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Friday, December 14, 2012

Craft Versus Crafty: The Brewers Association Misstep

 Note: Post has updates (and more updates, and more...)

Can you tell if this is a craft brewery?
Yesterday the Brewers Association sent out a press release that rehashed a point they've made many times in the past: big brewers are peddling faux craft and this just isn't fair.  I have no idea what provoked the latest sortie, but this time the complaint has a really tone-deaf quality.  Craft beer already inspires cultish tendencies, and BA plays on that in spades here--right down to some creepy doublespeak.  You can follow the first link to read the whole thing, but I want to cherry pick a few sentences: 

  • "An American craft brewer is defined as small and independent."
  • "Witnessing both the tremendous success and growth of craft brewers and the fact that many beer lovers are turning away from mass-produced light lagers, the large brewers have been seeking entry into the craft beer marketplace."
  • "[I]t’s important to remember that if a large brewer has a controlling share of a smaller producing brewery, the brewer is, by definition, not craft."
  • The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers.
The Brewers Association has for decades been attempting to create the mental category of "craft beer."  They branded themselves that way and have been aggressive in promoting their definition.  But now here they use the passive construction to assert a bland truth about how a craft brewer "is defined," as if this comes a priori from the universe.  You invented "craft brewer," BA, so please own it.

Next they invent another new fiction, the "craft beer marketplace."  There is no such thing.  Large breweries do not have to "seek entry" into this fictive universe.  They sell beer, right there at the tap handle next to the imported Corona and the local micros.  They do not have to trawl the finer precincts where pubs bar the door to their kegs.  Finally, BA makes the unironic assertion that the big breweries are blurring lines.  Really?  Because it looks to me like these lines are pure inventions of the Brewers Association.

The response to this dictat was, even among the hardcore geek community, mixed.  There were articles, sharp blog posts, and lots of social media debate. Perhaps you even participated in it.

Here's what disturbs me.  The two parties involved in this debate are trying to sell me beer.   The BA has crafted a very strong, emotional brand and has attempted to hijack language ("craft brewery") as a way of enforcing it. As I think anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a huge fan of small brewers and a big critic of many of the practices of multinational beer companies.  But I reserve the right to make decisions about how I think about beer.  I get to call Goose Island and Widmer craft brewers if I wish. I decide whether a company makes good beer, and I get to ignore who the owner is. The Brewers Association may attempt to define categories of beer to benefit its members, but we don't have to accept it as fact.

Should consumers be aware that macros are setting up side brands to sell beer to a different target audience than their regular customers?  Yes.  Should the Brewers Association get to set the rules about what good beer is, who gets to make it, and what we should think about it?  That kind of answers itself, doesn't it?  All beer geeks want variety in the marketplace, competitiveness, and exceptional beer.  The Brewers Association is a powerful player in making sure that happens.  But we, as consumers, not the BA, have the final say over what good beer is, what craft beer is, and which breweries get to be called "craft."


Update: More commentary from around the beerosphere: brilliant post from across the pond; another skeptic; a faux craft brewer responds, appears real enough; and yet another skeptic.

Update 2: The plot thickens, as August Schell gets in on the action.  This is a must-read, and echoes a point I made three years ago.  Eric Steen posts some good thoughts, too.

Update 3:  And the debate continues.  Chris Staten at Draft Magazine, gets nuancey.  Sanjay takes the Brewers Association to task, but Ashley mounts a spirited defense.  Brian Leppla considers the "craft" question, and Stan, who says he has nothing new to add, decides to add something anyway.  The Motley Fool thinks about it in terms beer geeks don't.

To wrap things up, I'll point you to a very nice piece by Eric Gorski in the Denver Post that, more than anything I've read, lays out all the points in the debate.  Several days after the fact, I think it's pretty obvious that as a matter of messaging, last week's press release was a misfire by the Brewers Association.  It was designed to persuade, and it backfired even among many of its most ardent supporters.  I don't think anyone is averse to promoting (or even requiring) clear labeling information about where beer was brewed and by whom.  The mistake was way the message was delivered--surely a misdemeanor, not a felony--and something I hope they address in future communication.


  1. The ownership issue is, to me, the funniest and most pathetic argument in all this.

    A brewery that makes objectively rubbish beer, but is owned by a bunch of bro's can call itself craft and will be accepted as such by the BA (afther the membership fee has been paid, perhaps), but one that is brewing every bit as much beer and every bit as well as last year, but happens to have a new, non-craft certified, owner must drop the moniker.... Interesting.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I was waiting for Beervana post on this.

    Like Pivni, it's the ownership issue that really irks me. Widmer is really doing some great stuff to innovate in the micro/craft beer space. Rotating IPAs? Rotating experiemental "W" beers in 6's? Experimental Hops? Milk stouts and goses for general consumption? All fantastic developments.

    Compare Widmer to someone on the list of "craft" breweries according to BA, say Gambrinus, a company who got it's start peddling Corona in the US, bought and closed "Pete's Wicked" and then bought and has mostly squandered the opportunity with Bridgeport.

    So BA is telling me that I should support, Gambrius, a conglomerate that hasn't really been setting the world on fire with regards to innovation and not support Widmer who is obviously catering to the beer geek and is significantly innovating, just for the fact that AB has a minority interest?

    I care about good beer. My biggest concern about Goose Island, is that AB will somehow inhibit their ability to make good beer. As long as good beer is still produced, I'm good.

    I want to support small "craft" breweries. However, I think that my support should also includes supporting their right to be sold to a larger entity.

  4. Good post, Jeff. Your thoughts echo my own. Telling customers not to be fooled runs the risk of implying that they are fools. If the "craft" product is really better -- and it often is -- it will speak for itself.

    I note that the op-ed and other statements seem to stop short of any specific proposals for label requirements. That could get messy.

  5. Great post. You get it.

    I weighed in too from my particular perspective-


  6. Great take, Jeff, I'm a craft brewery owner and I hate this whole line of reasoning. I think it's nothing but destructive for the brand that is craft beer to shit-talk about Blue Moon, Shock Top, et al. Give the consumer some credit and succeed on your own merits. This kind of shit is a huge distraction.

  7. I think you're absolutely right...I'll make the decision about what beers I buy and like. But a little transparency is in order. There are a lot of people out there who don't know Blue Moon is a Coors brand...or that Shock Top and now Goose Island are AB brands. We need a little transparency in labeling so that people aren't being hoodwinked. It's wrong for these giant companies to fly under the radar.

  8. "There are a lot of people out there who don't know Blue Moon is a Coors brand...or that Shock Top and now Goose Island are AB brands."

    Though I fully subscribe to the need for more transparency, I can't help but wonder how many of the people Pete talks about will actually care who's the owner of what brand...

    That said, the BA's statement give the impression that it is only the big boys who are having transparency issues in their labels, when it seems that its not. Ethics are ethics, everyone should be held to same standards.

  9. Topic is very inspiring. I get a similar theme

  10. Jeff-

    Great post. As you pointed out, much of the release is nothing new. Heck, you even linked to the last time I posted here about the same topic in 2009.

    When the release came out, I didn't really understand that they had actually created a list. Then I saw the list. I was dumbfounded. It was one of those days when you wished the internet would go away, if only for the fact yo0u don't want the family who has owned our brewery for 6 generations to see such a list.

    Of course, they did see it, and Jace wrote his excellent response. And now the beer writers have much more to talk about. As numb as I have become to the entire "craft" beer discussion, it's still a worthy discussion for consumers.

    If the main question really is who makes your beer, I think the people in MN know exactly who and what we are. We've never pretended to be anything but people who take a lot of pride in our history, our community, and last but not least, our beer. I don't see that changing anytime soon, regardless of what labels are applied to us.


    David Berg
    August Schell Brewing

  11. The Brewers Association is slowly becoming our version of CAMRA. Both are absolutely vital to the promotion and growth of good beer, yet both have made foolish missteps in going about it, and it overshadows all of the good they both do.

    These arbitrary lines in the sand, defined by criteria that are basically meaningless outside the few people that created them, do no good for anyone.

  12. Though I've lived in Oregon for over 30 years, I'm originally from Minnesota, less than 100 miles from New Ulm, where Schell's is located. As an adult, I've visited the brewery, and it's a wonderful place, in the country with sprawling acreage and multiple buildings. In my "old" days, they were considered a regional brewer, not a craft brewer (that name wasn't invented yet). And they were competing with the Buds, Hamms, and Grain Belts of the world. As history has shown, that didn't work well for many breweries, and there are very few regional breweries left.

    When microbreweries started to become popular in the '80s, I'm pretty sure Schells was a contract brewer for some of them, Pete's Wicked, as I recall. And at some point they branched out from their traditional American lager to do other styles. The folks who make Budweiser also branched out to do other styles, such as Shocktop. Coors branched out to make Blue Moon. I'm not sure I see much difference between Schells, Busch, and Coors other than size (although you might be able to convince me that Busch and Coors cut more cost corners on their lagers).

    I'm not trying to dis Schells here, even though I'm not personally a big fan of their beers. I just think the term "craft brewery" needs a better definition. Certainly Schells has a long tradition, and they deserve praise and respect for surviving as a family-owned brewery for as long as they have. But to my view, there is something very different about the beers they brew than the ones that, say, Bridgeport brews, even though it is owned by a much larger company than Schells.

  13. Samuel Adams is a "small brewery"?

    The BA are advocates for their clients. Like any other advocates, they'll say and do whatever they think is necessary to justify their membership fee.

    In other areas of human activity, it similar to what might be called prostitution.

  14. Spot on Jeff- I love the August Shell response the best. Artificial definitions of what a beer is or should be does not provide value for the beer drinker. If a beer tastes great to you, then, by god, its a good beer.

    Matt Swihart
    Double Mountain brewery

  15. Well written and completely in agreement.

  16. Is Samuel Adams a small brewery? No, the BA is an advocacy organisation for it's members - nothing more and nothing less. They try to earn their fees by doing and saying what they think their members want to hear.

    I think Jeff has done a great job writing about this issue.

  17. They've already shown that their arbitrary definitions are open for change. It was only a year or two ago that that they revised the barrel limits so that Sam Adams wouldn't be excluded. After all, if you take out the largest player in your club, it becomes difficult to stats like "11% growth" year after year.

    My biggest beef is this rule, more specifically, the way it's selectively enforced.

    "A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor."

    According to one of the many, many posts that have popped up in response to this press release, over 50% of New Glarus' production comes from Spotted Cow (brewed with corn), and yet they're proudly touted as a craft brewer. Meanwhile, old school regional brewers like Schell's and Point are excluded by that same definition, despite the fact that that both of them brew considerably less than the previously mentioned production limits.

    Don't even get me started on their hypocrisy regarding the GABF. They spend 361 days a year denigrating the big breweries, but they're more than happy to create multiple categories for their pale/adjunct lagers, give them medals, and take boatloads of sponsorship money from them every October. I honestly wonder how much longer they can get away with bad mouthing AB, Coors, Genesee, and other "non craft" sponsors before they tell the BA to get bent and stop spending thousands of dollars supporting their festival.