Wynkoop Brewing CO.’s head brewer Andy Brown takes a small taste of the Chancellor beer which has been inside a whiskey barrel for 16 months.
Wynkoop Brewing CO.'s head brewer Andy Brown takes a small taste of the Chancellor beer which has been inside a whiskey barrel for 16 months. (Denver Post file photo)

A brewing dispute between big beer and small, independent brewers escalated Thursday when the Boulder-based Brewers Association, a trade association for the little guys, accused the giants of being too, well, crafty.

The association issued a statement accusing megabreweries of "deliberately attempting to blur the lines" between their own craft-beer-inspired brands and beer created by small, independent brewers.

"We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking," the statement said.

Since 2004, craft beer has doubled its share of the U.S. beer market to nearly 6 percent, according to estimates. More recently, craft sales have risen while overall beer sales have been flat.

Although what defines "craft breweries" is a matter of disagreement, the Brewers Association considers them to be breweries that produce 6 million barrels of beer or less per year and are no more than 25 percent owned by an entity that is not itself a craft brewer.

The group singled out a couple of established brands — the Anheuser-Busch product Shock Top and Blue Moon, a Belgian witbier that was born in Colorado as part of the Coors family and is now part of Chicago-based MillerCoors.

Pete Marino, vice president of communications for MillerCoors, said most beer drinkers are not concerned about industry definitions.

"What consumers think is the most important thing to us," Marino said. "Consumers are voting with their wallets in a highly competitive marketplace every day — and beer drinkers have made Blue Moon the largest craft beer in the country."

Other, newer developments are spooking craft brewers, including partnerships between big and small brewers — or outright takeovers.

Last year, Anheuser-Busch bought Chicago-based craft brewer Goose Island for $38.8 million and has built it into a national brand — including brewing some of Goose Island's flagship beers at the Anheuser-Busch plant in Fort Collins.

Brewers Association director Paul Gatza said his group is not trying to involve federal regulators in the dispute. Nor is it explicitly calling for big breweries to change their labeling or marketing.

"At this point, we're just trying to educate the beer drinker," he said.

An Anheuser-Busch representative declined to comment and referred questions to the Beer Institute, a lobbying group.

In a statement, institute president Joe McClain emphasized the tax benefits that contribute to small breweries' success and the economic contributions of large brewers.

"Ultimately, it comes down to consumer choice," he said. "And with a record number of brewers in today's marketplace, consumers have more choice than ever before."

Eric Gorski: 303-954-1971, egorski@denverpost.com or twitter.com/egorski