The Washington Post Sends A Shot Across The Brewers Association’s Bow…

In an article in today’s Washington Post, author Greg Kitsock writes a lengthy column on the long-running dispute over the Brewers Association’s restrictive and political definition of craft beer. Loyal and unloyal readers alike will recall that the definitional debate is something we have covered here on a number of occasions, and here, here, and here. [Ed: Maybe I need a new subject].

Make no mistake, a week before craft brewers and the Brewers Association head to the nation’s capital for their keynote event, one intended to impress the national media and the nation’s legislators, the article is a political shot of a different stripe. It’s an issue the association has preferred to address in private despite the very public misgivings of prominent brewers, including members of the association’s own board.

One thing that the Post article overlooks, however, is the Brewers Association’s recent statements, including at the recent Craft Brewers Conference, that the two million barrel mark does not include non-beer products, such as so-called flavored malt beverages. While it is not completely clear, it appears that some portion of the Boston Beer Company’s present production is related to its Twisted Tea products, which do not count towards the two million barrel mark. If the association doesn’t move to change its definition or create some sort of legacy exception for Boston Beer, we may soon learn the exact production numbers for the Samuel Adams brands versus the FMB’s the company produces.

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Final Word (from me) On Beer Wars, Then Go Vote…

Thanks to a last minute push by the New Century Brewing Company, maker of Edison Light, the interweb is again aflutter with news of the impending release on April 16th of Beer Wars: The Movie. The response to New Century’s attempt to stuff the ballot box has been divided into two camps: oft-neglected beer bloggers giddy over finally receiving some attention and outraged ranters taking aim at the film and the contract brewery.

The wording of New Century’s press release is a little unusual, if for no other reason than it doesn’t mention the phrase ‘craft beer’ or ‘craft brewer.’ This is interesting because technically (under the Brewers Association’s definition), New Century doesn’t qualify as a craft brewer because (until very recently), all of its beers were made with flavor lightening adjuncts. The wording of the release tracks the BA’s definition but for its omission of the word ‘traditional,’ which the association defines as:

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.

What is much more interesting is that ostensibly, no one at New Century has yet seen the film. It’s release suggests at the film’s direction by predicting:

Beer Wars tells how corporate behemoths are using their muscle to try to snuff-out small, independent brewers who are shunning the status quo and creating innovative new beers.

The folks at New Century assume that their treatment in the film will be positive but, as I have wondered aloud about before, there is reason to believe that may not be the case. Historian and author Maureen Ogle, who will be a member of the panel airing immediately following the fillm, suggests that Rhonda Kallman’s central role in the film may be as a foil. She wrote on the MadFermentationist site linked above the following:

Rhonda is in the film because she’s NOT a big name. The whole point was that she did not “succeed” and the filmmaker, Anat Baron, wanted to compare Rhonda’s story to someone who did “succeed” (in this case, Sam C.)

Kallman’s inclusion in this project is curious on several levels but also brings the greatest opportunity for a narrative arc and to tell the story I believe the fillmmaker envisions (at least as far as I can glean from her public statements). If so, as I’ve written before, the film could be quite good. If, on the other hand, it merely repeats the tired, dated refrain of big versus little and misses the nuances involved (including that the fillmmaker appears to improperly lump New Century in with all craft brewers), then it will be a lost opportunity and a lot of work for an hour-and-a-half long craft beer infomercial.

I’ve debated this film several times over the last two or three weeks with friends and colleagues, which is certainly a good thing. So it’s time now to put away the keyboard and to revisit the subject after the film debuts. I believe that I’ll probably miss the panel discussion because I have to visit the anti-craft beer world of Lucero at the Paradise, but I’ll try to catch up with several of its members to gather its flavor.

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A Critical Look At The Shaky, Early Days Of The Brewers Association…

Historian and writer Maureen Ogle has been posting a fascinating series of short pieces (cutting room floor bits from her book, Ambitious Brew) on the formation of the American Homebrewers Association and the Association of Brewers (which would later become the Brewers Association after a merger with the Brewers Association of America). Her most recent post focuses, timely enough, on one of the Association’s first industry-wide conferences. With the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference, and all of the articles I’ve been posting here about the Brewers Association, Maureen’s work is definitely worth a read as it provides an independent, outsider’s view of a trade group that we now take for granted. I look forward to discussing some of the issues brought up in these pieces (which, oddly enough, remain relevant to this day) with folks in town for the upcoming conference.

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More Fear of Blue Moon (by MillerCoors!) From the Brewers Association…

Brewers Association founder and president Charlie Papazian is a passionate advocate for the small brewers his organization represents. He is also a prolific writer, having penned several books and magazine articles. Papazian also takes part in a new form of journalism/writing, writing a column on beer for Examiner.com. Launched in five cities, including Papazian’s nearby Denver, the Examiner.com is not associated with any particular news organization and the content is left to respective topic experts.

I’ve only recently started noting this column but one recent post caught my attention. Papazian generally writes about topics of interest to his organization and small brewers, a fair amount of industry talk actually. His most recent topic, “Blue Moon by MillerCoors ramps up marketing dollars,? was ostensibly about the recent news that MillerCoors plans to extend the marketing for the beer to the medium of television, a first for the carefully managed brand.

But a few throw-away lines in the lede and the rest of the article show how entrenched the association’s fear of Blue Moon is.

Blue Moon by MillerCoors is considered by many beer drinkers as a craft beer made by a small brewery. In actuality it’s a big brewer’s specialty brand that has enjoyed successful sales across the United States.

and

It will be interesting to watch whether MillerCoors Blue Moon can convince craft beer drinkers to switch from their local beers to theirs. Can advertising and marketing engage craft beer drinkers?

The unusual thing with these lines, and the entire tone of the Examiner piece and other similar pronouncements from the Brewers Association, is how they perceive Blue Moon as an interloper in the craft beer world as opposed to a brand that has actually made positive contributions to advancements in American beer culture. The Brewers Association, and similarly minded beer enthusiasts and craft brewers, appears to think that Blue Moon is a late-to-the-party attempt by a big brewer to co-opt the craft brewers’ mojo. In reality, the Blue Moon brand, as differentiated from the vast majority of craft-style beers from Anheuser-Busch and Miller, has actually been a very positive and pioneering force in the promotion of better beer in America. The truth is that there are few individual craft brands that have done as much as the Blue Moon Belgian White for changing the way average drinkers think about the pints in front of them.

I’ve been writing about The Curious Case of Blue Moon and how craft brewers have responded to it for several years. In an early BeerAdvocate column, I wrote:

And here starts the craft beer lover’s political problem. Should it matter that Blue Moon is brewed by America’s third largest brewery, one that produces more than 23-million barrels of beer per year? Countless dedicated craft beer drinkers have seen a Blue Moon tap handle, ordered and enjoyed the brand, only to later discover the Coors connection. While they certainly have an understandable objection about truth in labeling (a complaint they can also lodge with many contract-brewed craft brands), it doesn’t change the fact they probably liked the beer when they tasted it blind to beer politics. In the end, shouldn’t the question always be, is the beer any good?

I think the point remains a strong one. And it leads to my other criticisms and comments:

In dismissing Blue Moon as another big brewery poseur brand, contrarian beer lovers miss two larger points. First, in reporting the achievements of American craft brewers, the Brewers Association doesn’t include Blue Moon and its double-digit growth volume. While Blue Moon may not qualify for membership in the ‘craft beer’ club, it’s certainly a charter member of the ‘better beer’ segment. When added to the tally sheet, the Blue Moon brand’s explosive growth is perhaps the best evidence of a sea change in the American palate.

The second point is perhaps the least appreciated. In contrast to the sometimes-juvenile efforts of America’s two largest breweries, Coors has long treated the Blue Moon brand in a remarkably innovative manner: with respect. Blue Moon’s artistic point-of-sale materials, refusal to run television ads, and its dedication to the ritual of serving the luminous wheat beer in proper, shapely glassware speaks to the gentle, considered treatment of this brand. In comparison, one need only look at the absurd tap handles for Anheuser-Busch’s own line of seasonal draft beers to get the sneaking suspicion the brewing giant is trying to make craft beer look like a bunch of clowns.

I also think that the Brewers Association should stick to defining ‘craft brewer,’ which it claims to only do so for internal, data purposes, and quit trying to define ‘craft beer.’ This subject too has been discussed several times before and members of the Brewers Association’s staff have privately admitted error in previous uses of the ‘craft beer’ moniker, which no longer appears as a definition on its site. I’ve adopted the BeerAdvocate definition of craft beer, which is “beer brewed in limited quantities often using traditional methods.? Under this definition, I think Blue Moon clearly qualifies as a craft beer.

I can certainly appreciate how craft brewers, especially certain larger producers, might be concerned over competing with a macro-brewery with a powerhouse brand, especially one that apparently now plans to release specialty products, including a 9-percent Grand Cru edition. But I think the Brewers Association needs to rethink its approach to attacking brands such as Blue Moon, especially as the craft brewing industry grows. And if there is such antipathy towards these big brewers, perhaps it is time for the Brewers Association to go public with its privately stated desire to remove the larger brewers from sponsorship and distribution aid for the group’s signature money-making event, the Great American Beer Festival. With the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference in Boston, I remain interested in seeing whether the association’s membership takes some moments to let the staff know how they privately feel about these issues.

EDIT: A commenter noted another Papazian post that I was just reading as well, relating to a clip from the upcoming “Beer Wars” documentary. I thought I’d include that here for your review. I’m hoping that the film itself doesn’t just present the anti-Blue Moon side but also represents the many craft brewers who don’t view Blue Moon and Coors negatively.

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The Brewers Association’s Quiet War On Blue Moon, Leinenkugels, Goose Island, and Maybe Even Elysian, New Belgium, and Your Brewery…

Six months ago I spent a few weeks traveling around the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. I’ve written a few pieces on the trip, including one long-form interview with Dick Cantwell, co-founder of the Elysian Brewing Company of Seattle, Washington. Cantwell is an interesting guy and also serves as one of the board members for the Brewers Association. So during the interview I asked him a little about the association and its politics. In one specific part of the interview, I asked him about how he thought the Brewers Association would react when the Boston Beer Company’s production exceeded its defined ceiling of two million barrels. In response, Cantwell said:

It’s inevitable that they will go above two million barrels and this was my point in saying we should dismantle it. The definition of our success ensures our failure. All of a sudden our market share would drop. And yes, Blue Moon, or what we are now calling it, Blue Moon by Coors, their success and the decency of their beers—I mean twenty years ago wouldn’t all of us have considered that a good thing, that one of the big brewers is actually making a beer we can drink, it is a victory in terms of sensibility but it’s scary in terms of the inroads it makes on our more purely defined arena but I still think it’s a victory.

The idea that the association was suggesting that its members use a certain terminology when referring to a competitor, namely ‘Blue Moon by Coors’, intrigued me so I inquired further. And that’s when Cantwell let slip some of the association’s plans for the future.

We’re going to do a whole campaign of ‘who makes your beer?’ So that it is right out there. It will be right out there that this percentage of our beer is made at New Belgium and I’m ok with that. But it’s also going to be, ‘how much of your company is owned by Anheuser-Busch’ and ‘who makes this’ and what the Plank Road Brewery really means. We want consumers to go to the website or generally have it forged into their consciences so that they pay attention and give a damn where it comes from and who does it.

I found the concept sufficiently interesting that I inquired of Julia Herz, the Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewers Association. Herz denied that the Brewers Association had such a plan. After a little more digging, I determined that the association had indeed registered a website, whobrewsyourbeer.com. A follow-up with Herz confirmed that the Brewers Association didn’t have a campaign planned on the issue, at least for 2008 or 2009, but that the association had indeed registered the website. “I personally feel it is increasingly more important for beer drinkers to ask what brewing company makes the beer they might enjoy, because that information is not always readily available on the label,” Herz said.

So I let the issue lie until today, when a new press release rolled in from the Brewers Association, a Declaration of Beer Independence. The proposal reads:

I declare that these are historic times for beer with today’s beer lover having inalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of hops and malt fermented from the finest of U.S. small and independent craft brewers with more than 1,400 of them brewing today, and

I declare the beer I choose to enjoy is not a commodity, but more importantly an artistic creation of living liquid history made from passionate innovators. The beer I drink furthers our culture and teaches us geography and helps to nurture a sense of community, and helps to make the world a better place, and

I declare to practice the concept of ‘Informed Consumption’ which has me deserving to know if my beer comes from a small and independent brewer or if it is owned by a mass production brewing company. I want to know why so many of my local beer brands are not available in many of my favorite restaurants, bars and beer stores, and I encourage beer sellers to offer a wide selection of beer styles and beer brands that includes beer from my local and regional breweries, and

I declare American craft brewers provide flavorful and diverse American-made beers in more than 100 distinct styles that have made the United States the envy of every beer drinking nation for the quality and variety of beers brewed in America to such an extent that beer made by American craft brewers helps to reduce dependence on imported products and therefore contributes to balanced trade, and

I declare to champion the message of responsible enjoyment of craft beer, the beverage of moderation, as the makers of these beers produce libations of substance and soul that are sincere and authentic, and the enjoyment of them is about savoring the gastronomic qualities including flavor, aroma, body and mouthfeel while practicing responsible appreciation.

I therefore declare to support America’s small and independent craft brewers during American Craft Beer Week May 11-17, 2009 and beyond…

While most of this language is PR for craft brewers, it was this line that again caught my eye: “I declare to practice the concept of ‘Informed Consumption’ which has me deserving to know if my beer comes from a small and independent brewer or if it is owned by a mass production brewing company.”

The association’s continuing definitional war has a lot of people in the industry scratching their heads. We’ve discussed here and elsewhere quite a few times the history of the association’s process of defining ‘craft beer’ or ‘craft brewer.’ The ‘who brews you beer’ idea is just the latest salvo. And it’s one that even Dick Cantwell worried about, considering he had just announced plans to contract brew several of his brands at the New Belgium Brewing Company’s facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. When I asked him about the whole definition controversy, which saw voting members actually abstain due to the friction involved, Cantwell noted:

I wasn’t on the committee that came up with it but that is such a tough thing. At times, I’ve argued about every possible point of view and have been on both sides of this issue. The most recent thing I think I’ve said is that we should just give up and not have a definition and trust the consumer to make the right choice. But that was admittedly a rarified position being as small as we are. I got reaction from other people on the board saying, “You know, you’re wrong.? I guess at this point that we’re just trying not to make too much of it. I do, however, see some positive effects even though there is disagreement and there is disagreement, even among members of the board. There are absolutists who think that if you even have any ownership by someone else that you couldn’t be considered independent. And I don’t even know if we would qualify because we have like six percent foreign ownership, depending upon where you draw the line. I mean it’s like, “How much of a vegetarian are you??

It’ll be interesting to see when the Brewers Association decides to unleash this new campaign or at least press the issue further, as it raises issues that may leave many craft brewers on the outside looking in.

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