Belgium Comes to Todd (Alström) Night…

Now for something totally unrelated to Harpoon’s new White beer. A couple of weeks back, our friend Todd Alström, a co-founder with his brother Jason of BeerAdvocate.com, celebrated his 40th birthday while in London. Last night, his wife threw him a surprise birthday party at The Publick House in Brookline, with a specialized menu designed by TPH Owner David Ciccolo and his staff. Dubbed “Belgium Comes to Todd Night,” the menu included traditional waterzooi paired with Allagash White, a delectable braised shortrib with a curry and St. Bernardus 12 demi glaze paired with Gouden Carolus Cuvee Van De Kaiser Rood, seared salmon filet paired with Biere de Miele Biologique, and a Liefman’s Kriek paired with a couple of birthday cakes. Lightly packed in the Monk’s Cell with a mixture of industry folks and friends, the event was a nice way to spend a Monday evening and to razz Todd on his OB and climbing age…

Todd Alstrom…

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What The Hell Does Craft Beer Mean Anyways? A New Definition Arises…

As I get ready to head to Washington DC for the first SAVOR festival, sponsored by the Brewers Association, I’ve been reflecting on the state of the industry and the meaning of American Craft Beer Week, which starts today. In the last several years, brewers, industry insiders, beer lovers, and others have debated the true meaning of the term ‘craft beer.’ The debate has at times been very contentious, and it continues to split the beer community into increasingly small, if quiet factions. To hear the history of how this term came to be, from the earliest usage by writer Vince Cottone to the politicalization by the Brewers Association, is to behold quiet a tale. And it also should serve to confuse and upset you a little bit.

I’m itching at this scab because my friends Todd and Jason Alstrom over at BeerAdvocate.com have released their own definition of craft beer. Their definition, which for disclosure sake I had a hand in debating, goes a long way, in my opinion, to rectifying many of the divisive problems needlessly created by the overly political definition propagated by the Brewers Association.
For the purpose of context, let’s review the Brewers Association’s definition of craft brewer.

An American craft brewer is small, independent, and traditional.

Small: Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels. 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.

Independent: 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.

Traditional: 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 it’s volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

This is the definition that many of the Brewers Association insiders have touted for several years now. The first time I heard it was from Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company. When he told it to me in an interview in 2005, this is how Koch defined craft beer.

ANDY CROUCH What does the term ‘craft beer’ mean?

JIM KOCH There is actually a definition. It is small, independent and traditional. Small meaning it is under two million barrels, independent meaning not owned by a big brewery, and traditional meaning you only use traditional brewing processes. No non-traditional adjuncts, no high gravity brewing and so forth.

And here illustrates a problem with the definition of craft brewer as set by the Brewers Association: it’s inherently malleable. It’s subject to revision and indeed has been quietly changed since its introduction.

Fast forward to 2008 and here is how the growing Boston Beer Company now defines craft brewer.

Samuel Adams® is proud to be an American Craft Brewer. An American Craft Brewer is defined as being Small, Independent and Traditional. We follow the Brewers Associations definition of a Craft Brewer but include a Craft Brewer who grows beyond two million barrels and continues to brew Craft Beer. We hope to be the first Craft Brewer to reach this threshold. Here is what we mean by “Craft Brewer”:

Small – Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels or annual production of beer exceeds 2 million barrels and the brewery was founded as a Craft Brewer and continues to satisfy the other Craft Brewer defining criteria.

Independent – 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.

Traditional – A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewery’s 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.

I’ve written at length about the problems I have with the Brewers Association’s definition of and attempted co-option of the term ‘craft brewer’ and the criticisms remain to the present day. At the heart of my critique is that the term suggests that if you qualify under the definition, that you per se make good beer. That is simply not true. And the two million barrel mark, even with its genesis in federal tax law, is also troubling as several smaller brewers are quietly attempting to use it to push Boston Beer out of the craft clubhouse. At least for me, I think it’s an uphill argument to convince beer enthusiasts that Boston Beer should not qualify as a craft brewer. That attitude simply smacks of competitive jealousy or a decidedly myopic view of the history of the development of better beer in the last twenty-five years and Boston Beer’s clear role in that achievement.

It is in this context, and in those described by myself and many others in dozens of articles on the subject, that I welcome BeerAdvocate’s new definition, not only of craft brewer, but more importantly of craft beer. Under their definition, smaller breweries can maintain their determined efforts to define themselves as being something other than that which is represented by the big three (and their subsidiary breweries) while also not decrying the considerable brewing efforts and talents of the bigger breweries. Let’s take a look at the simple definitions offered by BeerAdvocate.

Craft Beer

Beer brewed in limited quantities, often using traditional methods.

Craft Brewer

One whose primary focus is brewing craft beer, as defined.

In contrast to the unduly restrictive (and largely political) definitions offered by the Brewers Association, the BeerAdvocate definitions are left intentionally vague in several respects. The Brewers Association originally created its definitions to help refine the numbers in its annual production reports. Later, the definition came to shape that particular organization’s vision and advocacy efforts on behalf of its selected members. This simple definition alleviates a lot of the political purposes served by the prior definitions and allows ‘craft beer’ to grow unencumbered by unnecessary and needless constraints. While the Brewers Association may believe it makes sense to exclude the gains of brands such as MolsonCoors’ Blue Moon and Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat from its numbers, the exclusion undersells the full extent of the rise of more flavorful beer in America. And it also undersells and debases the efforts of some pioneering breweries, including Redhook, Widmer, Goose Island, and Old Dominion. I still maintain that in a blind tasting that hardcore beer enthusiasts would be hard pressed to pick out the big brewer’s brands from those produced by members of the craft brewer’s club.

I welcome and accept BeerAdvocate’s new definitions and I look forward to discussing them with my fellow beer lovers this week in DC as we celebrate the success of true ‘craft beer’ in America.

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An Extreme Beer Festival Post-Script

It was certainly a busy weekend for beer here in Boston with the fifth annual Extreme Beer Festival, sponsored by BeerAdvocate.com. Sold out weeks in advance, the festival was an unparalleled opportunity to sample some of the geekiest products out there, including popular Ebay favorites, Surly Darkness, Port Brewing Angel’s Share, Portsmouth Brewery’s Kate the Great, among dozens of others. The list was so strong that it was only after the event that it dawned on me that there were more than a dozens beers that I have wanted to try that I didn’t even know were going to be there.

One of the things that sets the BA festivals apart from most other events is its long-standing dedication to consumer education. Over the years, the BA fests have played host to a range of industry pioneers, stalwarts, and rock stars. Whether individual soapbox speeches, tutored tastings, or the more recent advent of panel discussions, the events give attendees a great opportunity to listen to and question their favorite brewers.

For the last several years, I’ve had the good fortune to play moderator on many of these panels (after participating as a member of the very first panel at the New England Beer Festival several years ago). This year’s panelists represented a wide swath of breweries from around the country and didn’t disappoint. For the second annual Friday ‘Night of the Barrels’ session, we played host to Bryan Selders, head brewer at Dogfish Head, Jason Perkins, head brewer at Allagash Brewing, Tomme Arthur, of Port Brewing and the Lost Abbey, Will Meyers, head brewer at the Cambridge Brewing Company, and Chris Lively, publican proprietor of Ebenezers in Lovell, Maine. While the topic was supposed to be, “Aging Beer in Wood; what it does to why this old-school technique has become popular with brewers and consumer,” we frequently veered off topic to hit some interesting areas. One of the most memorable exchanges was the point-counterpoint debate between Tomme and Chris on the positive and negative sides to beer trading on Ebay. Chris stood up on behalf of beer traders everywhere, sheepishly acknowledging that he had paid more than $2,000 for a single keg of beer during one auction. Tomme’s comments, following closely on the heels of his recent ‘Fuck Ebay’ article in BeerAdvocate Magazine, solicited a mixture of applause and boos from the active audience. One attendee from Pennsylvania, who lamented his inability to get the Port Brewing line in his local area, even took to the mic to chide Tomme about his article. The rest of the panelists judged the debate a draw and Tomme happily visited Chris’s pub for a beer dinner a few days later.

The Saturday afternoon session was no less lively. After some delays thanks to the MBTA, I hosted Matt Cohen, head brewer at Magic Hat, Jeremy Cowan, proprietor of Shmaltz Brewing, Jeff O’Neil, head brewer at Ithaca Beer, Todd Charbonneau, brewery at Harpoon Brewery, and social wallflower Jim Koch, founder and brewer of Boston Beer Company. I was impressed at how each of the panelists handled a wide range of questions on extreme beer and its impact on craft beer and beer drinking culture. I arrived to find more than a hundred people jammed into the friendly confines of the designated speaker section at the Cyclorama. With all the chairs filled, people sat on the floor and lined the walls all around. Without question, many attendees were there for the chance to hear Jim Koch speak, and as usual, he didn’t disappoint. Always quick with a joke, a story, or an amusing anecdote, Jim even recounted his brewery’s playful recreation of an old beer recipe using recently slaughtered chickens for a friend’s 50th birthday. The beer was aptly named, ‘Old Cock Ale.’ The story elicited a mixture of laughter and horror from the attendees. Looking down the table at Jim, Todd Charbonneau slyly inquired, ‘what’s the head retention on that beer?’ Without missing a beat, Jim replied, ‘At 50, not much.’

Congratulations to the folks at BeerAdvocate, and to all the brewers and attendees, for another successful festival.

–Disclosure: I write for BeerAdvocate Magazine and, as noted above, moderate many of the panel discussions at these festivals.

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