THE LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH “CRAFT” BEER

Listen craft beer.  We had a lot of good times together.  Remember when we first met and we used to spend all night together only to wake up the next morning wondering where the hours got away from us?  Those were good times.  You were new to the neighborhood, I was insecure and looking for that special someone in my life that could both lift my spirits and make me forget about all the sorrows in the world.  Something just clicked and we both knew we were meant to be together.  Lately though, I don’t even know who you are.  One second you’re my best friend, telling me all along that we’re trying to grow together.  The next you’re ditching my calls and hanging out with your cool friends that don’t even care that you’re with me.  I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m on to you.  I know you’re telling me one thing to make me think that everything’s great, everything’s the way it used to be.  I know that in reality, you’re changing and I’m unwilling to change with you.  I want you to stay just the way you are but you want to grow.  Well, you know what?  I won’t hold you back anymore.  Do what you gotta do and I’ll find my way on my own.

Craft beer is changing.  Sure, it still represents just 5% of the overall market and barely makes a dent in the total revenue of the industry, but it’s changing in many ways.  First, what the hell is craft beer these days?  It used to be that you’d define craft beer by what it wasn’t.  If it wasn’t Bud, Miller, Coors, it was craft.  Unfortunately that lumped in just about every beer in the world not brewed in this country and really didn’t define what craft was.  Many people used to throw around craft as a synonym for quality.  The problem with that is that no one defined quality before they started associating it with craft.  Just because a brewer throws out a Hefeweizen, does not mean that it’s a quality product and in that sense does not mean that it’s automatically craft.  Craft beer really comes down to size these days, but again, is that right?  Sam Adams is the largest American owned brewer in the country.  Is Sam Adams Boston Lager craft beer?  I think it is, but the overall size of this beer in terms of both total volume and distribution reach so outweighs anything that the competition has to offer that you have to wonder if the very definition of craft has to change.  Christ!  What am I getting at here?  I suppose what I’m getting at is that craft beer has changed so much over the past decade, even the past couple of years, that the average beer geek still has no idea what they should throw into their “Craft” realm and what should be left on the outside.  More than that, the craft beer segment seems to have lost touch with their target audience and has no idea if they should be going after the beer geek or just trying to gain some market share with people who want to drink better beer.

I use the beer geek term for a reason but really I’m looking at people who might be below the geek status and they’re really just a person that appreciates better beer.  Take the everyday guy that likes a good IPA.  He probably can’t tell you what differentiates a Pale Ale from an IPA or even understand what you’re talking about when you bring up IBU’s, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know what he likes.  He’s tried some 90 Minute IPA and thought it was great (Got him hammered too), maybe he’s had some Alpha King or some Stone and realized that there’s better beer out there and he should seek it out.  He knows it’s hoppy (Because Sam Koch rubs hops between his fingers in his commercials), he knows there’s some booze in there, but other than that he just knows that it’s better than the crap that he’s been forced to drink all his life.  This my friends is the golden ticket in the craft beer world.  The guy that’s already popped his cherry and decided that the world doesn’t start and end with a corn-based soda pop (I think that’s the scientific nomenclature associated with a Coors Light).  He wants good beer, he doesn’t necessarily know good beer, but he knows that he needs good beer.  Make sense?  If you’ve gotten this far, something must be making sense.

This is where craft beer changed their ways.  I’m not picking on Dogfish Head, but lets just us them as a semi-fictitious example.  Dogfish started out as a simple local craft brewer in an absurdly beautiful area of Delaware.  Lead by a charismatic, shrewd businessman (Say what you want about Sam, but the guy knows his shit) Dogfish gradually grew to a point that their beers were distributed up and down the Eastern seaboard.  The beer geek knew them for their 90 Minute, their Worldwide Stout, and probably their Raison D’Extra as well as anything that came in six packs.  The next level down, the beer aficionado, knew them for their 90, the Indian Brown and the Raison D’Etra, and probably the 60 on draught.   When craft beer was cool, a company like Dogfish Head would keep going after the beer geeks and hope that the market would open up to the beer aficionados almost by mistake.  Steadily they would grow and then they would be able to start going crazy with adding ingredients like Tomacco and the ground up bones of Miles Davis to support their obsession with doing something different.  With fame, they’d decide to invest millions and broaden their distribution network across the country and eventually across the pond to those merry old folks in England who are so desperate for a beer that scorches their tongues as much as their beloved curry.  This is when a “Craft” brewer becomes super uncool.  But really, is it uncool to grow?

Look at a company like Blue Moon.  I’m sure I could research this, but why bother.  Blue Moon is of course known for their Witbier, but more importantly, they’re most widely known as Blue Moon for no particular style and most widely “NOT” associated with a certain brewery known as Coors. Sorry guys, unless you know beer, you probably don’t know that Blue Moon sold out to Coors years ago (I know that sounds crazy that people wouldn’t know this, but ask a random co-worker or chick on the street and they’ll confirm it for you).  It’s amazing how many beers are either wholly owned or wholly brewed by giant corporations like Bud/Miller/Coors.  Yes, if you’re reading this blog you already know this, but people who don’t follow beer or look at what they’re drinking still have no idea.  It’s not even just the brewers like Goose Island and Kona that are kind of hidden from their corporate overlords that many people don’t know about.  There’s still people who think Lienenkugel is this pretty little craft brewery that makes a cute wheat beer that simply must have an orange slice tossed over the side of the glass.   It’s a freaking’ Miller brand.  That brings me back to Blue Moon.   Blue Moon sold out to Coors and I don’t begrudge them for that.  One day, I’d actually like to make some money off of something that I’ve worked hard on.  Same as I don’t begrudge Goose Island for selling out.  Dude, get your cash and move onto something else.  No big deal.  At some point though you have to look at the remnants of these sales and question what craft beer really means.

Sure, Blue Moon is not craft beer.  It’s brewed by a giant corporation and the total barrels produced by its parent company dwarf anything in the definition of what craft beer should be.  More than that though, it sucks.  If a beer is poorly brewed and it’s owned by a giant corporation, it can’t be craft beer.  However, quality has nothing to do with the “Craft” status.  If I had money, or maybe you had money and thought it a wise investment to give it to me (a guy that writes for a free blog that not even his mom reads), then I could open up a small brewery that made nothing but macro lagers.  Yes, they’re hard to make consistently with cheap ass ingredients like flaked corn, but I could do it.  If I try to emulate something like Budweiser and put it on a shelf at a similar pricepoint (Because it’s your money that you invested in me and I don’t care about the return), would that be “Craft” beer.  By total volume I guess it would, but isn’t craft supposed to be good?  Check that, isn’t craft supposed to stand for quality?  Adjunct lagers are not what I would consider quality beers.  In that sense I’d kick any nano-brewer to the curb that tried to tell me that their shitty adjunct lagers are craft beers.  A small brewer that happens to brew a shitty IPA though?  I guess that would be a craft beer.  Why?  I really have no idea.

Here’s what I’m trying to get at through this brutal rant that you’ve now suffered through (Just kidding, that’s more of a note to me because I know no one is reading this at this point).  Craft used to be cool.  It used to be our buddy and used to take care of us.  You could go into almost any store 10 years ago, pick up something that wasn’t from one of the macros, and pretty much know that you were getting a quality beverage.  Today though you just never know.  Have you had Redhook or Widmer recently?  Good God, what they hell happened to those guys?  Oh wait, they’re Bud, I forgot.  Many would consider them craft beers, but come on.  It used to be that craft brewers worked together because their market share was so low that they had no choice but to form alliances and help each other out.  Now that there’s reall money involved, now that investors are dumping money into the industry and actually expecting a return, things have changed.  You already knew that though.  Around my area in Boston, there’s two breweries that are no longer cool – Sam Adams and Harpoon.  Sam Adams is friggin’ huge.  They’re not cool because they grew and became an immensely profitable enterprise.  Has their quality suffered though?  Not really.  We shouldn’t fault them because they’re actually successful where so many others failed.  Harpoon isn’t cool because they grew in popularity and distribution but not enough that they’re a national name.  When that happens, you better do something to differentiate yourselves (Either through price or innovation) or you’re just lumped in with all the other macros (Which is unfair).

In the end, when breweries grow and make a success story out of  their humble beginnings, many start to question if they should still be considered craft brewers.  Is that fair?  Probably not.  I know it doesn’t change them by definition but it certainly changes the way we view them.  I’m certainly not going to stop drinking beers from a particular brewery because they’re growing and expanding beyond their current reach.  It’s business, go make money and be happy.  With all this talk of money flooding into larger craft breweries and all the start-ups that are struggling to make a name for themselves, I’m just going to be cautious about the intentions of any brewer going forward.  That’s where the coolness died for me.  It used to be that I could look at any brewery and think that they had the best intentions to grow the craft and work for the cause (Not that good beer is a really important cause).  Now I question everything – Are they setting up their business to sell, will they pull back from certain states to reign in profits, will they abandon their best beers because they only sell to the geeks and not the average consumer.  It’s just business, but it explains my love/hate relationship with craft beer.  Maybe you agree with me, maybe you don’t, maybe you’re questioning why you’re still reading.  That’s what you get for hopping on a free blog written by a moron like me.  Just trying to put some different info out on the interwebs for you to digest.  Cheers.

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12 comments

  1. […] Listen craft beer.  We had a lot of good times together.  Remember when we first met and we used to spend all night together only to wake up the next morning wondering where the hours got away from us?  Those were good times.  You were new to the neighborhood, I was insecure and looking for that special someone in my life that could both lift my spirits and make me forget about all the sorrows in the world.  Something just clicked and we both kne … Read More […]

  2. We can only live day by day, drinking the best beer available to us, regardless of its source, and let the other chips fall as they may.

  3. Wow. Love that rant. If it’s any consolation, Craft Beer means even less here in the UK. Some bloggers are hoping the term catches on, which is fair enough, but really you might just as well call it ‘Beer I Like’. Craft Beer does still equate to quality, as people (rightly or wrongly) see small-scale producers as those who take time and care for their products. But of course, many of these small start-ups are learning as they go along, just like everybody else.

    The problem is people. Now they are learning that there is an alternative to macrolager. That they can use words like ‘citrusy’ without referring to a kitchen cleaner. Artisanal products are hip. All these things add up to a boom time for Craft Beer – and where that comes, a shedload of ‘investors’ will always be not far behind.

    The Craft Brewers Association really scored an own goal when they moved the goalposts for the Boston Beer Company (if you’ll permit me a footb soccer reference). In a stroke they became the ringmasters of just another clique – what they should have done was politely expel the BBC, setting them free like returning an animal to the wild. ‘We’ve done all we can for you, now go make it in the big forest’

    Anyway, my curry’s waiting so I’ll finish there.

  4. I have no idea what you just said.

    It may be due to the fact that what you wrote is completely incomprehensible. It may also be due to the fact that I stayed up until 1:30 last night drinking Ithaca Flower Power, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Founders Porter, and Founders Curmudgeon, so everything’s a bit fuzzy this early in the morning.

    I reckon the truth lies somewhere in between.

  5. Well Mashtun, it was clearly written for our British readership. Richard gets me, am I right?

    If you look at the timestamp I’m sure you’ll summize that I was in a similar state as you. I’m surprised this post even got past our editors

  6. Editors? My only complaint is that it isn’t long enough! More ranting I say!

    Sigh. I’m gonna go grab a Blue Moon.

  7. Cask Beerouac · · Reply

    Is it over? I blacked out at “Listen craft beer…” Damn high gravity beers. I think there was extra alcohol in that last orange slice Barley.

  8. Frothingslosh · · Reply

    The term Microbrewer was in vogue before craft beer was and as such there are still some people around who see things as large = bad, small = good. This is silly. Some of the worst beers I have ever had came from microbrewery. Crappy microbrewers at that. Just because Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada are large does not mean the product is bad, judge the product on it’s own merit.

    To me the term craft beer is all about quality. A dedication to making a high quality product. Size of the brewer is irrelevant. If you are lowering the quality of ingredients to make target profit numbers – you are not doing craft beer and it does not matter if you are a large of small company doing it.

    All the mergers and shell companies obscure the issue – but in the modern beer renaissance craft beer is much like is famously said about porn – can’t legally define it but I know it when I see it.

  9. beer-miester · · Reply

    Dr, Ripped, your a beer laureate! I think the standard should beer for a craft beer or not is when the brewery name hits the side of a nascar. No offence to nascar. Simple yet well defined.

  10. Doc, I think the first big distinction should be All-Malt beers versus Adjunct brews. If you describe a beer as “All-Malt”, it implies that there is no corn or rice in the mash (though it can include wheat and rye) and thus you have a quick and dirty distinction between the macros and the rest of the world. Thus, while Sam Adams hasn’t been a small craft brewery for many, many years, they’re still an All-Malt brewery because their flagship Boston Lager is not an adjunct beer.

    Then I think it’s a matter of simply distinguishing by size. I consider anything larger than 100K BBLs a year to be a large regional brewer. Between 15K and 100K would be a small regional brewer. Less than 15K is a microbrewery. Less than 2K is a nanobrewery. Those numbers aren’t hard and fast and I’m not sure anyone else would share those definitions, but I think they’re reasonable.

    The big question that you raise is what constitutes a “craft” brewery. We use the term very loosely to denote any brewer that cares more about the quality of the product than the bottom line, but that’s a pretty bullshit definition. All brewers care about the bottom line and the term “craft” really has no bearing on quality (we use it to denote breweries we love AND hate). I guess that ultimately that’s the reason why people are so “into” craft beer and why people read the garbage we produce. It’s a vague, maddening, thoroughly confusing industry and no one “really” has a handle on how to define what “craft” really means. Trying to figure that out is half the fun and 100% of the reason Aleheads even exists.

  11. […] there is far from consensus as to its definition within the community. We’ve argued about it on these hallowed pages; Jeff Alworth at Beervana argues craft is beer brewed with a goal of “aesthetic character”. […]

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