Philly Beer Week into the weeds

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Philly Loves Beer… and weed, apparently.

The non-profit organization that runs Philly Beer Week says its goal is to promote the city’s “authentic beer experiences.”

Yet, the title sponsor of beer week’s Opening Tap festival is a decidedly un-beerlike company: TerraVida Holistic Centers, Pennsylvania’s largest medical marijuana dispensary.

The company paid an undisclosed amount to have its logo plastered on Opening Tap promotional materials – a move that sparked considerable dissension among some members of the non-profit’s board of directors.

My sources at Philly Loves Beer say TerraVida’s sponsorship was sprung on the board by its executive committee during a board meeting this week. There was no board discussion or vote before the organization cashed the sponsorship check, the sources say; the decision was reportedly made by the group’s five-member executive committee.

In an email, the organization’s executive director, Christina Dowd defended the decision to take the pot check:

“As a non-profit, we look for sponsorships from a variety of different sources. We don’t see medical marijuana and beer as competing. Our organization vetted this sponsorship extensively from both the staff and the Executive Board.”

After I contacted other board members for comment last night, they told me they had received emails from the organization’s leadership warning them not to speak with me.

“They’re freaking out over how this is going to look,” one board member told me.

(Disclosure: I was a founder and first executive director of Philly Beer Week. I left the position in 2013.)

Cannabis is a hot-button issue in the craft beer industry.

At first glance, weed would seem to be a direct competitor with craft beer and a mortal threat to bars and breweries. (And, yes, I know this is “medical” marijuana. But that’s only for now; even TerraVida acknowledges its long game is recreational use.)

Some marijuana proponents say it should be embraced because there’s a natural crossover between weed and craft beer, with many people enjoying both. Indeed, there is a growing trend of non-alcoholic beer infused with THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, or cannabidiol (CBD).

(Currently, it is illegal in the United States to manufacture pot-infused beer containing alcohol.)

Many in the beer industry worry that legal cannabis will cut into its market – especially as craft beer sales growth has flattened over the past year. As one local brewery owner told me, “Weed is my competition.”

A 2017 retail study by industry groups predicted recreational marijuana could steal more than 7 percent of beer revenues. However, a recent study by the Brewers Association showed that threat may be overblown because recreational pot smokers do not automatically give up alcohol once cannabis is legal.

At least one big beermaker is hedging its bets: Anheuser-Busch InBev recently announced it would spend up to $50 million to develop non-alcoholic beverages containing THC and CBD.

In my opinion, taking money from the pot industry is a bad look for a non-profit organization that was founded to support the local beer industry.

This is a group that was so cautious of its image that its original rules prohibited sponsorship from tobacco companies. It has more recently struggled with the weighty issue of accepting membership fees from Big Beer (including ABI’s Goose Island brewpub in Fishtown).

And now it’s taking money from Big Weed?

The decision to accept the TerraVida’s sponsorship cash reportedly stems from Philly Loves Beer’s tight finances. Between 2015 and 2016, the non-profit’s annual revenues plummeted nearly 25 percent, according to its most recent IRS Form 990 filing. It has not fared any better in more recent years as Beer Week participation fees – its main source of revenue – have reportedly declined as bars and restaurants have dropped out of the organization.

Moreover, its Opening Tap festival – the kick-off to Beer Week, and previously one of its main sources of revenue – has been losing money, according to the tax filings. In 2016, the event – held at The Fillmore Philadelphia – brought in about $43,000. But due largely to a one-night rental fee of $28,800, the event ended up almost $3,000 in the hole.

While struggling to meet its financial obligations, Philly Loves Beer has cut expenses. It stopped publishing its annual guide of events, it pulled the plug on its popular smart phone app, and it dropped its public relations firm.

Additionally, this year it moved Opening Tap to the less prominent 2300 Arena, located in an old freight warehouse and former pro wrestling arena below an I-95 overpass in the Whitman section of South Philly.

Though the amount of TerraVida’s payment to Philly Loves Beer was not disclosed, it is almost certainly a drop in the bucket for the weed retailer. In a recent interview with Philly.com, the company’s owner bragged that the company is moving up to 40 pounds of marijuana a week, plus concentrates and other products.

At $300 an ounce, that’s at least $10 million in sales per year.

BEER RADAR

Saint Benjamin announced it would close its brewery in the heart of Kensington after a five-year run. The new owner of its property – a former 19th-century brewery stable house – no longer wants to operate it as a brewery, the company said. Presumably, the equipment will be sold… Rinn Duin Brewing is changing its name to Toms River Brewing. This is the third name for the small Jersey shore location, whose original name, Blackthorn, was dropped after a trademark spat with Blackthorn Cider…

Iron Hill locations are in the spirit of giving this Easter weekend, donating $1 from every kids’ meal to CureSearch for Children’s Cancer. It’s a nice gesture, and it’s nothing new for the brewpub chain, which is raised nearly $300,000 for childhood cancer research in the past 15 years… Brewer Lou Farrell says his Ür Brewery in Lansdale is making some progress. He has his state and federal beer licenses, plus a wine license to make Norman and Bretagne cider…

The beer garden at Conshohocken Brewing’s Bridgeport location opens today. Evil Genius beer garden in Fishtown and Morgan’s Pier, the fun outdoor bar along the Delaware in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge, open this weekend, too… Yard House, the mega-tap craft beer chain, will open this winter at Willow Grove Mall…

If you’re into Game of Thrones, Collusion Tap Works in York, Pa., is the place to visit. Nearly every one of its two dozen taps (below) has a GoT reference, including Tri-Eyed Raven IPA and Betrayal Westeros Imperial Stout…

Stable 12 is into equines, but it loves your canine, too. The Phoenixville brewery offers your pup a special doggy menu, with ice cream, beef chunks and cow ears…

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