewers with an annual production of six million barrels or less. U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, who represents North Carolina’s 10th District, was a backer of the bill, which died in committees. McHenry, who is also vice chairman of the House Small Brewers Caucus, would be willing to support similar legislative items in the future, a spokesman said.

“It is highly likely another member would introduce [the Small Brew Act] again next Congress,” Jim Butler, press secretary for McHenry, said in an emailed statement. “Rep. McHenry is a proud co-sponsor of the legislation and would likely be again when the legislation is reintroduced in the next Congress.”

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Another issue pertinent to North Carolina that New Belgium’s PAC could potentially zero in on is hydraulic fracturing—commonly referred to as fracking—a controversial method for extracting oil and natural gas which state lawmakers endorsed by lifting a moratorium earlier this year. In 2013, New Belgium, along with 25 other Colorado craft brewers, sent a letter to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, urging him to consider the value of clean water to the brewing industry as he considered proposals on fracking regulations across the state.

Despite not yet having contributed funds to candidates or groups, Lemley said New Belgium was not concerned about potentially alienating parts of its customer base because of political involvement.

“We find that beer lovers are interested and engaged in the important issues of our time,” he said. “We know beer can be a powerful force in bringing people together. We hope that by being transparent about how we get involved in public policy we can encourage good conversations. For us, this is a new way of getting involved in public policy based on our core values of promoting beer culture and honoring the environment.”

Some in Asheville’s beer community see the PAC as being a potential benefit for the area.

Cliff Mori, owner-operator of Asheville’s Brew-ed tours, said as long as companies were permitted to participate in the political money game, companies focused on “bigger picture issues” like New Belgium would offer an appealing contrast to typical PACs.

“The [New Belgium] PAC shows that the craft beer industry has grown to a point where putting money into the hands of lawmakers makes sense,” Mori said. “The issues the PAC supports aren’t exclusive to New Belgium, but are shared across the country. As long as corporations are people and are growingly responsible for choosing our electorate, it’s going to be companies like New Belgium getting involved that will help level the playing field.”

James Harrison

James Harrison is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Reach him at jharrison@carolinapublicpress.org.

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