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.