The influence of social media is an aspect of our society we love to bemoan and criticize, but are essentially powerless to ignore or abandon. This is doubly true for small businesses—regardless of an owner or operator’s personal feelings about social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, operating well-regulated social media pages for one’s company is simply part of what it means to operate a business in the modern world. To choose not to participate in this space is tantamount to simply giving up on pursuing a massive collection of potential customers, and not a choice that any business would make lightly.
But what does a small business, such as a craft brewery, do when the fickle, opaque “community standards” of such a place turn against you for reasons that nobody seems to understand? To whom can one turn when your posts are being removed, or accounts are being locked down, and it’s impossible to reach any human form of customer service? For all too many breweries, the recent answer to these questions has simply been to hold tight, and hope that the situation literally fixes itself. A host of small breweries have been finding themselves at the mercy of Instagram in particular since autumn, struggling against a rash of (hopefully) random technical woes, which in many cases have seen their posts taken down, and in some cases have seen beer industry businesses locked out of their accounts entirely. Many theories have since been proffered, but none fully explains why so many breweries continue to be affected.
The situation has certainly not gone unnoticed by the breweries, and by those observing the beer industry, nor has it been limited to the U.S.A. In the U.K., The Independent interviewed representatives of several breweries such as Northern Monk, Seven Bro7hers, and Verdant Brewing Co. about the way their posts were repeatedly flagged for supposedly violating “Instagram’s guidelines on sale of illegal or regulated goods,” suggesting that the Instagram algorithm failed to identify the companies as breweries with a legal license to sell beer … but only on a smattering of random posts. One brewery, Verdant, has apparently had half a dozen posts—all photos of beer cans or glasses of beer—removed by Instagram since late October, including the same photo repeatedly being removed. They’ve never received any reply or explanation from a human being at Instagram. A representative from Seven Bro7hers sums up the general consensus on Instagram’s technical support system by simply calling it the following: “pretty pointless.”
“During the pandemic … our web shop was our sole source of income during a really difficult time,” Seven Brothers said to The Independent. “Instagram is the main platform we use to promote the online sales and how we communicate with our customers and community. We have worked for many years to build this community, so if it was to be removed due to some technical issue that clearly isn’t working correctly, we would be devastated. It would most definitely impact our online sales greatly.”
A post shared by Off Color Brewing (@offcolorbrewing)
That Instagram’s tech support team would be so difficult to reach shouldn’t really be a surprise to users, as the free app has more than two billion global users, leading to an unimaginable flow of daily support claims, the vast majority of which will inevitably go unanswered. As long as Instagram remains a largely free service, this must be the expected outcome. The real question is why brewery pages are seemingly being targeted in the first place.
In case it still needs to be said: Yes, according to the Community Standards of Instagram and parent company Facebook/Meta, breweries are indeed allowed to advertise and shop their wares via the service, as the guidelines clearly state that “Brick-and-mortar and online retailers may promote firearms, alcohol, and tobacco items available for sale off of our services; however, we restrict visibility of this content for minors.”
And yet, so many U.S. breweries have seen their posts taken down, or been locked out of their accounts, that entire threads on forums such as Beer Advocate have sprung up, collecting stories of Instagram’s seemingly random and inconsistent treatment of small breweries. Dozens of breweries have been affected, among them names such as the following: Burial Beer Co., Angry Chair Brewing, Bottle Logic Brewing, Off Color Brewing, TRVE Brewing, Holy Mountain Brewing, Live Oak Brewing, Vitamin Sea Brewing, Line Creek Brewing and others.
Wanting to get a better idea of what this experience has been like for specific breweries, Paste reached out to several of them to gauge how much an Instagram disruption might affect their business. We’ve also reached out to Instagram for comment, but unsurprisingly have not received a reply.
Austin, Texas’ Live Oak Brewing has been one of the city’s craft brewing progenitors since 1997, and are known throughout the country for their pristine renditions of classic German beer styles. Unfortunately, they’ve also had a series of completely innocuous photos removed by Instagram, something that makes marketing manager Myk O’Connor nervous about the Instagram algorithm punishing the brand or restricting its reach in the future. Speaking with Paste, he said that a few posts had previously been removed in the past, perhaps mistaking hop flowers for cannabis or other controlled substances, but appeals through Instagram’s support system always resulted in the posts being restored. Not so, this time—several Live Oak photos such as the below image of Kristallweizen were taken down in October, and O’Connor is still waiting for a reply.
“The posts I mentioned are still listed as under review, so I don’t know if they’re ever coming back,” he said. “It’s been literally months now. It’s all inherently confusing because there’s no customer service where you can speak with a living person, so we’re just stuck. It’s frustrating, because it certainly seems randomly selected. It has me poring over the wording in our ad copy, but I don’t see how it could be related to something we did.”
The Live Oak photo that Instagram claimed violated their standards.
O’Connor went on to say that losing access to Instagram for good would be “absolutely devastating” for Live Oak’s marketing efforts, saying that “we use all the different social media platforms, but Instagram is by far the easiest and quickest way to get our releases in front of people. Losing access to those fans is a very real fear for us.”
Asheville, North Carolina’s Burial Beer Co. is another brewery that relies heavily on Instagram to inform its local community about its latest can releases, a strategy employed by many of the country’s most well-regarded and sought after brewers. In recent months, they’ve seen multiple posts pulled down, accompanied by statements that they had violated the site’s community guidelines. Director of Brand Chris McClure says he’s never been able to determine anything specific about any of those posts that resulted in the violations: “We speculate on it, but we have no idea. They basically make it sound like you’re posting sensitive material, when all we’re doing is posting photos of beer. I’ve been able to appeal maybe three of them, but the most recent one I didn’t even have an opportunity to appeal it.”
Although the nature of the image takedowns does seem to be automated, or a result of some arcane aspect of the Instagram algorithm, McClure is among those social media professionals who also worry about elements of a potentially more sinister agenda at Instagram or Meta, specifically making life hard for small breweries. On Beer Advocate, the more conspiratorial users have freely theorized that Instagram is trying to punish small, independent breweries without big advertising budgets for not directly spending on Instagram’s own advertising. Breweries on that online forum have also complained that the Instagram algorithm has recently shifted to seemingly limit natural engagement with their posts, which makes them speculate that the company is trying to incentivize boosts and paid advertising instead.
“I can’t say why any of this is happening, but I think one thing that is consistent is that the craft beer community does seem to be getting targeted for some reason,” McClure said. “We’ve met a lot of other breweries who are being affected by this, and a huge swath of the craft beer community promotes their weekly releases through Instagram channels. So it does make you wonder if we’re heading toward what will eventually be a pay to play system.”
For some of the breweries in this story, having a few posts removed by Instagram has been nothing more than a minor headache, or even a marketing opportunity in and of itself. Others, however, have not been so lucky. Hyped Anaheim, California stout purveyor Bottle Logic, for instance, lost its entire Instagram account at one point this autumn, making a blog post on their website to explain their sudden disappearance to fans.
This account lockout reportedly happened without warning or explanation, which is exactly what also happened to the Instagram account of New York-based craft beer and cider retailer Half Time Beverage … not once, but twice. In 2021, the retailer has twice had its account deactivated, first for about 10 days and then recently for another week. In both cases, marketing director Chris Weiss says the company received no notification, and simply woke up one morning unable to log into Instagram or access their account.
“What happened when we were first locked out we’ll never know 100%, but it’s possible that we were flagged by AI for ‘promotion of firearms,’ which is obviously not something we actually did,” Weiss said. “I work with a Facebook marketing rep, and even though Facebook and Instagram are considered separate companies, for all intents and purposes they’re one entity. So I reached out to him to see if he could provide any insight, and he’s the one who told me that the post was flagged for ‘promoting firearms,’ which was just ridiculous to me.”
The image of St. Bernardus Christmas Ale that Weiss believes most recently led to Half Time Beverage losing its Instagram account for a week.
Often, these stories about navigating the morass of Instagram technical support involve just such a figure, a “friend at Facebook” who must be personally consulted in order to get results. But for a company like Half Time Beverage without such a direct or even indirect link to Meta, the sudden loss of an account could seem like a completely impassable obstacle. Weiss, for instance, was asked in the appeal process to explain why it was in error, but he didn’t even know what post had led to the takedown in the first place.
“We’ve never known what the reason is for the flags,” he said. “You just go to log in one day and it’s not there, and you’re told that you’ve violated the Community Standards and that you can appeal. But how can you appeal something when you don’t even know what you’ve supposedly done wrong? They give you a text box to write why you think this is a mistake, and you’re almost at a loss of what to write there.”
This uncertainty leads to marketing managers and social media professionals becoming paranoid in their ability to use social media to promote their businesses, agonizing over aspects of each image or ad copy that shouldn’t be relevant. Weiss, for instance, now finds himself questioning whether “the outline of bottles resemble shotgun or artillery shells” as a legitimate aspect of his daily job. Surely we can all agree that the job of a social media coordinator shouldn’t involve having to ask “Does this bottle look too much like a bullet?”
The only consistent aspect of this story seems to be the sheer inconsistency of how the likes of Instagram treat one brewery vs. another, and the frustration that nearly the entire industry feels about it. One brewery, for instance, such as Chicago’s Off Color, will have a post removed, make another post mocking that fact, and then have the original post returned within a few hours, ultimately turning the experience into what is arguably a net positive for their marketing. Others, meanwhile, attempt to contact Instagram support for months, to no avail.
What is certain is that there’s a collective unease among the breweries about how dependent they are upon social media in the first place, an issue exacerbated by the fact that all too many brewery websites are lacking in functionality and useful information for consumers, many of them simply being platforms that exist to drive visitors back to those same social media pages. One would hope that this wave of Instagram woes would be a wakeup call to many breweries that have put all their eggs in one basket, convincing more of them to invest in functional websites with more information on their product and its availability. That’s the vibe one gets when seeing Instagram posts like the below example from Denver’s TRVE, which polls the audience on what kind of platform they’d prefer to receive information on, rather than Instagram.
One can’t get around the fact, though, that sites such as Facebook and Instagram represent an unparalleled way to reach millions of consumers with tailor-made advertising and brand building, which is (at least for now) still free for breweries to pursue. The potential rewards make it difficult for any business to ignore the opportunity, but the value of that opportunity is undercut when the parent company’s algorithm seems to be disproportionately targeting one of the industries that most critically relies on it. Small breweries on Instagram continue to tread lightly, fearful that social media’s sword of Damocles might one day fall upon them.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.