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Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Brewers Association Evolves

Yesterday morning, the Brewers Association (BA) announced some changes.  This is pretty deep-weeds stuff for most beer fans who mainly care about the beer, but no organization has been more effective in defining "craft beer" or promoting it.  The BA has done an amazing job establishing a clear, understandable vision for craft beer (one that has even affected beer markets abroad), and that vision has been the guiding light for the industry.  So yes, changes in definitions are deep-weeds stuff, but they may also have real-world effects in the way Americans think about beer. 

So what are the changes?  The biggies involve the definition of what a craft brewery is.  We'll get to the changes in a moment, but let's have a tiny recap first.  In the 1980s, when the BA's precursor organization formed, you had two kinds of breweries: large lager-making breweries and flea-sized new breweries that made weird stuff.  The gulf between the two was vast and unmistakeable.  For the first 15 years of "microbrewing," even the largest breweries were by any objective measure still pipsqueaks.  But then they started to grow and the lines blurred.   Taking a new name in 2007, the Brewers Association decided to define their membership as "small, independent, and traditional" breweries.

This definition reflected certain values, but it also provided a blueprint for membership in a world that was getting less obvious with mergers, part-ownerships, and super-charged growth.  The Brewers Association isn't an advocacy group, it's a trade organization representing the interests of its members.  There's always been a genius and structural fault with the definition of "small, independent, and traditional": it's both concrete and aspirational.  By combining values into the qualifications for membership, BA has given itself a dose of emotional energy.  The members feel they embody those values, and so craft brewing has taken on a mission larger than selling beer.  But values are incredibly hard to police, and as brewing gets bigger and more complex, that element will be harder and harder to define. 

But enough preamble.  Here are the changes:


Old: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purposes of this definition.

New: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.

Old: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.

New:  Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

Old: 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.

New: A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.
The biggest changes come "traditional."  The BA have already revised "small" once, bumping up the definition from 2 million barrels to six in 2010.  (Editorial comment: by no definition in the world is 186 million gallons "small."  That is, for example, five times the size of Budweiser Budvar, an international brand.)  "Traditional," the values element, is of course the most difficult to define, and now they've dumped the part of the definition involving adjuncts--which was silly, but at least made sense.  The resulting language, "beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation," is word salad.  Traditional and innovative are polar opposites. As the notion of "craft beer" has evolved from a sense of recreating traditional European styles to one focused on experimentation, the values bullet point has collapsed into incoherence.  Now craft beer is anything that is traditional or the subversion of tradition. 

The explanation behind that change comes in the press release.  BA has finally come to recognize that the old dichotomy of "all-malt beers" and "adjunct beers" were political categories, not brewing categories.  They comment:
"The revised definition recognizes that adjunct brewing is quite literally traditional, as brewers have long brewed with what has been available to them."
This comes off as a beat-up-the-BA post, but that's not really my point.  The Brewers Association has been instrumental in promoting the idea of local, high-quality beer in the US.  The result of their work has been a massive boon to beer drinkers everywhere.  What I find interesting in these changes is how they reflect on the changing world of craft brewing.  In the 1980s, there weren't very many styles of beers and it was easy to tell the difference between Budweiser and the corner brewpub.  In 2014, the differences are less obvious.  The biggest craft breweries have multiple plants and sell millions of barrels of beer, just like Budweiser.  (Sure, they sell a lot less beer than Bud, but let's not kid ourselves by characterizing them as "small.")  Many craft breweries have complex ownership structures, just like Budweiser.  (Some of them are even owned, wholly or partly, by Budweiser.)  And now breweries make beer out of so many ingredients--ingredients that would have seemed scandalous 25 years ago--that trying to distinguish between part-corn Miler and a part-corn blueberry saison is untenable, at least when you're defining membership.

The real point isn't that the Brewers Association is fickle, but rather that the nature of beer, constantly in flux, means their membership rules are also going to be constantly changing.  The rules trail along, trying to keep up with the changes in brewing.  Because BA is the main mouthpiece of American craft brewing, those changes also signal the evolving identity of American brewing.  And that is always fascinating.


  1. "Traditional" and "innovative" got me, too. I guess it makes sense as we move further and further away from traditional styles into the uncharted territory of wacky blends. The BA is rolling with the punches being thrown by brewers.

    Given the maturity of the industry, I wonder how much longer the BA will be relevant. It was once imminently important. But outside forces appear to be driving BA rules and guidelines these days. Oh well.

  2. The new definition is even bollockier than the old one.

  3. I've always wondered why "independent" is defined as less than 25% owned by a "non-craft" brewer. Is there a large difference between a brewery that is say 30% owned by Budweiser compared to one that is 25%?

    Same can be said for the "6 million barrel" cap. Why that number and why not 10 million?

  4. Having annual barrels as part of the definition has always been the main problem for me. You can, theoretically, brew 20 million barrels a year and still have the beer be of a certain quality and depth. They'll be gerrymandering that line forever, so they might as well dump it entirely.