The Redbones Conundrum, Or Why I Need A New Local…

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I’ve lived in the Davis Square / North Cambridge area for about eight years now and chose to move there in part because I had long enjoyed visiting Redbones Barbecue. It’s only the second true local that I’ve ever had, the other being my beloved Sweeney’s Saloon in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For a long time, Redbones had all the great qualities of a local: friendly bartenders and staff who recognized you, a comfortable space, good food, solid beer selection, occasional beer events (including the popular Northwest Fest), and all at a reasonable price. It was a remarkable place for a variety of reasons, none the least of which involved the unexpectedly low turnover of staff and the presence of many regulars every time you visited, both true testaments to the place. Then things started to slowly change.

In my book, The Good Beer Guide to New England, I wrote of Redbones:

As a long-standing force on the better beer scene in the Boston-area, Redbones mixes savory barbeque with a laid back atmosphere to provide a breather from your cookie-cutter Irish-themed bars. Opened in 1987, Redbones is perhaps the granddaddy of New England’s beer bars. The 24 rotating taps offer few mainstays, which include familiar draft lines full of Newcastle, Bass, Guinness, and of course, Pabst Blue Ribbon. Beyond these four staples, anything is fair game. The beer menu changes daily, if not every few hours, as new, interesting beers replace kicked kegs. Redbones specializes in local New England beers, but also offers a smattering of hard-to-find American craft and imported beers.

With three distinct rooms, Redbones offers a place for everyone from families to lone drinkers. The narrow upstairs bar is usually packed with people waiting for seating in the main room or watching the Red Sox play on the bar’s two televisions. You can spend a lot of time in this bar looking up at the hanging beer menu, perusing a beer menu, or trying to figure out what that big wooden spinning arrow is on the wall. A spin of the bar’s “Dial A Draft” wheel allows uncertain pubgoers to leave the decision of which beer they will have up to fate. The highlight of the main dining room is the small counter seating area that gives diners a front row seat on the action heating up in the kitchen, where the pit masters toil in a fight against flames in the name of smoky, tender, and tangy barbeque goodness. Downstairs lurks Underbones, a lair of additional seating and bar space festooned with the funky, cartoonish works of a local artist.

Many members of the bar and wait staff have been working here for a long time, a testament to the welcoming, hip environs. With all of its subtle charms, the attitude at Redbones remains relaxed and unpretentious. It is one of the undisputed kings of good beer in the Boston-area, but it couldn’t seem to care less. Good beer, as well as good barbeque, is just a way of life. The menu offers a tantalizing mix of barbeque offerings from a wide variety of schools, ranging from Memphis pork ribs to Texas beef ribs.

Redbones does come out of its shell a few times a year to outwardly acknowledge its role as a Boston-area beer leader. For more than 10 years now, Redbones has dedicated the month of November to celebrating the splendors of American beers from the Pacific Northwest. In a testament to the good beer reputation of Redbones, brewers small and large not only send a keg or two of their beers, most of which are not even otherwise available in Massachusetts or even on the East Coast, but many of the brewers themselves fly across country to meet, greet, imbibe, and speak at the beer dinners that cap off the celebratory month.

There are a dozen rumors as to why change came to Redbones, none of which I’ve really ever been able to confirm. It started with the firing/termination/departure of the bar’s beer guy, which led to a quick and unfortunate dumbing down of the beer list. Out with the local crafts and in with more big name, big brewery offerings (such as Bass, Harp, etc). Then, seemingly overnight, beer prices shot up. Now, prices at Redbones had always been pretty low compared to other places. I chalked that up to the owners having purchased the building and thus being able to control the otherwise painful reality of rent increases. Eventually the owners figured out that their prices were low and they boosted them a bit over most similar beer bars, much to the chagrin of the regulars. Where the beers once had been priced the same, you now had to carefully check the beer list before buying or else risk being stuck with an incredibly expensive short pour of beer. Rumors that the owners were raising prices in order to finance another Redbones outpost near Fenway also pissed off the regulars.

Then, slowly but deliberately, the long-time employees started disappearing from behind the bar and in the restaurant. Where the bar and floor were once populated by the same cast of characters, within a few months, only a handful remained. Within a year, only a single familiar bartender remained, with the others having scattered to other bars throughout the city, from Green Street to Deep Ellum and the square’s own Flatbread.

By the end of 2008, I wrote of a New Year’s wish for my local, Redbones:

For Redbones to rebalance the price of its portfolio of beers. While the staff exodus and purported growing pains that sent trembles of fear into longtime regulars has generally subsided and the selection has vastly improved over early this year, prices remain substantially out of whack. While consumers understand that some contributing factors certainly have led to increased prices, Bones’ prices have grown out of whack with other similar beer bars. We regulars would like to stop by twice a week not every other month and we definitely don’t want to have to check the menu before ordering, only to find out we selected a $6 or $7 pint.

Fast forward to the present and the facts are plain. The regulars have all but disappeared from the bar, with many visiting their favorite bartenders at their new establishments. The last vestiges of the staff decamped to other bars when the owners installed a series of ominously placed security cameras in the bar, with the staff saying it was a visible sign of the owners’ new perspective.

Once a great event filled with interesting beers, dinners, and brewers from the other coast, the Northwest Fest is a shell of itself, with some free apps and stale Pac NW beer. The beer list sometimes has gems but you still have to be careful of the pricing. While I celebrate beer bars that offer shorter pours (half-pints and the like) at reduced prices (great kudos to the excellent Citizen Public House in Fenway for its excellent display of this principle), Redbones takes this idea in a twisted direction. Akin to the movie theater experience, you can get a small pour of a local beer (the dreaded 10.5 ounce Redbones glass) for $5, but for just another fifty cents you can upgrade to a medium pour (12 ounce), but but wait, for just another fifty cents on top of that you can get a large pour (16 ounce). So, as with your local rip-off theater, the small popcorn or soda doesn’t seem like such a good deal and there is no encouragement to get the smaller pour at Redbones.

In Germany, you can get what is called a ‘schnitt’ pour of beer, which basically means if you find yourself at the end of your beer before your friends have finished theirs, you can get a half-pour of beer or so at a reduced price, like a top-off. I have always loved that concept and it’s something you sadly don’t find elsewhere.

At Redbones, they prefer to punish your desire for a smaller pour and that just sucks.

So this morning, I opened my email to find a Groupon for half-off of drinks and food at Redbones and it took me back a year or two, when things were starting to get bad at Redbones. Around that time was the first I had ever heard of Groupon, when a friend forwarded me the same offer for Redbones that I received this morning. Even with the trouble at Bones, I snapped up a few Groupons and then headed over one night to find the place packed with Groupon packing tourists and Redbones newbies. The staff were driven mad by the little white slips of paper, caught shitty tips for months, and the few regulars remaining started heading elsewhere, myself included. Over the course of the last year, I headed back to Redbones to finish off my three Groupons, essentially because I had already paid for them. But the visits were frequently disappointing for a variety of reasons, mainly because the place served as a reminder of a happier time and place, when I actually had a local as opposed to just another bar.
With friends running the nearby Cambridge Common at the time (and now off running the excellent Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont), we often just headed over there for a better all-around experience. And we always ran into former Redbones regulars at the Common.

Now things aren’t all dire at Redbones. Some of the new staffers, several of whom have now been there for a few months, show promise. Others treat it as just another job, and that shows. My tips have gone from an average of 35% per visit, down to the common 20%. The beer list remains fine, not particularly interesting on many visits (compared to the past especially), and the pricing is on par with other places now (minus that half-pour nonsense). But the magic has left the place and it is just another bar in Davis Square.

After visiting last night, my brother, who has accompanied me almost weekly to the place in some recent years, sadly remarked, “It’s time to find a new local.” So the search begins anew…

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The Other Side of Stout…

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When it comes to stout, a single beer defines the style for most drinkers. With its cascading layers of nitrogenated foam and alternating hues of mocha and cream, Guinness draft beer is a world classic. The growing wait for the pour to complete, whether marketing hocus pocus or based in reality, is part of the experience. But when it comes to flavor, Guinness is a pretty average, unadventurous offering, full of promise and hesitant to deliver. The addition of nitrogen to the pour, causing the gentle cascading effect, tends to dumb down the flavor, leaving behind a simple, if slightly bitter and roasted drink.

After years of debate and yearning by those who have enjoyed stout in other nations, Diageo announced that it would be releasing Guinness Foreign Extra Stout in the United States. Promoted as the fullest flavor of the Guinness family, the beer pours with a deep brown color, does not rely upon nitrogen, and boasts a much stronger roasted and sweet malt character, weighing in at 7.5 percent alcohol by volume.

First called West India Porter and dating back to 1801, when it was first brewed at the historic St. James’s Gate brewery in Dublin, the brewery shipped the Foreign Extra Stout to nations around the world, including the United States. During Prohibition, America lost touch with the beer only to return today. Unsurprising to anyone who has sampled this very different type of stout in the Caribbean or Asia, the Foreign Export Stout’s popularity has allowed it to account for forty five percent of the brewery’s total global sales.

“GUINNESS Foreign Extra Stout appeals to beer drinkers who love to explore beer and are looking for a serious stout,” said Patrick Hughes, Brand Director for Guinness, in a press release. “It is a unique beer with a distinctive taste, aroma and color and offers GUINNESS fans another way to enjoy the high quality, rich, satisfying GUINNESS experience that is the core of our brand.”

The Export Style is one that often confounds beer historians but actually gives enthusiasts a chance to enjoy what traditional British stouts tasted like a century ago. Often called Foreign-style Stout, the style’s marketing history, where brewers created bigger, stronger stouts for distant, tropical markets, truly defies the modern beer drinking preference of lighter beers in warmer climates. Despite their pleasant, approachable flavors and aromas, Export Stouts are rarely found in the United States. Often deep brown to jet black in color, the style balances roasted grain aromas, sometimes slightly burnt coffee as well, with a minor fruitiness and a complex array of molasses, plums, and lightly boozy alcohol notes. While not as cloying as the Sweet Stout style, residual sugars usually mix with higher alcohol levels and the roasted notes and fruity hints to create a very intriguing and drinkable beer, even on warm days. Some Export Stout versions bear a slight acidity that balances the sweeter notes.

A Look At Lesser Appreciated Stout Variants

While Guinness draft and the Dry Irish-styles dominate the world of Stout, a handful of other excellent spin-offs continue to please a growing, dedicated pool of enthusiasts. With flavors akin to well-roasted coffee and silky milk and dark chocolates, beers in these styles offer a much needed counterbalance to both malty and hop-centric beers. Generously borrowing from both sides of the beer ingredient spectrum, dark and roasty beers can be at once sweet and deeply, soulfully malty while quickly balancing a substantially bitter finish. Others in the category prefer to dive into the deep end of burnt coffee and dark chocolate flavors.

Oatmeal Stout

A quirky style mixing chocolate and caramel roasted malt flavors, Oatmeal Stouts derive a gentility and lightness of being from the use of oatmeal in the style’s grist bill. Deep brown to pitch black in color and with sustained, tan heads, these stouts bridge the gap between the Dry Irish-style and the Sweet or Foreign Export stout versions. Beyond the aromas and flavors of roasted malts, which tend more towards chocolate and even nutty hints, a moderate bitterness is used for balance. Depending upon the level of oatmeal employed, these stouts can possess creamy notes and the resulting flavors can be silky smooth in texture. Balance is the key here and the best Oatmeal Stouts are highly drinkable and not heavy on the palate.

One Oatmeal Stout
Dark Horse Brewing Company
Marshall, Michigan

This brewery produces five stouts around the winter holidays and this Oatmeal Stout starts with an opaque black color and is capped with a solid, spongy head of foam. One’s nose is filled with big roasted malts mixed with charred baker’s chocolate, burnt coffee beans, and a slight acidity and creaminess, all acting with restraint. A surprisingly rich and thick example, One Oatmeal Stout unleashes a mild torrent of bittersweet and roasted chocolate, black coffee, and a slightly smoky roasted malt character that also displays some lighter caramel malt qualities, all resulting in an unexpectedly soft and velvety mouthfeel. A bit of an enigma considering the style, Dark Horse lives up to its name with this beer.

8 Ball Stout
Lost Coast Brewery & Café
Eureka, California

The 8 Ball pours with a blackish brown body and a moderate mocha cap. It smells of chocolate, coffee, a touch of molasses, and rich roasted malts. The flavor follows suit, with the addition of dry cocoa, a little treacle, a mild creaminess hidden amidst the dark malts, and the slightest hint of oats. A full-bodied stout, the mouthfeel is creamy at times with a moderate carbonation balancing out the thick body. Befitting its West Coast heritage, the magical 8 Ball is a tinge hoppier than your average stout.

Ipswich Oatmeal Stout
Mercury Brewing Company
Ipswich, Massachusetts

A home state hero, the menacingly black Ipswich offering is capped by a light tan head and offers very little color at the edges, Mercury’s version, unlike many versions of the style, is hugely hoppy with big earthy and mineral notes from Pacific Northwest hops. The unexpected hop aromas add to the more standard dark roasted coffee notes and light espresso hints resulting in an earthy, clean experience. Surprisingly full bodied, Ipswich Oatmeal Stout booms with flavor, choosing to rely on the side of burnt roasted strength instead of lighter creamy touches. The roasted malt flavor starts slow, then transitions into a touch of raisin malt sweetness, but then kicks into a long, pronounced, and never-ending burnt bitterness.

Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout
Anderson Valley Brewing Company
Boontville, California

A year-round offering, this Anderson Valley offering won the brewery’s first gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival and remains one of the brewery’s most popular beers. With a two-finger deep light brown head that refuses to quit, Barney Flats is a classic Oatmeal Stout with a deceptively light brownish-rouge color. The brewery’s yeast strain gives off a signature creamy aroma, a rare sign of true house character, which gives way to very light touches of roasted malt and hints of milk chocolate. The flavor remains quite reserved in terms of dark malts, instead yielding a complex array of coconut, yeast creaminess, roasted bitterness, and chocolate notes.

Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout
Wolaver’s Brewing Company
Middlebury, Vermont

One of America’s leading organic breweries, Wolaver’s has long been dedicated to making classic styled beers with all-natural ingredients. Pouring a deep brownish-garnet hue with a toasted colored head, a tad light for the style, slight lacing is achieved. A pleasant lightness fills the aroma, with oat notes and plentiful well-roasted barley with touches of lightly roasted coffee beans and chocolate. The flavor matches the aroma with the additions of a tight bitterness from a combination of roasted grains and noble and American hops. Substantially dry to the taste, flairs of malt sweetness complete this offering.

Export Stout

The beers in this category may welcome the attention that will likely follow the release of the Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. Ready for a fight, these potent yet playful beers offer a real challenge to those willing to take them for a spin.

Steelhead Extra Stout
Mad River Brewing Company
Blue Lake, California

The Extra Stout pours with a jet black color and a light tan head and smells of deep, rich, and sweet malt with the lightest touches of roasted edge but not bitterness. It possesses light mocha notes, even coconut at times, and the medium body also contains big roasted flavors competing with sweeter malt notes for dominance, with neither winning out in a balanced stalemate. Booze is very well-restrained compared to some alcohol heavy examples of the style and light mocha and coffee notes run alongside a hint of smoke.

Damn Good Stout
BruRm @ Bar
New Haven, Connecticut

Created from a mixture of seven different malts, this stout actually manages to live up to its bold name. Appearing near opaque black with a thick tan head, the beer lets you know you are in for a treat with its rich, malty, and roasted swirls of coffee and chocolate. There is an initial burst of light alcohol flavors upfront, followed by a wash of mild roasted notes, and the beer finishes with a slight sweetness. Damn Good Stout possesses slight cocoa and coffee flavors but ends up best expressing some notable maltiness, which is typical for this sweeter style.

Dragonstooth Stout
Elysian Brewing Company
Seattle, Washington

With a name referencing Greek warriors who sprang from the ground when the teeth of a slain dragon were sown, you know this Export Stout is going to be tough. Made with rolled oats, Dragonstooth pours with an ominous black tint and dark ruby edging, capped by a tan crown. The stout’s aroma glimmers with rich malt aromas, bouncing from caramel, toffee, and brown sugar to dark chocolate and a touch of coffee, and finishing out with hints of vanilla. The flavor adds the unusual touch of American citrus hops, which is a departure from the style but helps bring together the old and new worlds of brewing. A creaminess to the malt mixes with its substantial sweetness and the citrus hops to create a highly drinkable concoction.

Captain Swain’s Extra Stout
Cisco Brewing Company
Nantucket, Massachusetts

Another local offering and named for one of the earliest settlers on Nantucket, a family from which the brewery’s owner descends, this Extra Stout is a testament to the sea-faring world that holds this style so dear. A rich sable color with hints of garnet hues at the extremes underlies the moderately creamy tan crown. The nose fills with a slightly acrid dark roasted malt burst followed by waves of sweeter chocolate and burnt coffee and a touch of earthy hops. The roasted malt occasionally strays into a pleasant and somewhat unexpected acidity, not quite sour, before giving way to creamy swirls of caramel, milk chocolate, and charred grains. A hint of pine from Chinook dry-hopping balances out this full-flavored beer.

Milk Stout

Another difficult to find variety, Milk Stouts fully give themselves over to the lighter, creamier side of the roasted stout world. But don’t expect a cloying, unbalanced mess. Quite to the contrary, these medium to full-bodied stouts balance deeply roasted grains, with their cream coffee and milk to dark chocolate aromas, with a moderate level of sweetness to create a creatively and agreeably dissonant beverage. Deep and dark in color and with low carbonation, the high residual sweetness comes from unconverted sugars left in the beer and in the case of Milk Stouts, the addition of lactose, an unfermentable ingredient also known as milk sugar. Sometimes called Cream Stout, the flavor of these styles often focus on a downy, milky flavor reminiscent of sweetened coffee or espresso.

Milk Stout
Left Hand Brewing Company
Longmont, Colorado

This Milk Stout pours with a dark brown color with ruby hues at the edges and a light tan head. The aroma possesses a chalky, mocha like dryness with deep and dry roasted notes and a slight burnt malt character. The beer’s flavor starts off slow, with a lightly toasted maltiness reminiscent of molasses, before diving into a moderate dark malt quality that plays well with a light lactose creaminess from the addition of milk sugars and flaked oats. Light bodied and with an overall sweetness, the beer is a great entrant for dark beer wary novices, like a brown ale with lactic sweetness.

Steel Toe Stout
SKA Brewing Company
Durango, Colorado

Steel Toe pours deep brown with light brownish-red hues around the trim. A bit unusual for the style, the beer leans more heavily on the roasted side of the ledger, with an aroma that also features a smattering of light cream traces. This Milk Stout, brewed with lactose, starts with a light roasted malt bite that lasts throughout the flavor but is joined near the end by a distinct, pleasant creaminess that finishes almost like chai tea with milk. A very enjoyable and drinkable flavor combination.

–Article appeared in the December 2010 issue of Beverage Business Magazine.

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Becoming A Beer Critic…

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Lovers of craft beer are a passionate bunch. They heap praise and adulation on their favorite brewers, cheering each new release at events, beer fests, and on the Internet. Novelty is often their call to arms, scarcity making the game even a little more fun. But dare to raise a question about a favored brewery’s latest beer or the quality of a particular brewpub’s lineup and prepare to witness passion turn quickly to fury.

From its earliest days, better beer in America has suffered from a certain inferiority complex, resulting in serious territorialism for its followers. After generations of sameness lulled consumers into a deep-seated distrust of anything not light-golden hued and simple in character, cracks began showing in the collective beer drinking foundation. A slow pool of better beer fans trickled forth and with a zeal usually limited to witness protection programs, each new convert shed the skins of their former beer drinking identities, never to speak of their previous lives as macro drinkers. A sub-set of this new generation of better beer drinkers eventually catalyzed into a group fiercely loyal to their heralded beverage.

In writing about craft brewing for the last decade, I’ve been fortunate enough to sample the world’s best beers, often in their hometowns with the brewers by my side. And while my passion for great beer remains as strong as the day I first realized the difference between Guinness and an American-brewed foreign export stout, I’ve also tasted some less than stellar beers and encountered some unfortunate craft beer environments.

When I write about these experiences in magazine articles, in my books, or on-line, I frequently catch hell from the better beer rah-rah set. They frequently tell me that I’m being disloyal, doing a disservice to the cause, and that I should focus on the positive. They worry that my words of criticism will somehow hurt craft brewers overall as opposed to encouraging under-performers to improve their operations. And I can understand if not accept their concern. My job as a writer, however, is not to act as a craft beer cheerleader. A certain critical eye comes with the work of informing people where their money and time is best spent.

Beyond journalists, I also believe that developing a healthy skepticism among consumers wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Frankly, the craft beer industry is tough enough to handle a little criticism. While brewers, beer bar owners, and other industry players often bristle when hearing anything besides glowing praise, beer is better for the constructive words offered. Take freshness dating as an easy example. Many large brewers continue to ignore the interests of consumers by failing to code date their packaging, leaving would-be buyers with moments of uncertainty and hesitation before reaching for their next six-pack. The occasional situation of stale beer could be substantially remedied if more consumers complained to the offending brewers.

Developing a point of view or perspective is an important step in the maturation process of any craft beer drinker. Most consumers start by thinking that all beer tastes the same before one beer shatters that resilient myth. From there, we tend to focus on a single flavor set, be it malty ambers, roasted porters, or hoppy pale ales. Breaking free from that flavor hegemony takes us from adolescence to our teenage years. The true next stride to adulthood, in my mind, comes with the ability to think critically about the beers you taste and to take stock of craft beer as a broader concept.

As a beer writer, I love to try new beers, meet passionate brewers, and clink pints with fellow enthusiasts. But I also take seriously my role in helping to encourage the progress of craft beer, in all manners of speaking. Whether it’s telling a brewer when a beer tastes off or asking for more session beers at your pub, I think consumers who’ve achieved true craft beer consciousness should help their favored drink move forward.

–Article appeared in Issue 47 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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

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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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