Seattle craft brewing: A rising tide lifts all glasses

Seattle’s dozens of craft breweries aren’t fighting each other for your drinking dollar.

They’re not adversaries. They’re not suing each other or competing, at least not in a cutthroat way. They prefer advising, sharing, collaborating. United, in many ways, by what they’re not: Big Beer.

Big, as in corporate giants, the kind that swallow up little breweries in one gulp.

Among craft brewers, there’s a strong sense of local pride, and a de facto code of conduct that distinguishes their business not just from Big Beer but from other industries, as well, said Zahr Said, the UW School of Law’s associate dean of research and faculty development and professor of law. The traditional rules of intellectual property that govern other makers — of coffee, say, or clothing, or software — don’t quite fit.

Intellectual property, or “IP,” largely regulates through exclusive rights, setting the terms for creative and scientific production in terms of the owner’s ability to control and limit access to their output. Openness is the exception, not the rule. Not so in the craft brewing community, Said quickly learned, as she heard story after story about how brewers help each other, share all kinds of resources, and collaborate in extensive ways that sometimes defy IP’s basic assumptions.

“Brewers would say that it was a little like borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbor. Of course you say yes, because you might need a cup yourself someday. But you also say yes out of the sense that you’re all in this together, and you’re rooting for your neighbor to succeed, as well,” Said said. “The more customers are drinking craft beer, or so the thinking goes, the better off everybody is.”

Said interviewed nearly two dozen Seattle brewers for a study published earlier this year in the Lewis and Clark Law Review. The paper is the first legal scholarship to study craft brewing through empirical research, and the first scholarship to focus solely on Seattle’s craft brewers.

Said, who specializes in copyright law, points to a term coined in organizational management research — “coopetition,” a mashup of “cooperation” and “competition” — to describe the way craft brewers do business.

“Craft” brewing is about size: Generally speaking, to be classified as “craft,” a brewery must produce fewer than 6 million barrels a year, be majority independently owned, and use traditional methods and ingredients. Nationwide, there are some 5,300 craft breweries, representing 12% of the overall share of the beer market. With well over 300 craft breweries in the state, Washington’s total is second only to California’s. About 60 breweries lie within the Seattle city limits, with closer to 200 in the greater Puget Sound area.

From her interviews, Said found common systems and practices that may be unique to the industry, and even the place.

Seattle, for one, has a significant population of science and tech types — useful for both the nature of brewing and the financial capital needed to start out, she said. (Quite a few brewers Said talked to, for instance, are former tech workers who don’t necessarily need to worry about turning a profit from their taproom, or at least have a longer float time.)

Seattle also has a strong support-local-business culture. Craft brewers operate by a “rising tide lifts all boats” mantra, with a collective, “oppositional” identity, Said said. Craft brewers have essentially created community norms, rules of behavior that are expected to be followed by aren’t legally binding. Those norms are:

Don’t talk about another brewer in a way that would damage their reputation;

Share resources, including ingredients and expertise;

Take legal action only as a last resort;

Exclude those who defy the norms.

The latter, Said points out, is about “policing the boundaries” of the community. While these norms apply within the craft-brewing community, outsiders — namely, Big Beer — don’t receive the same treatment. For example, two craft brewers might hash out a dispute over a logo with a phone call. But that same dispute with a beverage conglomerate? That’s one for an attorney.

“The more customers are drinking craft beer, or so the thinking goes, the better off everybody is.”

Zahr K. Said

The norms are a marked difference from the way most businesses operate, Said explained. Typically, businesses don’t share equipment or knowledge. They’re quick to trademark and copyright. They don’t collaborate on a product. And they don’t rush to help a competitor in need.

Sharing, meanwhile, is particularly common among craft brewers, whether lending a hand to fix broken equipment, giving tips on a process or going in together on a special “collaboration” beer. This pay-it-forward mentality keeps the community spirit alive, Said said.

The industry’s key trade organization, the Brewers’ Association, furthers the sense of collective identity, she said. After the group adopted a membership seal, for use on beer labels and the like, extensive data indicated that the seal was popular among brewers, and some evidence suggests that the seal may boost sales.

But it’s not all a purely altruistic communal endeavor, she added. Like any business sensitive to profits and losses, craft breweries have limits to their openness. They keep their finances to themselves and may not share things like the data they collect on yeast, for instance, if they possess special expertise that gives them a competitive edge. They are glad their consumers are drinking other craft beers, but ultimately, many do want consumers to choose their product over others. They cultivate their brands as brand owners, and they choose their location with strategic business considerations in mind.

Yet community remains the theme for Seattle’s craft brewers, she said. Many are open to families, contribute to local causes and events, and see themselves as a neighborhood “third place” or gathering space.

Despite Washington’s large number of breweries, the state isn’t among the top states in terms of beer output or exports. Data show that, actually, Washington’s breweries tend to be smaller, and oriented around taprooms and service aimed at local communities. Washington state has many breweries, but it keeps much of its beer in state, and serves a great deal of it on tap directly to Washingtonians.

Seattle’s brewers display an unusual mix of science and business acumen that has helped lift the local industry to prominence, Said said. While the scientific impulse to experiment is evident throughout the local craft brewing scene, she added, it appears that customers’ love of beer, and of the ritual of relaxing among fellow fans in the brewing community, drive so much of the innovation and passion in the craft brewing industry in Seattle and throughout the state.

For more information, contact Said at or 805-622-9247.