Depending on who you ask, that is a loaded question. The beer industry in the US has changed dramatically in the last decade or so. Craft Beer, whatever your definition of it, has grown from up and coming trend to full blown huge business. And, inevitably, this has given rise to an ongoing debate about what constitutes a true “craft” beer with as many opinions as there are brands of beer.
The Brewers Association has specific guidelines that define a craft brewer. In that case, these make some measure of sense. But, for consumers and general beer entusiasts, what does “craft” mean in a broader sense?
As with most things, life annoyingly insists that everything come in shades of grey. There is, after all, no universal law that says any beer brewed by an avid beer-geek homebrewer will by definition always be good, nor that a large corporate brewery will never produce (or at least distribute) a quality product. And, what about contract brewing? Or breweries that remain relatively independent but grow into large national distribution?
Well, let’s start at the top…
The Big Boys
Coors Light is to beer what Hot Pockets are to haute cuisine. Actually, that’s not fair to Hot Pockets.
Brands like Coors and Budweiser dominate the domestic beer market. They are broad, bland and consumed mostly by those more interested in getting drunk than enjoying a really good beer. Also, they’re relatively cheap because these companies have already invested in mass production and large scale distribution pipelines. (Unless you buy them at a sporting event or concert, where the price of everything is adjusted for inflation 200 years in the future.)
To be fair, I’m sure there are plenty of decent people who genuinely enjoy a Coors just for the sake of it and not because they’re just alcoholics or frat-boys. And that’s fine. You don’t have to like the same things as me. Maybe you’re insanely passionate about knitting or, more likely, football – two things I couldn’t really care less about.
There is a place for these companies and they wouldn’t rake in the profits they do if there wasn’t a large segment of the population willing to buy their products. That’s capitalism, kids. It doesn’t mean I (or you, which is likely if you’re reading this) have to like them. But, live and let live, right?
No one in their right mind would call these craft beers.
InBev (or Buy N Large) is a massive hulking beast that feeds on the acquisition of lesser brewing outfits. Some of thebrands they own include Becks, Budweiser, Busch, Labatt, Leffe, Michelob, Rolling Rock, Stella Artois; and they are currently involved in legal proceedings to trademark the word “beer”. I may have made that last part up, but they own over 200 brands of beer sold in over 130 countries.
The thing is, several of the brands InBev has acquired over the years have humble and independent beginnings. Some of them, at some point in their existence, could have arguably qualified as craft beers. So, if you create a fantastic brew, it gains popularity and you eventually sell it to a corporate behemoth for enough money to buy a summer home on Mars, does that beer automatically become bad?
You could argue that mass production and the desire to broaden consumer base will, almost inevitably, lead to a reduction in quality. That may be a common truth, but not necessarily an unbreakable law.
These companies are well aware of their reputation in the craft beer world and you will find very little, if any, outward indication that they are behind these beers. That is a little shady. Or, crafty. Get it?
In the interest of full disclosure I will admit that I used to drink Blue Moon fairly regularly. Though I haven’t had it in a while I still think it’s a decent (if not terribly interesting) beer, certainly several steps above Coors. If someone offered me a Blue Moon and there were no other more interesting options, I would not turn it down.
Ultimately, it’s the somewhat subversive way these brews are presented with the deliberate absence of indication of the companies behind them, as well as being obvious attempts to cash in on the popularity of craft beer, that is unpalatable.
And, honestly, you can find much better beer for your money. Crafty, yes. Craft? No.
Sam Adams Craft Cred Pass
At what point does a craft brewery become too big to be craft? Arguing the point brings to mind the kind of people who suddenly decide a certain band’s music is terrible right around the time they start getting really popular. For some reason, if doing what you love makes you rich and famous you can’t actually be good at it.
I guess I can understand the need to set guidelines for the designation of products, like “certified organic” food. And, obviously there needs to be guidelines for who can and cannot be a member of the BA.
But, for me, what matters is: was it made by someone who genuinely cares about the quality of the product and is passionate about the process, and – more importantly – is it good?
With Sam Adams, the answer to the first question is, yeah, it seems like they really care about beer. The answer to the second question is also yes, their beer is mostly pretty good. It was, after all, the first American beer allowed to be sold in Germany. And Germans don’t mess around when it comes to beer.
Before I really got into craft beer I had no idea this sort of arrangement even existed. But it makes economical sense. Say you’re an obsessive homebrewer and every beer you brew gets rave reviews from your friends and family. Ok, so maybe they’re just being polite. Or, maybe, you’re actually really good at making beer. So, why not start your own commercial brewery?
Because you work 9 to 5 in a cubicle and are unfortunate enough to not be related to Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or Bruce Wayne (that last one would be odd since he’s fictional.) The point is starting a brewery is expensive. Chances are, you’re not in a position to court generous investors.
However, you could afford to contract an already existing brewery to produce your beer based on your recipes and specifications. If it’s good enough to sell well, you could earn the money to eventually set up your own operation. It’s certainly a viable business plan.
Now, I can’t claim to be too knowledgeable about the workings of contract brewing. But, we recently had two guys, Trevor and Luke, from Evil Genius Beer Company on the podcast and all their beers are contract brewed.
They were great guys to hang out with and talk about beer, and it was obvious they are passionate about what they do. Also, they were totally upfront about the process and why they decided to go with contract brewing to start out. Most importantly, their beer was great.
The Little Guys
So, this leaves us with the smallest breweries. The ones that produce limited quantities for local distribution. These are the beers no one would argue are not “craft”. And, admittedly, it’s this sort of truly artisanal operation that most often produces the most interesting products.
My point all along has been that the kind of care, passion and quality that defines these true microbreweries is not, necessarily, un-scalable. If a mom-and-pop brewery makes particularly incredible beer, I, for one, would hope that that leads to some commercial success. That means growth, and there’s really no reason to draw a line on when they stop being “craft”.
So, What is Craft Beer?
If you absolutely have to define quantifiable measures on what is a craft beer, fine. And doing so is not entirely without merit. But, we tried that sort of thing with planets and look what happened to Pluto.
Just don’t automatically turn up your nose at something because it’s not what the cool kids would call a craft beer. I mean, if you claim to be into craft beer and secretly sip on MGD, that speaks to some social and psychological issues, obviously. But it works both ways. Don’t be the “that band sucks because they make assloads of money” guy. Of course, if the band is churning out empty pop garbage just to get rich, then, by all means, hate away.
I love good beer. And good beer is made by people who love it even more than I do. Whether they’re fighting to set up a brewery in a small rented warehouse space (looking at you Armstrong Ales) or brew millions of barrels sold all over the country, as long as the brew is delicious and made with love, I say, cheers.