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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Never Say "Craft Brewery"

Yesterday morning, Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers announced that they would be selling 30% of their brewery, Founders, to the Spanish brewer Mahou.  The reason:
With Mahou San Miguel at the table, Founders Brewing Co. gets a partner with access to consumers on five continents and a chance to pay off investors who have helped finance the brewery’s rapid expansion....
Founders is No. 26 and climbing on the Brewers Association list of the nation’s largest craft brewers. It is also in the middle of a $40 million expansion that, when completed, will allow to make 900,000 barrels of beer annually.
The news came out on the same day I saw a nice article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about another large Midwest expansion:
When it hits full production, Surly’s new complex will fill more than 100,000 barrels annually — half of Summit Brewing’s capacity in St. Paul, but triple the capacity of the original Surly complex in Brooklyn Center and way more than any other brewery in town.... The final price tag of more than $30 million soared from initial estimates of $20 million. 
A large, independent, industrial production brewery.
The situations of the two breweries are not identical, and surely Brewers Association is going to have to think long and hard about whether to boot Founders from its membership roll.  But in one key way, I think we can agree that these breweries (and a few dozen more across the US) stretch whatever definition we might assign to "craft beer" beyond usefulness.  They are big breweries designed to produce beer efficiently and consistently--"industrial" plants by anyone's definition.  One passage I particularly appreciated in the Surly piece was a quote by brewmaster Todd Haug: "'Everything about the brewing process is going to be more precise and consistent,' he bragged, staring at computer screens that monitor every facet of his new tanks."  This is not the talk of a man hauling his own grain and whirlpooling his 3-barrel kettle with a canoe paddle.  (And there's nothing wrong with that!  Surly can make far better beer with their new system.)

It all gives me a chance to reprise a post from two years ago, when I argued for new and better definitions of American breweries that makes them consistent with breweries elsewhere:
  • Brewpub/hausbrauerei.  A pub with a small attached brewery that makes beer for onsite sale.  The focus is the pub, with attention to ambiance and a full menu, not the brewery.
  • Production brewery. a brewery that packages its beer for sale largely off-premise.  May have a tasting room, but this is a subsidiary function, unlike a brewpub where eating and drinking are the focus.
  • Traditional brewery. a brewery that employs equipment or processes to uphold a certain tradition in brewing.  Decoction breweries, tower breweries, breweries with open fermenters, etc.  Not a precise definition, but I distinguish these from modern breweries that have been optimized to make any type of beer.  A brewery doesn't have to be old or small to be traditional, and traditional breweries don't always make good beer.  They are distinguished from industrial breweries (below).
  • Industrial brewery. a highly automated and efficient brewing facility designed to produce beer as inexpensively as possible.  Again, nothing to do with beer quality.  They tend to be large, but not all large breweries are industrial and some smallish ones are.
  • Independent brewery. Owned singly by one human or a family.  Nothing to do with beer quality, size, or brewery design (industrial versus traditional). 
  • Nanobrewery. a production brewery with a batch capacity of less than three barrels. 
  • Large brewery. Any brewery with an annual capacity of 250,000 barrels or more a year.  You want to place it at 100,000 or a million?  I'm mostly cool with that.  Either way, it's worth noting that when you look at the tens of thousands of breweries worldwide, only a tiny percentage of them make even as much as 100,000 barrels.  And a 250,000-barrel brewery is necessarily a pretty damn big facility. 

These terms are not mutually exclusive--they cover types of breweries, methods of production, and ownership structure.  Surly is an independent, industrial production brewery.  In no case do these definitions concern beer quality--and this is the really important point.  Americans, due to a trick of timing, have come to fuse the concept of beer quality with the type of brewery making the beer. It is an unexamined habit for many people to think of smaller, newer breweries as the holders of quality, while huge, national conglomerates invariably offer bad beer.  But "craft beer," whatever else it may have once meant, is now just a marketing slogan. With breweries as big as Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium--companies now building multiple plants--the association between quality and size is even increasingly academic.

Since writing about these brewery categories a couple years ago, I would now add something about products, which is a distinct realm.  In this sense, "craft beer"--in the U.S., anyway--does have some utility.  More terms:
  • Mass market lager.  Pale lager beer produced by national brands to satisfy mass tastes.  This is by far the most popular beer in the world, and most countries have at least one brand--Budweiser, Beck's, Asahi, Heineken, Corona, Snow, Panama, San Miguel--and on and on.  The beverage industry distinguishes between beer like Budweiser (domestic) and Corona (import), but that term doesn't have a ton of utility when talking about the actual products.  
  • Alco-pops/flavored malt beverages.  Ever since Zima, a fringe of the beer market has been devoted to various sweet concoctions aimed at people who don't like beer.  It's not a big part of the market, but it continues to drive a lot of what the big companies are doing.
  • Craft beer segment.  Contrasting mass market lagers, the U.S. market also has "craft beer segment" which is essentially anything that's not a mass market lager or flavored malt beverage.  Regular human beer drinkers understand it to mean everything from the corner brewpub to Sam Adams to Blue Moon and Shock Top. 
I've been getting better about talking about beer in terms of which segment it occupies, but less good about talking properly about categories of breweries.  Breweries themselves have always had a huge interest in defining categories in ways that help them sell beer, but as consumers and journalists, we should resist this.  Clear, unambiguous language about what breweries are and what kind of beer they make, unsullied by the jargon of marketing departments, is what we should aspire to use.


  1. "Breweries themselves have always had a huge interest in defining categories in ways that help them sell beer, but as consumers and journalists, we should resist this."

    One thing that I feel is really missing in the beer industry in the US is a consumer group, independent of the breweries, distributors, and retailers.

  2. I kinda just wanna cal them–regardless of what, or how much they make–"breweries".

  3. Another definition of "Nanobrewery" for you to consider, which I heard Matt from Schooner Exact Brewery give at a conference seminar Q&A. I'll paraphrase: "A nanobrewery is a brewery that - when operating efficiently, no problems, selling every drop - still doesn't provide enough income for even one full-time person's salary."

    -Craig H.

  4. But it isn't really a trick of timing, is it. It is an intentional outcome of the Brewer's Association marketing. Except that the implications of their marketing is now coming home to roost. When Boston Beer cashes out and Koch moves on there will be an opportunity to reassess I suppose.

  5. No such thing as a non-industrial brewery post-industrialization. Just isn't possible. Even homebrewers are post-industrial; they use fossil fuels and stainless steel and pressurized CO2 and cultured yeast shipped to them on industrial equipment.

    And New Glarus and Victory are industrial breweries, but they also produce things like decoction mashed beers and open fermentation. As well as a wide variety of other beers to suit the american palate for diversity. They also use the most modern technology around.

    The only difference between victory and a 25 bbl place that's only set up to do decoction the olde fashioned way in bamberg is that victory has a *lot* more money to actually set up different brewing systems side-by-side. Ditto New Glarus and their spate of open fermented sour beers, which they do side-by-side with intense to-style decoction mashed czech pilsners and easy drinking farmhouse ales they distribute all over the place in wisconsin.

    I know what you're trying to do and I don't disagree with it in principle, I'm just Devil's Advocating the boundaries you are making here.

  6. I still think the only fair way to categorize breweries without subjecting the consumer to persuasion (maybe its not the point but it should be) is by production volume. Maybe its Nano (<1000 bbl), Small (<10,000 bbl.) Medium (< 50K), Large (< 150K) and XL (> 150K).

    The only persuasive descriptor I would like to keep is the Craft designation... but only because it benefits me as a craft brewer. But, if I look at it logically the industries I feel are closest to brewing do not have these designations... food and wine. The consumer, if they think it is important, stays informed. Why don't we treat the brewing industry this way?

  7. Daniel, it's a fair point, and these terms are not critical. I throw them out mainly as a way of illustrating different terms to use when talking about breweries. I'd say modern American breweries that are equipped to do decoction mashes are different from the four-vessel systems in Germany that can only do them. And lambic breweries that can only do turbid mashes and Victorian breweries that can only do single-infusion mashes.

    I would be completely happy to cede the point that all breweries are industrial--it would do more to kill the romantic and absurd notion of "craft brewing" than anything else.

  8. Kyle, I think that works in the US, but misses some texture of the status breweries have elsewhere. It's fine to say that Cantillon is a nano and Fuller's is a large brewery, but if that's all you say, you may be missing something.