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

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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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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Craft Beer And The Recession and Sam Adams No Longer Qualifies As A Craft Brand?

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is one of the first publications to print numbers for the beer industry’s performance in 2008 and things are about on par with where industry experts expected. Sales of craft beer, as defined by Beer Marketer’s Insights, totaled 9.45 million barrels in 2008, a 5-percent increase over the previous year. As the Brewers Association’s total craft beer production number for 2007 was 8,071,241 barrels, BMI likely includes several larger near-craft brands excluded by the BA. The craft segment again beat the overall industry, which turned in a healthy gain of .5-percent. Craft sales enjoyed double-digit growth rates in recent years.

I haven’t seen the BMI numbers yet but a few highlights from the report include a 1.1-percent increase in sales by Sierra Nevada Brewing, a 3.5-percent drop for Miller Lite, which now becomes MillerCoors’ second best-selling brand after Coors Light, and Budweiser dropping 6.1-percent.

Perhaps of greatest interest is that the Boston Beer Company finally went through the magic 2 million barrel mark after posting a monster 8.5-percent increase. With this achievement, Boston Beer and the Brewers Association and its members are going to have to seriously discuss how to handle a “macro craft” brewer. Boston Beer’s numbers include the Twisted Tea line of products, which it could argue should be subtracted from its beer totals for purposes of sneaking in under the Brewers Association’s below 2 million barrel definitional requirement. Boston Beer remains a craft brewer under it’s own definition, which as you may recall defines “small brewer” as one with an “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.”

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