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The craft vs. crafty tug-of-war continues

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Ever since the Brewers Association announced the excommunication of certain breweries from the craft beer world last December by publishing a list of non-craft domestic breweries (which included Goose Island, Redhook and Narragansett, among others), the industry waters have been a bit choppy. We’ve seen rebuttals and rallying cries, as well as ambivalence. It’s been a weird month. To makes things slightly more complicated—or, at least, uncertain—the Brewers Association released this message on the heels of its somewhat controversial reorganization of the craft beer landscape, just as 2012 came to a close:

“The Brewers Association (BA) defines a craft brewer as small, independent and traditional. The definition exists to provide a clear set of guidelines as to what breweries are included in the industry statistics published by the BA. In lieu of listing domestic non-craft breweries that fall outside of this definition, the Brewers Association will post a list of 2012 craft breweries that meet the small, independent and traditional criteria, along with a press release on craft brewing industry statistics, in the first quarter of 2013.”

So far, there’s no word on the new list, but the wait has caused as least one company to reexamine its own definition of “craft,” and then question the BA’s. Shortly after the non-craft brewery list was released, the Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont, Mass., decided it would no longer carry the likes of Magic Hat, Narragansett, McTarnahan’s, Butte Creek, Pyramid and Mendocino brands, which were all listed in the non-craft roundup. After all, the Craft Beer Cellar specializes in “craft, micro or artisanal brewed beers from the United States and beyond,” according to its website.

Then, a change of heart: Two weeks ago, the store decided to reinstate Narragansett and, yesterday, released an open letter to the BA, which proposed further examination of its new criteria for a craft brewery. You can read the entire letter here, but I’ve copied a few pertinent paragraphs below.

The issue with the BA’s definition of “traditional” under the craft umbrella:

“The current portion of the traditional definition says: ‘A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewer’s brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.’ We feel that the phrase, ‘beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor,’ is subjective because it assumes that someone (the Brewers Association, presumably) can determine what the intention of the brewer is when using adjunct ingredients. And more specifically, when certain adjunct ingredients are used in a lighter style lager, it tends to remind us of brewers doing so in hopes of beating their competition (by way of lowering their financial investment) or cheating their customers (by not being honest about their ingredients).”

It’s an interesting point. Consider the cream ale, a classic American style that’s historically brewed, in part, with flaked maize—New Glarus Spotted Cow, which uses local corn, is a shining example. The BA considers New Glarus’ use of corn in Spotted Cow one that enhances the profile, which they should. But what about the other classic American styles that, according to BJCP, allow for a certain percentage of adjuncts? Specifically the light, standard and premium American lagers.

The letter continues:

“We agree that brewers who use adjuncts to lighten color, lessen flavor, and lower costs aren’t craft. However, we do believe that adjuncts can be used in a way that is still considered craft—that is, to experiment with styles where the use of adjuncts like rice, corn, or barley is what the brewer opts to use in order to create a specific flavor profile. It may not be a flavor profile we personally prefer, but that’s irrelevant! We believe that penalizing age-old breweries like Narragansett or Yuengling, who create beer using original recipes, is not in the best interest of furthering the [craft] beer movement. No one knows the intent of these original brewers from the late 19th century.”

So, as the Craft Beer Cellar states, breweries who’ve been taken off the list because their flagship beer happens to be an adjunct lager should be reinstated if that lager’s based on a traditional recipe. It’s a fair argument, but still leaves a few things open to interpretation. Here’s the Cellar’s proposed, slightly more inclusive definition of a traditional brewery.

“Traditional: A brewer who has either a) an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands), b) an historic recipe, c) 50% of its volume in all malt beers, or in d) beer made with non-traditional adjuncts (vanilla, rye, pumpkin, etc.), they are intended to enhance flavor.”

Of course, now someone’s going to have to define “historic recipe.”

2 Comments

  • Androo says:

    grown men quibbling over a word. how silly. call Gansett what you will, but I’ll be drinking their Cream and seasonals forever on

  • erik lars myers says:

    Words are powerful. They’re worth quibbling over.

    I still think that the real reason that there’s even an argument is that people mistake “craft” beer for being “good” beer, which is not necessarily the case.

    In a lot of ways, the BA can define “craft” however it wants because in doing so it’s defining who can be a member of their organization. That doesn’t necessarily mean that their definition is correct, or that definition means that the beer is good or even worthy. It’s an overlap of terminology.

    I guess my main issue comes down to the fact that the BA has changed the definition to suit its own needs – and apparently the needs of its largest members – and only follows it when it appears to see fit. There are multiple breweries that don’t appear to be craft by the definition set by the BA who are appearing at SAVOR this year. That doesn’t seem right.

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