Being the second Tuesday of the month, last night was the monthly meeting of the homebrew club I go to. One unscheduled presentation was a description of one of our member's trip to New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado. The facility really looks impressive, lots of shiny stainless steel and so on and so forth, but it got me thinking, in particular it got me thinking about the nature of "craft" brewing.
Something you will quite often hear amongst a certain section of the beer geek world is that one of the differences between "craft" beer and "macro" beer is that it is made by people not machines. If that is a defining characteristic of "craft" beer then I struggle to understand how a brewery like New Belgium can be considered "craft". As a quick disclaimer here, I am not picking on New Belgium in any way, shape or form, it was just that the pictures I saw last night were from there. Particularly impressive were the kettles, made in Germany by Krones, under the Steinecker brand, they are the latest in boiling technology.
When Devils Backbone built their new enlarged brewing facility they had their brewhouse custom built in Germany and talking to the brewer there I learnt that it was the very latest in brewing kit. Included in the brewhouse were hop dosers, which you fill with the hops and at pre-determined times in the boil they get dumped in. All of this controlled, as was the kit at New Belgium, by computer, or to put it another way, it is an entirely automated process.
Personally I have absolutely no problem with entirely automated brewing systems. They, regardless of scale, are not a determiner in whether or not I will like the beer being produced, for example I am occasionally partial to some Michelob AmberBock. One thing though is clear to me, we are getting to the stage in the development of the non-BMC brewing industry where the economies of scale and technology that once were the sole domain of the big boys are available to the bigger "craft" breweries.
At the moment it seems pretty much every regional brewery in the States is expanding, investing in new equipment and extra fermentation space or introducing the latest brewing equipment to replace their beat up boilers. Of course this recycling of brewing equipment allows start up breweries to get off the ground, and there are at least 2 more coming to Charlottesville in the near future. One thing though is evident, with the leading non-BMC breweries adopting similar technology and processes as the likes of Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, the term "craft brewery" is becoming an anachronism at the very highest levels of the industry.
In my own head I think of Sierra Nevada, Samuel Adams, New Belgium and other large companies with plans for multiple brewing facilities as "mini-macros", and while I am not interested in prescribing a given moniker for these companies I think some honesty on the part of the "craft" beer drinking community would not go amiss. Once brewing companies get to a certain size, they can and should adopt the latest technologies and practices, it is how industries evolve. The key will always be what is in the glass, not the equipment the beer was made with.