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The Politics of Defining Craft Beer…

It’s time for a beer pop quiz. What do Brewery Ommegang, Mendocino Brewing, and Yuengling have in common with Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors? Alright, pencils down. If you answered that none of them are craft brewers, then congratulations on winning your beer geek merit badge.

Americans love to define things, drawing lines between themselves and their chosen groups, to the exclusion of others. The same attitude has slowly crept into the beer industry. From the earliest days of microbreweries, an upstart generation of brewers wanted to distinguish themselves from the large, corporate breweries. As the new brewers’ beers were clearly different from homogenized American lagers, their goal made some sense.

In trying to inform the public about their new beers, brewers quickly learned the public relations value of giving a name to their efforts. Despite agreement on this point, the brewers could never agree on the right phrasing. Were they boutique, cottage, artisanal, or specialty breweries? Due to their small size, many brewers identified themselves as ‘microbrewers.’ After restricting membership to breweries that produced fewer than 3000 barrels a year, the microbrewers quickly realized that success was eventually going to force some people out of the club. Despite increasing the production limit to ten and then fifteen-thousand barrels, the stunning growth of the 1990s burned the microbrewers’ first clubhouse to the ground.

A decade after abandoning ‘microbrewer’ in favor of ‘craft brewer,’ brewers are still arguing over what the latter means. This existential debate recently took on new life when the Brewers Association’s governing board established that an “American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional.? While few complained about the small and traditional components, a budding controversy centered on the association’s definition of ‘independent,’ which requires that less than 25-percent of the brewery be owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol company that is not itself a craft brewer. Suddenly, breweries such as Ommegang and Mendocino (owned by foreign breweries), Leinenkugel’s (owned by Miller), and Widmer, Redhook, Goose Island, and Old Dominion (partly owned by Anheuser-Busch) no longer qualified as craft brewers.

While outcast breweries and a handful of their supporters complained, many craft brewers didn’t see much of a reason to object. Some believed that the breweries that partnered with larger breweries had turned their backs on the craft beer movement, while others simply didn’t care about a dispute over labels. For its part, the Brewers Association believed the definition was necessary to protect the legislative and economic interests of its members.

For the brewers, writers, and consumers who reject the Brewers Association’s controversial definition, the craft beer industry’s identity crisis remains a difficult subject to tackle. For one, what other definition can we fashion to decide which breweries qualify as craft breweries? When consumers talk about craft beer, they generally mean beers produced by someone other than the big three. The value of the craft label quickly degrades, however, when applied to imported beers, such as Bass, Guinness, Hoegaarden, and Franziskaner, which are also brewed by corporate behemoths. Alternatively, how do we decide when a brewer stops being ‘craft’? Should we exclude the craft breweries manned by stuffed shirt, corporate types who do nothing but churn out thousands of barrels of bland pale and amber ales?

These questions are only going to grow more difficult to answer in the coming years. Can Boston Beer or Sierra Nevada still be considered ‘small’ when they exceed the two million barrel mark? Is there a difference between Full Sail Brewing, which brews beers for Miller and has accepted money from the brewing giant to update its facilities, and those craft breweries that enter into partnership deals with larger breweries? And what about the full flavored beers produced by the big brewers? While many consumers and enthusiasts deny that such beers qualify as craft, I’d bet money that they couldn’t single out the Michelob Porter, Miller 1880 Barley Wine, or Coors Barmen Pilsner as pariahs in a blind tasting.

In a conciliatory gesture, some brewers believe that we should call these products ‘better beers.’ But better than what, American premium lagers of Bud, Miller, and Coors? This awkward phrasing sounds a lot like a twist on Potter Stewart’s opinion on pornography, “I know a better beer when I taste it.?

In the end, the argument over which breweries qualify as craft is as pointless as debating whether somebody is punk enough to be punk rock. When beer develops into a game of us versus them, then the craft label becomes a meaningless political term. Instead of constantly redefining membership terms, we should focus more on the quality of the flavors and aromas in our pints and less on classifying the breweries that make them.

Article appeared in November 2007 issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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