Is It About Beer Or Beer Politics: The Brewers Association’s Baby Step…

Posted on Posted in Boston Beer Company, Brewers Association, Craft Beer, Defining Craft Beer

The Brewers Association today released news that it had once again changed its definition of the term ‘craft brewer.’ The change relates to the association’s use of the word small to refer to its qualifying members. As the press release noted:

In the BA’s craft brewer definition, the term “small” now refers to any independent brewery that produces up to 6 million barrels of traditional beer. The previous definition capped production at 2 million barrels.

From a practical standpoint, this change allowed the Boston Beer Company, maker of the Samuel Adams line of beers, to remain a qualifying member of the craft beer club, for purposes of definition by the Brewers Association. It also allowed the association to continue to include Boston Beer’s explosive sales growth and category dominating production volumes in the craft beer segment’s total numbers.

Now, some of you may be thinking, here comes another rant on the definition of craft beer, the likes of which we’ve seen here many times before. To the contrary, I applaud the Brewers Association’s action today. In truth, it was an inevitability. Like a woman who is perpetually turning 29, Boston Beer has been coyly telling everyone that its beer production numbers were below two million barrels per year for at least a few years after many people believed it likely blew past that number. Point being, the definition of small, like much of the rest of the Brewers Association’s craft brewer definition, is entirely arbitrary and the two million barrel number, while finding some viability in tax law, really had no relevance for purposes of determining which breweries qualified as craft.

I have to admit that over the last three years I have experienced a growing disconnect between my own thoughts on the definition of craft beer and those held by many in the craft brewing community, including some very close friends. The prevailing view among hardened beer geeks seems to be that while Boston Beer may have helped craft beer along, that it is now some how now indistinguishable from brewing giants InBev and SABMiller. This view, in my opinion, combines the twin sins of ingratitude and short-sightedness, a rare feat to be sure. As Brewers Association board president Nick Matt himself said in today’s release, “Rather than removing members due to their success, the craft brewing industry should be celebrating our growth.”

So with this part of the issue addressed, there remains the sticky proposition of dealing with the association’s most controversial definitional language, namely that of excluding breweries where more 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.”

For those who have not lived and relived this fight, the definition excludes a handful of brewers, including Redhook, Widmer, Kona, and Goose Island, Magic Hat and Pyramid, Mendocino Brewing, and others.

I remain disappointed that some well-known craft brewers, for some reason I have yet to fully comprehend, continue to play a game of us versus them, all while perpetuating this myth of the small, hand-crafted brewer. Because an otherwise small brewer, certainly smaller than many of those bitching about their independent status, sends his beer out on trucks run by Anheuser-Busch affiliated distributors or have some twisted corporate tie to a bigger brewery, that their membership in the craft beer club should suddenly stand revoked continues to confound me.

Because, in the end, at least for me, it really is about the beer and these associational definitions actually do a disservice to the cause of better beer. While I can understand excluding Coors and its Blue Moon product from the craft brewer party, it is to my mind and palate indisputably a craft beer. Not the greatest beer I have ever had nor a shining example of the style, but perfectly acceptable nonetheless. But the exclusion of its nearly two million barrels of production (you read that number right) under-reports and undersells the advances better beer has made in the United States in the past fifteen years.

When craft brewers and beer enthusiasts mindlessly disrespect Boston Beer by deriding it as just another “macro beer” or big brewer, I worry about the future of better beer in America. Beyond its pioneering role in the development of craft beer in the United States, Boston Beer continues to be one of the greatest innovators in the industry and its thoughtful, flavor forward advertising campaigns do nothing but help progress the cause of better beer in this country.

Along these same lines, it thoroughly disturbs me when beer geeks and even my beer writing colleagues disrespect and dismiss craft beer pioneers, such as the Goose Island Brewing Company of Chicago, who have found themselves on the outside of the Brewers Association, looking in. As I wrote of company founders John and Greg Hall in a recent issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine:

Despite all of Goose Island’s successes, the city’s notoriously competitive distribution challenges in part led to the brewery’s decision in 2006 to enter into an equity agreement with the Widmer Brothers Brewery and the Craft Brewers Alliance, which has ties with Anheuser-Busch InBev. With their decision quickly came harsh words from self-appointed craft beer purists. Greg Hall quickly dismisses the criticism by noting that the big guys give them better access to market but “zero direction whatsoever” as to the beer. For others he jokes, “Can’t you taste the beechwood in there? Don’t you think it makes it taste better?” Simply put, “the beer is coming on a different truck now, but it’s the same beer from the same brewery and people.”

Having just spent another afternoon at the Chicago production brewery, I can honestly say that I have visited few breweries with such a dedicated passion for producing great, flavorful beers and to pushing the edge of brewing. The brewery simply puts many other regional breweries, with all of their independent, craft brewer puffery, to shame. Put crudely, if Goose Island is not craft, then I have no fucking idea what is. The Hall’s were brewing great beers while many pro-exclusion “craft brewers” were busy playing beer pong with Carling Black Label.

Perhaps it is time to just call it like we see it. Wouldn’t it just be easier to name the breweries that we don’t believe are craft breweries rather than trying to set arbitrary and meaningless definitional labels for entry into the craft beer cool kids club? I say let’s just have a voice vote and move on. We can all agree that when we’re talking about craft brewers, we’re not talking about Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller, or Pabst. We might split a bit on Yuengling but frankly, those guys could give a shit what you think about their solid beers.

Because if we’re really getting down to which breweries qualify as craft, I have a whole list of Brewers Association members whose beers scream faceless, nameless mediocrity, akin to those beers brewed by the big guys. Many so-called “craft brewers” make a lot of soulless, boring, clumsy, and inartful beer that I am far more troubled by than the fact that Goose Island needs A-B’s might to help do battle in the Windy City.

With this definitional change, the Brewers Association has taken an important first step in the process of resolving its internal identity crisis. I remain hopeful but not optimistic that the group can manage to figure out how to plan a great family reunion so that the craft brewing clan can once again stand united.

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13 thoughts on “Is It About Beer Or Beer Politics: The Brewers Association’s Baby Step…

  1. I think for a lot of folks, they like labels, and like to see things very black-and-white. Along the lines of “craft” = small = good. “Macro” = big = bad. It makes for a compartmented and very easy (read: lazy) way of looking at the scene.

    When there are instances of some gray areas between these two extremes — X-number of barrels over the “craft brew” line in the sand, craft brewers “working with the enemy” to get beer distro’ed, etc — people shutdown, and throw around the ever classic “so-and-so has sold out, man!” to any and all that will listen.

    Once folks get away from the “macro” vs “craft” mindset, they can take a step back, and realize just how good they have it these days. For example, craft brewers and fans in Japan would kill to have these sorts of problems.
    //TB

  2. I really don’t get this debate. As the American beer scene becomes bigger and better, of course “good” beers will be brewed in larger quantities.

    Why do people continue to equate “craft” with “micro.” This is a linguistic travesty and retards meaningful progress. Big breweries should be “macro” and small breweries should be “micro.” “Craft” should designate quality or give some indication of process used in production, not quantity. Of course the term “craft” can be co-opted just as easily as the term “organic,” but that is an entirely different matter.

    1. I agree. Continuing to perpetuate the myth that many of these breweries (a number growing every day) are “small” is truly laughable if you’ve ever been to any brewery over 50,000 barrels, let alone 250 or 500k. Abandoning the word small would make a lot of sense but hurts the association from a marketing/myth perpetuating perspective.

      Best,

      Andy

  3. I think we forget what the BA is and does. They send out press releases, are consulted on big media stories and represent ‘craft’ brewers to law makers. Fact is BBC represents 20% of the ‘craft’ beer industry. To remove them would be to take away those successes, and ultimately lead to a confusing and muddled media / political message in the near future – basically, without explanation it’d look as though craft beer lost 20% of it’s overall gains. Can you imagine the media reaction to this, not to mention loss of political clout craft brewers are enjoying when we discuss the wonderful success of this already-small segment of the beer industry. This also ties into your thoughts on GI, Widmer, et al – to include them in the craft segment would allow for the potential of the craft segment’s overall success to be muddled by an association to ABIB & co. Say craft beer grows another 10%+ this year with ABIB partners (for lack of a better term, and please read no judgement in there) among the many. There exists a potential in that scenario for ABIB to take much of the credit for craft’s overall success. To be blunt, as you were, so few people know this change even occurred – even fewer care. This was a smart move by the BA.

    1. Hey Rick-

      I think, with its events and growing presence in all legislative areas, we shouldn’t undersell the Brewers Association or its potential future role with respect to craft beer. Obviously, I agree that Boston Beer should be included in the numbers, for a variety of reasons, some of which you cite. As to the ABIB partners (perfectly fair term), ironically enough, their inclusion in the numbers, while helpful from a production volume number, would, over the last decade, actually serve to hurt the craft beer industry’s growth rate. Redhook and Widmer continue to be growth drags so not sure ABIB’s marketing folks could find a way to even spin that. And I agree this is an inside baseball situation. The problem, as I see it, is that the exclusion of these craft beer pioneers causes friction in the industry and, based upon the flavor of the beer, doesn’t make any sense. To turn your point on its head, if members of the public were aware of the BA’s definition, do you think they would agree? Maybe folks would for Redhook, but you’d get laughed at for the others.

      Best,

      Andy

      1. Andy,

        To me the whole thing is like saying Tilamook isn’t a real cheese maker, or Starbucks doesn’t roast good coffee. While these are both opinions held by some ‘experts’ in their respective fields, fact is the cheese isn’t made with adjuncts and the coffee isn’t instant – or whatever Folgers is. There are certainly small-house roasters that don’t like Starbucks for a variety of reasons (and to be certain, there is ‘better’ coffee out there), but for the throngs of folks lining up for their grande mochas, Starbucks is great and that’s all they know. I’m oddly at peace with that. While I’d love to see more folks eating and drinking locally, I admire that we’ve moved so far so fast in our attachment to non-industrial products that seemed to define American taste for decades. We’ve got a long way to go, but this isn’t the thing to worry about, I figure. Cheers man, for not caring too much about this, I’ve commented more than normal on the topic… almost like I secretly cared. Will evaluate this further.

        Cheers!
        -Rick

  4. I think your analysis, while interesting, misses one important point. You hint that perhaps Blue Moon should be included in the “craft beer” totals. But then shoudl we also include AB-Inbev’s new more flavorful beers like their shocktop wheat or all the Michelob products. I don’t know if the leinenkugel’s brewery has been excluded from the numbers since Miller controls a dominant share, but should they be included or not?

    Or should be change the definition completely. Sam Adams – the fast majority of the Boston Lager and some of the other beers – is contract brewed. Should we change the definition of craft brewer to exclude them? Basing it on size of the ownership is the best way I can think of.

    You are correct that arbitrarily defining small=good and big=bad is a bad path to go down. However, I can choose to drink the small brewers and disparage the large ones. Even those huge fans of Belgian beers lament the dumbing down of Chimay and Rochefort as they expanded. We know that as breweries get bigger, they usually move to where profit margins rise on their priority list.

    Also, we should recognize that Sam Adams is a marketing miracle. Its a great gateway beer. Every small brewer in America should hope that where they serve their beer, there is also Sam Adams on tap. As that will make it easier to rope customers to theirs.

    1. Hi okobojicat-

      My point with regards to Blue Moon, and frankly all of the similar beers from the larger breweries, is that there doesn’t really exist a statistic to include their substantial production volume. The true reach of more flavorful beer/better beer/craft beer is therefore substantially under-reported, perhaps by as much as 30-percent or so. In terms of Leinenkugel’s, the brewery is a wholly owned subsidiary of Miller Brewing/SABMiller/MillerCoors so it wouldn’t be considered a craft brewer under any definition, while I still believe it makes craft beer.

      Also, you’re wrong about the production of Samuel Adams. My understanding, with their PA and OH breweries, is around 90% of the company’s beer is now produced in-house and has been for several years now. With the change in alternating proprietorship law, I think this issue is pretty well addressed.

      I also think you undersell Boston Beer’s products. Take a look at the whole line and the company’s innovations, sample them again, and let me know if you still hold that view.

      Best,

      Andy

  5. “Craft” should be about the quality of the beer, not the quantity.

    Weihenstephaner and Fuller’s, to pick European examples, probably make a boat load of beer. I would classify them as craft any day of the week.

    Obviously, Twisted Tea isn’t craft beer. But when Boston’s primary beer is a Vienna Lager what should I consider them?

    1. I hear that argument all the time…that it should be about the “quality” of the beer. To me, this raises a very important question: Who will the arbiter/determiner of said quality?

      Beer geeks and fans tend define quality in terms of the styles of beer that they like. If you talk to many professional brewers and you’ll find a very different definition of that term. Many of us admire and respect the quality, quality control, consistency and beer knowledge of the big brewers.

      So, the quality-based definition is a slippery slope in my opinion.

  6. These periodic dust-ups over what does and doesn’t constitute a “craft” brewer — and the fact that any definition is going to be arbitrary and sculpted to fit one’s own preconceived notions — only underscore the futility in trying to create such a definition, much less expect people to agree on one. This is fine, as I’m not really concerned with whether beer X or Y is or isn’t “craft,” and I’m certainly not concerned with making people line up behind whatever my personal definition might turn out to be.

    This allows me to focus rather exclusively on the underlying motivation behind the BA’s move, which is the effort to lower beer taxes; as a result I have no hesitation in supporting the change.

  7. While I fully support BA’s decision to retain Boston Beer for the reasons Andy and others have cited, I think this underscores my comments on the appeal of nano. (Does this move demote nano to pico or femto?)

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