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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Small ≠ Craft

Charlie Papazian has long been a champion of small craft breweries. He's made it his life's work to popularize homebrewing and create a market for flavorful, hand-crafted commercial beer. If you were to identify a half-dozen people most responsible for the revival of good beer in the US, Charlie would definitely make the list. If you sense these accolades are a wind-up to a big "but," you're right.

But: the one area where I think Charlie has made a mistake is equating craft beer with small breweries. There are historical and conceptual reasons for this, but both are outdated and increasingly unworkable in a maturing, healthy brewing market. The historical reason, of course, has to do with the consolidation that left the US with around 80 breweries by the early 1980s and helped spark craft brewing. For the pioneers, there was something revolutionary about making quality beer out of wholesome ingredients, and only small breweries were doing it. Conceptually, the idea of hand-crafted beer contrasted sharply with the image of industrial plants pumping out oceans of beer.

Early on, only small breweries made rich, flavorful beer out of natural ingredients. The difference between craft beer and industrial beer was obvious. Problem is, things changed. Now very large breweries make craft beer. Budweiser's American Ale is chemically indistinguishable from ales made by 500-barrel breweries. Some small breweries are owned by big companies (that is, they're not independent), but make exceptional beer. And some small breweries make beer that is chemically indistinguishable from Pabst. Lines have blurred.

Charlie recently conducted a poll to find out whether people agreed with the notion that craft beer is something necessarily produced by small, independent breweries. Despite putting a finger on the poll (he included definitions for "small" and "independent" at the start of the poll) over half
"felt that craft beer could be made by a large brewery or a (small) brewery controlled or fully owned by a large brewery. In other words it didn’t matter whether a brewery was independent of a large brewing company."
That's good news. Good beer has nothing to do with the size of brewery that produced it, despite a strong early correlation. Apparently beer drinkers feel the same way.

When small breweries were just getting started, they had no infrastructure, no resources, and no political juice. When Charlie brought professional organizations on-line, it was instrumental in making the structural changes that allowed small breweries to emerge. Again, critically important. Small breweries still need an organization that gives their collective voice political clout. But that's a political matter. "Craft beer" is a product, distinct from the producer. Hair of the Dog can make it and Budweiser can make it. It would be cool if small, independent breweries all made great beer and large corporations only made sell-out, Vortex-bottled silly beer, but they don't.


  1. I agree with you Jeff. I don't think the brewer has to be small to make craft beer. If AB-Inbev makes an imperial stout that I like better than say, Stone's, then I'll choose AB's the next time I'm at the store.

    Isn't that what we preach? That it's what's inside the bottle that counts?

    Hopefully one day we can avoid this confusion and beer will just be beer. Instead of macro beer vs. craft beer we'll just be talking in terms of styles. We'll have stouts, IPA's, and of course, light American lagers. Although we'll need more blurring of the lines until we reach that point.

    Great post.

  2. I must disagree somewhat. While larger breweries are fully capable of brewing a quality product they are almost guaranteed to leave out much of the heart and soul that a smaller producer can contribute. I would also argue that many smaller breweries neglect this important ingredient in their quests for expansion, market share, and sales.

    Maybe the word I'm looking for is artisan rather than craft or maybe we have just sullied the latter term.

    To me, true craft beer is produced by a brewer who loves his/her trade and is allowed adequate control in the brewhouse to produce beer as he/she enjoys it (which would probably negate many breweries we currently consider craft). The breweries that I find most intriguing are run by brewers or allow the brewers a certain degree of freedom. Unfortunately these are not always the most fundamentally sound beers produced but this spectrum is part of the attraction of the wide world of beer!

  3. If AB-Inbev makes an imperial stout that I like better than say, Stone's, then I'll choose AB's the next time I'm at the store.

    That's a big if... Although I agree that a big brewery could make a beer as interesting as a smaller brewery, I have yet to taste anything besides a lager style beer that is. I don't know if this has to do with the economies of scale that may persuade a large scale brewer into using lesser quality ingredients, lager brewers trying to make ales, a difference in the flavor profiles that come from ales made in enormous fermentation tanks or lack of imagination. They certainly have the research departments and scientists to figure it out.

    I have read and heard that fermentation tank geometry affects the final product and that two different brewers brewing the same recipe on different systems will end up with different beers. If so, how could the differences between a mass producer like AB and a small regional outfit not be noticable?

    Who here would list an ale made by a large-scale brewer as a personal favorite?

  4. Maybe we should just start talking about Beer, not craft vs. macro, not ale vs. lager. If it's good, drink it. If it's bad, complain.

  5. @Jeff That's a HUGE "If". In fact, it's one that I seriously doubt will ever happen and I only said it as a hypothetical.

    My point was that if a craft brewery utterly failed at a beer and a macro made one that was phenomenal, I would choose the better beer, and would have a hard time calling the small brewer's crappy beer "craft" and the larger one not craft. It goes make to your point of small not equaling craft.

    As for why they don't make these types of beers? Your guess is as good as mine. They have some of the most technically skilled brewers in the world. Maybe it is lack of imagination. More likely they are just sticking to what they are good at what's been making them tons of money in the past.

  6. I'll agree to an extent. I think where the line is drawn is between motivation and ingredients.

    Looking at the macro beers, they're brewed with dollar signs and market share in mind. If their sales weren't flat or in decline, do you think we'd see new products like Bud's America. Ale or Coor's Batch whatever rolling out? Doubt it. They see craft beer sales on the rise, however, and now they're ready to sacrifice rice for whole grains.

    It's not a question of size to me, it's more a out the "spirit" and quality of the product. Dogfish isn't making saliva beer because it'll sell loads of bottles, but it's something they wanted to do. Look at cuisine: Chefs making what they like and want drives some of the most successful business out there; creativity and ingenuity pays off. The fact that craft brewers balance bottom lines with quality ingredients, despite their price, is a key component to the differentiation.

    I'll accept small, medium or large-sized brewers blurring the line with "American lagers," but until huge corporate breweries accept and admit their place in the beer landscape, I'll shun their products no matter who they contract with or own.

  7. You can take the argument to a logical absurdity if you go in either direction. Markets matter. Some breweries manage to survive on niche products, but they must still be products some people buy. I use the example of lambics. Even in Belgium, this most revered of styles has a minuscule piece of the market. Is Hefeweizen the most beloved beer among Widmer brewers? Boston Lager the most loved at Boston Beer? Maybe not, but those products allow for the Deadlifts and imperial stouts to get made. All of it is craft beer, but it's all got to be sold or breweries go under. Today's news about Roots Brewing in Portland is a sad example.