Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What Difference Does It Make?

Giving a tour of the Starr Hill brewery a couple of Sundays ago, I was asked the following question:
  • What do craft brewers do that industrial brewers don't?
Difficult question as I am sure you can imagine. I think at the time I answered that in terms of pure process, there is probably very little difference between an industrial brewers and craft brewers other than, of course, scale.

When you look at the websites of major industrial brewing companies, you do get the sense that the brand is of primary importance rather than the beer. That is an understandable reaction when you look at sites for companies such as AB-Inbev, who have a multiple of brands within their business, and in some cases they own only the brand, and leave the brewing up to someone else. But I am not talking here about business procedures, after all, only an idiot starts a company with no intention of making a living out of it, either that or someone with enough money not to care. I am talking about their methods of making beer.

Unless they are hiding something, AB-InBev claim that only 5 ingredients go into Budweiser. Again, unless they are hiding something, their process for making Budweiser looks exactly like the process used by every single craft brewer on the planet, apart from the beechwood aging that is. Now, you can argue until you are blue in the fact about the use of rice in beer, from my understanding it came about because American consumers in the mid 19th century wanted a paler, lighter bodied lager. The fact though remains that for the beer drinking masses of that time, Budweiser was what they wanted, just as for many a beer drinker today, a hoppy IPA is what they want. You could almost argue then that Budweiser, and pale lager in general, was the 19th century equivalent of the modern American IPA - all the rage among the beer drinking classes (by the way, that was everyone, not just "middle class tossers" to quote from this excellent post here).

Ah yes I hear some say, but craft beer uses traditional ingredients. The question then becomes, traditional to where? The use of rye is traditional in German brewing traditions, of course German brewing being so much more than Bavarian brewing, though sometimes you have to wonder (and yes I know that the enforcement of Reinheitsgebot was a pre-requisite for Bavaria joining the single German nation state in 1871). But using rye in British brewing? There isn't much of a tradition to go on there, though I am sure that if I am wrong I will be told soon enough. Tradition is such a nebulous concept as to be irrelevant, at what point do you decide something is traditional? You could argue that rice in American lager is traditional, so should craft brewers be making American lagers that use rice, rather than co-opting a tradition from Germany or Bohemia?

We won't get into the whole use of various extracts and adjuncts thing here, especially as so many of the Belgian beers beloved of the craft beer cognoscenti use hop extract and sugar.

So, the ingredients are by and large the same, the processes are same, so what differentiates craft brewers from industrial brewers? In terms of something objective, the only difference is the size and scale of operations, and even that is up for debate. Sometimes this whole craft vs industrial debate sounds like kids in the playground and when one kids says "my dad is bigger than yours" the craft kid replies "but my dad punches with artisan style".

Thinking this all through has given me a new appreciation for the likes of AB-InBev and SABMiller, because for all their failings, they do produce well-made, quality products. Sure, they may not be the kinds of beer I want to drink on a regular basis, but you would have to be exceptionally pig-headed to claim that Budweiser  is a poorly made product. They may not be putting the ingredients together in a way that I enjoy, but there are an awful lot of people out there who like what they are doing.

I guess for me, at the end of this pondering and pontificating, it is simple. I drink the beers that I enjoy, regardless of the producer. So I will still drink Guinness on occasion, Pilsner Urquell in the right circumstances and something from Michelob when the mood strikes. Sure, mostly I will drink what is labelled "craft beer", but is it necessary to be fanatical about it? I think not, it is, after all, just beer. The important thing is to enjoy what you are drinking, who are drinking it with and where you are drinking it.

11 comments:

  1. Rye beer isn't traditional in Germany either. In the nineteenth century brewers didn't make it because they thought it was crap, not because the purity law stopped them. "Traditional German Roggenbier" is another American homebrewer myth — it's only been around since the 1980s.

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  2. Well said Al. I even enjoy throwing back a natty light every once in awhile. Even if it does taste like water, for me, it invokes nostalgia of my first beer and the old friends that I would drink it with when it was all that we could get our hands on. It has become a knee jerk reaction to criticize the big brewers these days when in fact all they are doing is producing what people want to buy.

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  3. I believe there's a certain amount of respect for the brewing process in general that some people appreciate and others don't. Techniques and equipment may vary, but one certainly can't reasonably argue that a company such as Anheuser-BuschInBev has a horrible brewing process. It's just a different way of making beer, albeit on a massive scale.

    All of this hearkens back to the amorphous definition of craft beer; is part of that definition based on size, capacity, and output? If so, there's something that sets it apart, but that's been a point of contention (see: Sam Adams). If talking about the use of various ingredients and the ability to make a variety of beers, perhaps less limited by producing a large volume of a particular beer (which also ties into scale), then that's another thing. Point is, there are many ways to look at this same issue, and a lot of these questions have yet to be officially answered once and for all.

    At the end of the day, the final product is to be judged by the consumer. But, like you said, when you get down to it... it's just beer.

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  4. "But using rye in British brewing? There isn't much of a tradition to go on there, though I am sure that if I am wrong I will be told soon enough."

    British brewers used rye during WW II, both malted and flaked. Don't know if that makes it traditional or not.

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  5. Good post Al.
    For me, the majority of so called craft brewers have a very hands on and manual process. Many stir their wort with themselves with a large spade like paddle.
    Mega breweries have a far more automated system. They need to in order to produce clinically mass produced beer that is identical from batch to batch.
    Craft breweries have different qualities from batch to batch, sort of like wine producers.

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  6. I refuse to accept that beer is only good if some poor bastard has to stir the fucking mash by hand. That's barbarism. I want robots!

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  7. I think the main difference between a craft brewer and a mega-brewer is some variation on the idea that in the smaller set-up the brewing is controlled or overseen by a brewer (and beer drinker) whereas in a mega-corp the whole process is controlled by non-brewer's (accountants, "managers", etc. who probably don't drink much beer).

    I realise that AB-InBev, for instance, employ brewers but I don't think they have much influence over what is actually made.

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  8. "the brand is of primary importance rather than the beer." This is one of the best comments in the article. Look who is in charge of the company, is it a brewer or a marketing-type. Craft brewers, not trying to please mass tastes are more willing to experiment and explore tastes, they don't have to please stock analysts that are only interested in quarterly gains.

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  9. The answer to the question of what craft brewers do that industrial brewers don't is easy: they enjoy beer. Industrial brewers do it for a living, not because they love great beer. Craft brewers are always passionate about beer.

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  10. Dave - not convinced by your argument there. What do brewers at AB-InBev, Coors and co drink when they are not on the job? Do they not have bills to pay, families to care for? Should these things not come before adding a few extra IBUs to beer?

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  11. Mike, it doesn't matter what industrial brewers drink on their own time. I'm sure some drink their own product, some drink craft beer, some drink wine, ... As mentaldental pointed out, they have little to no say over the product they produce. Yes, they have bills to pay, like everyone else. I don't hold that against anyone.

    Craft brewing isn't about "adding a few extra IBUs"...it's about a passion for beer: good beer, tasty beer, interesting beer, ... anything but boring corporate beer.

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