Monday, August 9, 2010

Guilty by Association

One theme that seems to do the rounds time after time is trying to define the nature of a "craft brewery". Some will tell you its about the ingredients they use, others will say that it is about the size of the operation, everyone seems to have a different opinion about what constitutes a craft brewery. While I don't want to get into that whole discussion in depth, one thing that has been bothering me of late is the loose use of the very term "craft beer".

I am on record as not being a huge fan of the term itself, after all, does a beer like Orval qualify as "craft beer" given the use of hop extract or not? I do not believe that we are experiencing a "craft beer revolution" as some would grandiosely put it, rather we are having the beer equivalent of the organic and slow food movements, realising that chemicals and additives have no place in the food chain. The craft beer movement is really just a reflection on our culture's return to a pre-industrial model where local products were the norm rather than the exception.

And so craft beer grows, while the mass produced beer makers lose market share. One trend that troubles me though, is the big boys picking up the term "craft beer" and claiming a portion of the market for themselves.

One example of this struck me the other day when I saw an advertisement for a beer festival which is coming to Charlottesville in the coming weeks, Top of the Hops. The event website proudly proclaims that visitors will get "two-ounce sampling[s] of craft beers from around the world", eager to see what samplings would be available, I checked out the breweries coming to town. Some of the local breweries coming include Legend from Richmond, whose beers are excellent, Blue Mountain from just up the road and from further afield Bell's Brewery.

A couple of brewers coming though kind of stand out from the crowd, Blue Moon, Leinenkugels and Pilsner Urquell in particular. Now, it isn't the quality of the beer I want to discuss, or the ingredients, but rather the companies behind these breweries. Everyone and his uncle knows that Blue Moon is a Molson-Coors product, while Leinenkugels and Pilsner Urquell are both SABMiller brands. Isn't it slightly incongruous to have a product like Blue Moon or Pilsner Urquell described as "craft beer" - are they even sure that the Pilsner Urquell is from Plzen rather than brewed under license in Russia or Poland?

A craft brewer, at least here in America, according to the Brewers Association is "small, independent and traditional". When discussing the independence of a craft brewer, they further claim that if more than 25% of the company is owned by a non-craft brewery, then they no longer qualify as such. Obviously that disqualifies Pilsner Urquell as a beer from a "craft brewery" in the American context, unless of course SABMiller are somehow to be afforded that status, oh wait, they aren't small enough.

In allowing representatives from the big industrial breweries in a "craft beer" festival, I feel that the image and "brand", if you will, of craft beer is diluted, blurring the edges for many consumers as to what constitutes a craft beer. A further example of this would be product placement in supermarkets, where you generally have beers divided into "domestic" and "import", with craft beer lumped in with the import beer. Given the amount of wrangling that goes on in the retail process about where products are placed on supermarket shelves, it is no coincidence that Blue Moon is always in the import/craft beer section, but surely as the product of mass swill producing Coors it should be in the domestic section?

I would like to make clear though that I have no problem whatsoever with Blue Moon, and even enjoy Pilsner Urquell in the right circumstances, but to create in the consumers' mind an association with craft beer through participation in a "craft beer" festival is disingenuous, whether on the part of the brewery or the festival organisers I wouldn't like to say. If, however, craft beer is to stand apart from the morass of mass produced muck, then the "movement" needs its own festivals, with clear and strict definitions of who qualifies to participate - I would suggest the Brewers Association definition as a starting point, even if that means well known breweries are turned away because they have gone beyond the definition of craft, to become small industrial brewers, it would also mean openness on the part of breweries as to ownership information.

One festival though that I will be attending is the River Bend Beer Festival in Scottsville where the criteria for being allowed to participate includes being a Virginia brewery, thus giving small local breweries an opportunity to present their beers to a slighter wider audience, kind of like the Slunce ve Skle festival I so enjoyed in Plzen - though unfortunately without Pivni Filosof to get rat-arsed with drinking shots.


  1. I broadly agree with what you're saying here, and you're right about the beer parallels with the Slow Food movement, although I do think that most organic beers seem to be substantially less interesting than their pesticide-laden equivalents.

  2. So what is a craft brewer? We all know one when we see one, but defining them is much harder. Size is important but does a craft brewer stop being such if they brew one barrel more than any notional limit?
    Closeness to market is good, but there are few boundaries to where packaged beer can be sold. I live in England and enjoy trying craft beer from the US, Italy and Denmark or wherever.
    For me the definition of a craft brewer embraces many facets including commitment to quality raw materials – second best will not do. It is about an attitude of mind and willingness to champion the cause of beer by ensuring their beer tastes the best. Passion will come before profit, though with patience there is no reason why a craft brewery need not be profitable.

  3. Zak,

    I am yet to have an organic beer that I actually enjoyed, or that didn't leave me with a stinker of a hangover, but I can't for the life of me think of a reason why that should be.


    In US context the 2 million barrel per year definition is quite generous, Sierra Nevada for example brews about 700,000 barrels a year. Sometimes though I wish the label "craft beer" was not necessary, we would just be talking about good beer and bad beer, and there is plenty of both on both sides of the dividing line between craft and industrial.

  4. I agree that the "craft" label has gotten muddied and will ultimately be irrelevant (hopefully sooner than later). It is the end result...the beer in your glass... that speaks to the "craft" that went into the making of the product.
    Good beer is good beer. Period.
    A small operation is certainly not a guarantee of better product; both the small brewers and the mega brewers have proven that quite well, especially in the last few years.

    Of course, it's true that the big brewers still concentrate primarily on the bland beers that the majority of beer drinkers still prefer by a wide margin. But they are also proving that they are perfectly capable of reaching back to traditions to make quality beers of real distinction, and some of their niche products stand up quite well alongside the best products from the so called "craft" brewers. The bigger problem for the mega-brewers is the beer geeks who have been complaining for years about watery, bland beer and the irony of it is almost that the big brewers are starting to add better products to their portfolio, the same geeks are complaining about THAT.
    It's a jungle out there.

    I have sought out good beer for more than 40 years; the first two six-packs I ever bought for myself, in the 1960's, were a Bock Beer and an I never acquired a taste for the usual yellow fizzwater. That being the case, I welcomed with open arms the promising small brewery movement that began in the 1970's. But in the end, I could care less about the size of a brewery. I absolutely do root for and cheerlead for the small brewers, but ultimately it's the brewer that makes good beer that gets my money, regardless of whether they are a big corporation or an artisinal one. And there are plenty of products from both that are worthy of the "craft" label.

  5. I agree with the professor above. As I see it, "Craft Beer" in all its language mutations has become a label (and some would argue that it has always been a label).

    Come to think of it, some of the worst beers I've had in my life could have been legitimately called "Craft", but they still were awful.

    The thing is that at the end of the day, the only thing that counts is what you've got in the glass and how, how much of, with what or by whom it was made won't make you like the beer even more or less (though it might provide for interesting conversation and writing topics).

    Personally, I'm trying to stop using the term "Craft Beer" (or "Cerveza Artesanal" when I write in Spanish) switching instead to more concrete definitions like micro, regional, independent, etc.

    On a side note. I think Slunce v Skle is a beer festival as it should be. There are the novelties and variety to keep the geeks and snobs happy, and there is enough familiar looking beers to attract the regular drinker, all of it in a nice setting. I hope I can make it this year (it won't be as much fun without you, but on the other hand, there won't be anyone who'll have the brilliant idea of starting with the shots...)


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