One thing I love about the ever-growing online community of beer brewers, distributors, retailers, and drinkers is the open discussion that is fostered. Across blogs, Twitter, Facebook and more, topics from the definition of “session ale” to the kosherness of beer cocktails to emerging styles are discussed and debated. Occasionally these get out of hand, but the majority of the discussion results in something new learned and an appreciation of different perspectives.
A discussion I’ve taken part in several times over the past couple weeks regards supporting craft breweries or, more importantly, not supporting non-craft breweries. “Craft beer” has been a great rallying cry for years. Craft has been the underdog in an industry dominated by giants and it’s been a new frontier for beer drinkers to explore. This was all well and good when there was little in between the craft brewer and the macro corporation. As the craft segment has continued to grow, so too have its biggest members. The giants of the industry have finally taken note of the segment and have become involved, both by introducing their own brands to compete and by investing in smaller breweries. There’s a lot of gray in what used to be an easily black-and-white landscape. The reasons for drinking craft beer decades ago are not necessarily aligned with the craft segment today, and I worry that some who advocate “craft beer” are missing the bigger picture and true essence of what “craft beer” once was.
The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as the following:
These are the working parts of the definition used by the association, whose job is to promote and protect the small and independent breweries that form its membership. This definition is used in reporting things like the 2011 data released earlier this week. The definition is great for defining an industry segment, but it’s not very consumer-friendly. Along with this definition, the Brewers Association provides some “concepts related to craft beer and craft brewers”:
- Craft brewers are small brewers.
- The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.
- Craft beer is generally made with traditional ingredients like malted barley; interesting and sometimes non-traditional ingredients are often added for distinctiveness.
- Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism, and sponsorship of events.
- Craft brewers have distinctive, individualistic approaches to connecting with their customers.
- Craft brewers maintain integrity by what they brew and their general independence, free from a substantial interest by a non-craft brewer.
- The majority of Americans live within ten miles of a craft brewer.
These are really the things that have been selling points for craft beer: small, independent, local, connected, and innovative with a knowledge of and respect for tradition. Few breweries are probably all of these things to someone, but almost any craft brewery you can think of may be described with at least 3 of these qualities. I’ve enjoyed the beer of small breweries who make innovative brews and interact with me online, but they aren’t local to me. Others may be small, closer to home, and brew traditional styles, but I’d be lying to say I’ve ever felt connected to their business by anything more than a transaction-based relationship. Any craft brewer with an eye on success should make an effort to achieve all of these things, but even these alone won’t get you there.
The key is the beer…or it should be, anyway. Most beer drinkers in America haven’t been raised on craft beer. Most who now drink and promote craft beer have some story of enlightenment in which they tried a beer that changed their very understanding of what beer is, and for many the previous definition was limited to American light lager. This taste of craft beer, the actual beer in the glass, is what caused the conversion. It wasn’t the bartender saying “Hey, did you know this is made by an independent company? Last year they made less than a million barrels in total production.” That, however, has seemingly become the standard for many who seem to appreciate good beer: who owns the company that made this beer? Why? There are a lot of dots thrown out in arguments, but no one has seemed to connect them.
I wrote months back in reaction to the vows of many online that they’d never buy another Terrapin product after the brewery announced that it had offered a minority share (<25%, which preserved their "craft brewer" status) to Tenth & Blake, a subsidiary of MillerCoors. Months before that, the same things were said after Fulton Street Brewery (makers of Goose Island) was acquired by Anheuser-Busch. I would have no problem with these reactions, if they were reactions to anything that impacted the people having them. Had there been a decline in quality, a shift in marketing messages, the discontinuation of a favorite brand, or even just a different feeling when you visited the place, the reaction would be justified. There were none of these changes, however—just people reacting to news involving a segment of the industry they'd come to know as a villain. Earlier this week, Don of the Beer & Whiskey Brothers wrote a post about Old Dominion Brewing’s Oak Barrel Stout. He had shared the beer with friends days before and enjoyed it, but after learning that the beer, now made with oak chips, had previously been barrel-aged and that Anheuser-Busch now owns part of the company, he set about blaming AB-Inbev for assumed diminished quality. The reason for the change in process, something that could have been caused by a myriad of reasons (limited space, rising costs or limited supply of barrels, infection scares, etc.), was not investigated.
Despite their disqualification in the minds of some, breweries partly-owned by Big Beer that meet the Brewers Association’s definition are included in the “craft” segment, and thus that capital injected by Big Beer has contributed, in part, to the continued rise of the segment. Worse, in my opinion, are the breweries who have opened and operated within the Brewers Association’s definition, but far from the spirit of the beer community. These breweries are run by people you’ll never meet and the beer is fair but has no inspiration. While I think these places will be forced to improve or will eventually close as consumers become more educated and better options are discovered, I see some in the beer community call to support anything local and small without any mention of quality. At the same time, I see my college town brewery Terrapin continue its one-off Side Project Series, begin a new barrel-aging program, and ready a lineup of community events throughout the summer. The part I’m still uncertain about is what those who “fear” Big Beer buyouts actually fear? In all the cases I’ve heard, the company willingly sold to their buyer(s). The most newsworthy acquisitions have since announced new beer, barrel-program expansions, and more of the same things they were all about since first opening. I’ve read people say that if Big Beer would make a good beer, they’d try it…but at least some of these same people stop drinking a beer they already like because of new involvement from Big Beer.
I’m not championing Big Beer, here, nor am I denouncing small, local breweries. I almost exclusively drink craft beer, but not because it’s defined as craft…because it’s beer I like to drink. It has some to do with taste, some to do with packaging and marketing, and some to do with any experience I have with the brewery’s personnel or facility. If any of these factors changed, so too could my preference for the beer. The term “craft beer” once effectively encompassed an entire approach: a rediscovery of traditional styles and ingredients, a brazenness to interpret those styles in new ways, and an emphasis on the beer’s enjoyability over drinkability. This approach is still the most intriguing and exciting thing happening in the beer industry, but its not an approach taken by all craft brewers and it isn’t reserved for them either. I buy beer based on what I like to drink…and if everyone would, it’d ensure a steady supply of that beer, whether it’s called craft or anything else.