The meaning behind craft beer

Goose Island Pepe Nero, a black saison spiced with black peppercorns, used to be one of my favorite craft beers. It’s not anymore, nor will it ever be again. Don’t get me wrong: The recipe didn’t change and the beer still pairs fantastically well with steak. The problem is that the Brewers Association revoked the iconic Chicago brewery’s “craft” status. Practically overnight, the brewery’s popular Bourbon County Stout became—I’m assuming—the only non-craft U.S. beer to have a 100-point score on

Magic Hat, Pyramid, Mendocino, Old Dominion, Fordham, Coastal, Widmer, Kona and Redhook are all out, too.

“An American craft brewer is defined as small and independent. Their annual production is 6 million barrels of beer or less and no more than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.” That’s the Brewers Association’s definition of a craft brewer, which it reinforced yesterday with an official statement to promote the consumption of craft-only beer. (Note: The volume was actually increased from 2 million to 6 million barrels in 2011 to accommodate the rocketing growth of heavy-hitting Boston Beer Co.)

The BA’s statement also noted the dangers of macrobrewery wolves in microbrewery sheep’s clothing by calling for increased transparency from brands like Blue Moon and Shock Top. They think you deserve to know which global beer company is making your non-craft, craft-looking beer.

The BA is, of course, a not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent U.S. brewers, and they do tremendous work. Naturally, its success hinges on the continued growth of craft beer sales, and breweries or brands that fall outside of its demographic (which it defined) pose a threat. They’ve drawn the proverbial line in the sand and, by default, the Craft Brew Alliance’s portfolio (Kona, Widmer and Redhook) are no longer “craft,” solely because AB-InBev owns roughly 35-percent, according to the BA.

The question for you is, “Do I care?”

The truth for consumers is that the BA’s official recognition of a brewery as “craft” is a minor detail when it comes to matters of taste. Good beer is good beer, regardless of whether that beer comes from a brewery that sold 10 percent more of its company to a global conglomerate than the organization’s definition allows, or a nanobrewery a block from your apartment. I drink beer that suits my taste, and the now non-craft Widmer Rotator IPA or, again, Goose Island Pepe Nero will continue to fill my glass along with officially recognized craft beer as long as they continue to impress. Likewise, the BA will continue to award GABF gold medals to MillerCoors-owned The SandLot in the Dortmunder or German-style Oktoberfest category as long as it continues to impress.

Quality, not an adverse reaction to quantity, creates return customers. The reason the majority of my beer fridge is stocked primarily with BA-approved craft beer is because there’s an incredible amount of low-quantity-producing breweries churning out high-quality beer. But, my fridge is open to any good beer, regardless of an organization’s definition involving production size and ownership.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fanatic when it comes to craft beer. My job as DRAFT’s beer editor hopefully implies that notion. I want to see the number of quality brewpubs, nanobreweries and microbreweries grow. I also look forward to the day when the BA, again, increases the production cap of the craft brewer definition to accommodate the future success of expanding craft breweries.

When I first read the official statement, I immediately thought of a feature article Stan Hieronymus wrote for DRAFT’s Sept/Oct issue this year. The piece profiled Keith Villa, Master Brewer/Founder of Blue Moon Brewing, a subsidiary of MillerCoors. It was a captivating read:

“Arguing about what otherwise constitutes ‘craft’ makes for popular sport on Internet discussion boards and in pubs. Villa chooses not to play. ‘We don’t pay attention to those definitions,’ Villa said. ‘To me, it’s always about your customers. You don’t want them having a bad experience with your beers.’”

Throughout the piece, Villa talks about a number of small-batch beers he’s developed for the SandLot Brewery at Coors Field in Denver, from peanut butter ales to juniper-spiked IPAs, which I think sound quite tasty and would love to try.

Do you, craft beer drinker, feel a moral obligation to avoid these beers, as well as Mendocino, Redhook and the 91-point Wailua Wheat from Kona Brewing, because they’re not officially craft? Did you, indie music listener, stop buying The Black Keys albums in 2006 after they signed with Nonesuch Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros?

It’s a matter of taste, not arbitrary numbers. The real rub lies here: Over the last few years, craft beer sales have continued to grow while the overall beer sales in the U.S. have declined (i.e., macrobrewery sales have declined). In reaction to this trend, global beer companies have either purchased or invested in existing (now not) craft beer breweries, or expanded their portfolios with new subsidiary craft-emulating beer brands that offer styles beyond the lager and lite lager. These beers aren’t intrinsically bad. But, the labels don’t always disclose the parent company, and that’s seen as a problem.

Do you even know where your beer comes from?

One of craft beer’s biggest draws is certainly its story—a narrative of place, lifestyle and personality. That’s the reason we recently met up with Maui Brewing’s Garrett Marrero to talk about his favorite places to hang out in Hawaii. Beer and the people who brew it have a story to tell. Hence, the reason why BA’s subsequent point regarding macrobrewery transparency in its official statement resonates with many in the craft beer community, and it should. It really should.

If you haven’t heard of Florian Kuplent yet, check him out. He’s the founder and brewmaster of Urban Chestnut in St. Louis and his Zwickel made it into DRAFT’s list of top 25 beers this year—everything I’ve tried from him has been fantastic. But, even if you haven’t sipped an Urban Chestnut beer, chances are you’ve tasted Kuplent’s previous creations. He’s the guy who developed and brewed the Shock Top brands while working at Anheuser-Busch. Considering he’s now operated on both sides of the fence, I thought he might have a few thoughts on the BA’s comments about transparency.

“The big guys make good beers and there really is no reason why they would need to hide where these beers are being brewed,” Kuplent wrote in an email exchange. “When I was at A-B working on Shock Top (at that point the beer was called ‘Spring Heat Spiced Wheat’) it was sold under the Anheuser-Busch name. I think it is very hard for beer drinkers to figure out what brand is owned by what company these days. As a small brewer I am very proud of what we do—being part of the local community is essential to our business. I personally would not want to hide our roots.”

Why hide your roots?

The success of craft beer didn’t happen overnight, nor did it happen as a result of ad agency consultations. Its success sprung up from quality products and the culture its creators grew organically, which helped spur the popular locavore movement. It’s kind of a big thing now. Is Stone’s self-described arrogant bent on beer easy to replicate? Wholly, no. But the craft beer community is certainly aware it could be easy to imitate, for the sake of sales.

The BA wants more transparency so you’ll be better informed next time you’re standing in a beer aisle that’s peppered with beers brewed by these non-craft global corporations, but marketed to look like your neighborhood brand. It’s already taken a few steps with the education process by publishing a list of official craft brewers here, and non-craft brewers here. The information is now at your fingertips, if you choose to use it.

But should you choose?

While a word, or definition, has little bearing on what my taste buds relay to my brain, I prefer to know the origins of the beer I consume and the story behind it—whether that’s a story about a food-minded brewery in Indianapolis or a historic St. Louis brewery-turned-global-corporation attempting to broaden its portfolio with new styles. It adds to the experience. But, above it all, above the forced definitions and excommunicated breweries, I want good beer—preferably a really good beer with an honest story to tell and an identity its brewers are proud to share. After all, that’s why I write about beer.

Posted on Thursday, December 13th, 2012