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Does ‘craft’ really matter?

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If there’s one thing that really pisses off some craft brewers and drinkers, it’s brands masquerading as something they’re not: craft beer. It was a point of contention in the recent “craft vs. crafty” debate (yes, that again), and it continues to be a heated talking point as global brewing companies like AB-InBev and MillerCoors shift their focus from struggling flagship brands like MGD to successful “crafty” brands (as some call them) such as Blue Moon.

“Those brands aren’t forthcoming about who brews the beer,” some might say of “crafty” Third Shift (MillerCoors) or Shock Top (AB-InBev).

But one new “crafty” label, the above picture from Widmer Brothers, is more than forthcoming. I use the term “crafty,” because in 2007, the Brewers Association revoked Widmer Brothers’ craft status after it merged with Redhook to form the Craft Brewers Alliance (now Craft Brew Alliance), of which AB-InBev holds a 32% share. Unlike other “crafty” brands (excuse me, but I really hate that term), Widmer’s new label is pretty clear about who they are, and especially how they feel: Two raised middle fingers surrounding the year 2007, with the other fingers forming the shape of a heart around the beer’s name, Rejection Ale. And then there’s the background text:

“Once upon a time the Brewers Association kicked us out of their club because we entered a distribution agreement with a larger brewery. But we are still independent. DUUUUUUUUUH! Don’t worry though. We still brew craft beer. It’s not like we didn’t help start the whole craft brewing movement or anything. Clearly we’re craft brew rejects! (Not really.)” tweet

Um. Wow.

Widmer Brothers, founded by siblings Kurt and Rob, launched in 1984. Rejection Ale, an IPA brewed with mangoes, jalapeños and cinnamon, is an upcoming release in its 30 Beers for 30 Years series, a line of beers commemorating their long legacy in the craft beer industry. The Craft Brew Alliance, a publically traded company, like craft brewery Boston Beer Co., includes the Widmer, Redhook, Kona and Omission brands. A Widmer representative confirmed to us in spring that this is a real beer, no joke.

Swing by the website for the series, and there’s this description of the beer:

“It’s a fact. The Brewers Association doesn’t like us. In fact, they kicked us out of their club in 2007 because we entered a distribution agreement with a larger brewer to help share our beers with beer drinkers across the country. And while they like to think of us as craft imposters or ‘crafty,’ we’re still brewing craft beer as we always have, and their efforts haven’t slowed us down. This beer has never been brewed before, but will be brewed for the first time in 2014 to mark this defining moment in craft beer history.” tweet

Now, I’m not a brewer, so I’ll leave that confrontation to the two concerned parties. But, if there’s one thing that annoys me—aside from the term “crafty”—it’s how excommunicated brands like Widmer are often treated by craft beer geeks. There’s this idea tainting the drinking community that breweries like Widmer and Goose Island (ejected from the Brewers Association after it sold to AB-InBev in 2011) are no longer worth our attention, despite operating pretty much like every other craft brewery, and predating most craft beer drinker’s newfound passion by decades. They’re two people at a party that a small but vocal minority is trying to convince everyone to ignore, and they’ve been at the party much longer than you or I have. Hell, they pretty much helped organize it.

My post yesterday about Goose Island’s upcoming Bourbon County release generated a similar response. Here’s one reader’s contribution to the conversation on Facebook, presented unedited:

“Sorry [sic] Bud owned no longer a small Craft Brewery Corp is never the same the big boy’s are running scared of Crafts!! Hence Black label Bud, Becks just to name a few they also own Kona Brewery! So sad!” tweet

Ugh.

Thankfully, reasonable drinkers are pushing back, fighting against the notion that a long-cherished brewery’s status with the Brewers Association somehow reflects the quality of beer it brews, or affects your choices. In the same thread, there was one lengthy, level-headed and informed comment backing up Goose Island, but this one get’s right to the point:

“All you dick hole [sic] beer snobs talking about the AB buyout, fuck off! That’s fine, don’t buy this world class epitome of a bourbon barrel aged stout. More for me!” tweet

You can read the whole discussion on our Facebook page.

Now, to tie this back to Widmer, the company’s been pretty vocal about what transpired in 2007, and about the quality of its beer. Earlier this year, brothers Kurt and Rob sat down with The Street for a Q&A chat about the company’s history, the 30 for 30 series, and their thoughts about being voted out of the Brewers Association. In case you didn’t pick up on the hint from that label, the interview proves they’re still pretty upset about being lumped into the “crafty” category. It’s a really great read, so go check it out, but here’s a little taste:

Kurt: It was a political decision. At the time, it shocked me and stung. I know who was on the board and I know exactly how they voted. It was not public, but having good friends on the board, they told me ‘this is how it went down.’ tweet

I can hold a grudge longer than anyone in the history of mankind. Even though I can be on a friendly basis with the people who voted against us, it always taints the relationship. Also, it’s been positive for the people who voted on our behalf. We’ve kind of gotten over that, but we’ve made it pretty clear that even if they changed the definition, we wouldn’t want to be a part of that organization because it’s a political organization, and that’s not why we got into this.” tweet

The brothers have also been very vocal about the quality of their beer, a lineup that currently includes the likes of the Nelson Sauvin-marked Upheaval IPA, the flower-and-peppercorn-spiked Saison A’ Fluers, and the stalwart Widmer Hefeweizen. A few months ago, the two hosted an AMA (ask me anything) on Reddit, where one user asked: “How would you respond to people that vilify craft brewers who enter into partnerships with SABMiller and InBev?”

“The quality of our beer actually improved with the distribution agreement with AB. We talk about vilifiers as flat-earthers,” responded Rob.

In June, the company hosted a “craft vs. crafty” blind tasting event during Portland Beer Week, where craft beers such as Ninkasi Lux, Oakshire Amber and 10 Barrel Swill were served alongside Budweiser, Goose Island Endless IPA and Widmer Seamus O’ Tooles. Guests were invited to guess which of the unmarked beers the Brewers Association recognized as craft, and which it did not. According to a post-event write-up on Widmer’s site: “Very few guessed them all correctly. But that doesn’t matter. Good beer is good beer; that’s what matters.”

That resonates. Good beer is good beer. Sure, educate yourself about who’s behind the brands you enjoy. But to deny oneself an Upheaval IPA or a Bourbon County Stout just because these long-standing, quality craft breweries had the word “craft” taken away by a trade organization—well, that’s just silly.

[Shout-out to MyBeerBuzz.com, which posted the label image this week.]

 

Author
Chris Staten is DRAFT’s beer editor. Follow him on Twitter at @DRAFTbeereditor and email him at chris.staten@draftmag.com.

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18 Comments

  • jrob says:

    Yeah… whatever. They call themselves craft, but trust me, they are MORE THAN WILLING to swing the AB Inbev hammer at any brewery they feel infringes on their copy right, recipe, name… etc. This label is an absolute F-U to every brewer making something that they are proud of WITHOUT the AB mafia behind them. F me widmer brothers? NO… F YOU!!!

  • Don says:

    c’mon, really? Totally lame. First, industry groups ARE POLITICAL. That is the entire reason for their existence. Second, this particular industry group has specific qualification guidelines. If someone that did qualify, takes on a new partner contrary to those guidelines, they are no longer qualifying members. Those crybabies can whine all they want, but they no longer qualify. Period.
    Then you try to lump Boston Beer into the mix because they are publicly traded? That is blatantly and maliciously misleading. CBA IS “crafty,” because they deliberately mislead consumers. Same as Goose Island, most of which is now made in New York, including the 312 brand, which is named for the area code of Chicago.
    Craft beer accounts for only about 8% of the total beer sales, and there is, granted, a small percentage of that 8% that are total, disgusting beer snobs. A very small percentage, I might add. There are also bud snobs, miller snobs, and even widmer snobs. And there are FAR more of those. Ever been to a NASCAR event?
    Bourbon County Stout is a great beer, made my bud. And the guy that told the snob to “fuck off” is just a dick, asshole, loser, take your pick. Where does he get off being the judge? My guess is he lives in Chicago and has an inferiority complex because he hyped that lame brewery for so long. Yeah, yeah, they make some nice beer, but, overall, no. The owner built the brand so he could sell it. He said so himself, which, by the way, I don’t mind in the least. But it is bud now, sold as craft. CRAFTY.
    And to hell with your “they predate most craft beer drinkers.” I drank Goose Island,at Goose Island, when they had one location. Quite frankly, the beer wasn’t that good. In subsequent trips are chose to try the lame Rock Bottom rather than go back to goose. Fortunately, there are now many options for TRUE craft beer in the area.
    Widmer, Kona, Goose, Third Shift, Batch 19, Blue Moon, etc., occasionally make a good if not great craft beer. Unfortunately, most of their stuff is production crap. All of them sell all their beers as craft, without saying that they are either AB, MC, or CBA. CRAFTY. MISLEADING. Does NOT qualify for membership in BA. Rules. Guidelines. Fixed. Known. Not in the least misleading, in fact, quite specifically clear.
    You’re the “editor?” I don’t even get a sense of what the article is trying to say, other than you keep trying to defend Widmer for some reason. Who cares? People will drink what they drink. I don’t give a damn. But you keep trying to defend them? Why? Who cares? Oh yeah, I already said that!
    Draft Magazine. OK, most draft beer poured is MC, AB, etc. I can see why you SHOULD be unbiased about what is getting poured. But don’t pull this “craft” beer crap in another attempt to support Widmer, because that is crafty, and, again, blatantly misleading.

  • Brent Industries says:

    To me one of the biggest heartaches is Saranac. Second largest, family owned brewery in the US. They are always doing weird, interesting brews while having a soild Pale Ale that supported their business. Now with their equipment and financial backing, they batch brew, bottle and/or can beloved craft beers for many a small craft brewery. They have their own highpeaks series that they small batch brew, all while staying independent from AB-InBev or Miller-Coors. You don’t need to jump in bed with foreign money to grow your band. Quit selling out and getting mad at the consumer.

  • Jim says:

    You are completely missing the point. The brewers association exists to strengthen small craft brewers and to offer the support in an industry where weight is often thrown around- and being in beer sales where I represent brands both big and small, I have an excellent battlefield view of this. When you align with the big boys, they will throw their weight around FOR YOU. Why should the Brewers Association spend its time and resources on a brewery that has giants on it’s side? When you sell shares in your company to AB or MC, you have chosen them as your strategic partners, not the BA. Don’t cry about it; if you feel you made the right decision then count your money and be grateful.

  • Joe Tucker, RateBeer says:

    You can buy an apple from a farmers market because it keeps money in the community, is better for the environment in that it typically relies less on industrial fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and fewer fossil fuels to move, store and process OR you can just buy the factory farm apple because you like the appearance of those apples or buy on price and don’t care about flavor.

    If you’re a conscious consumer, buying from AB of not matters. If you’re just stuffing your face, it doesn’t.

  • TJ says:

    I can’t get over how pro faux craft this article is. I’m assuming you take ad money from Budweiser and the rest of CBA. Did their marketing department write this for you?

  • ssav says:

    jrob: “swing the AB Inbev hammer at any brewery they feel infringes on their copy right, recipe, name… etc.”

    it’s almost like, according to US copyright law, they HAVE to make attempts to preserve their copyright or they’ll run the risk of losing it. that’s so weird, right?

    don: “Those crybabies can whine all they want, but they no longer qualify.”

    you’re absolutely right, and that’s kind of their issue. boston beer company is well known to have influenced the BA to expand the restrictions on the definition of “craft” to include sam adams. i have absolutely no problem with bbc / sa, they have done amazing things for the craft scene. but when you develop a relationship with an organization like the BA, and then they make exceptions for certain breweries, and decide to axe you and not make an exception for you, it can ruffle your feathers for sure.

    be as sour as you’d like about craft breweries expanding and working out distro deals with large corporations, but that isn’t inherently a bad thing. there are absolutely lots of bad parts about it, but there are good parts, too.

    stop making the world out to be so black and white. =)

  • CB says:

    Hey Kurt & Rob, try Google next time you want to name a beer, ‘Rejection’ is a beer name used since about 2005 by Russian River Brewing for their Valentine’s day beer & while we’re at it ‘Big Ben’ has been in continuous use by Bull & Bush Brewing since 1997.

    If you didn’t want to be lumped in w/ the ‘non-craft’ folks, why did you take their money? It wasn’t free, it came with strings & a lot of baggage

  • Jhagler says:

    There is only one rule for beer, enjoy it.

  • @ausbeerjourney says:

    From Australia,

    But it seems like sour grapes with these groups crying foul of being kicked out of the brewers association. They know the “rules” and qualifications for being a member and have not abided by them.

    I do like how the brewers association changes and evolves it’s requirements based on increases in production by the likes of Sam adams. Shows that the group is not simply and archaic group of beer snobs but actually want small brewers to be more successful, no tall poppy syndrome

  • Jamoosh says:

    I think this is a hilarious, yet sometimes sad discussion. “Craft” beer snobs are just like band loving hipsters, who suddenly drop their allegiance to a band once it signs with a major record label. Forget the fact they are making the same music; the fact they have wider distribution makes them a sell out.

    For the record, I am not in favor of (and will not drink) beer masquerading as a craft beer. By that I mean the lame attempts to create fake breweries (Third Shift and Land Shark for example) and sell beer based on something that it is not. That said, if any investor wants to invest in an existing craft brewery, why should it matter what business they are in. What is the difference between In-Bev and Chevron investing in a brewery and bringing economies of scale, production efficiency, and increased marketing to the brand? As long as they are not affecting the quality of the ingredients and the care in which the beer is brewed, does it matter? Heck, there is a brewery in Florida that was built on the investment of a porn magnate – does that investment make it any less of a craft brewery?

    For the record, Boston Beer Co., Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium Brewing each outsell the combined members of the Craft Beer Alliance. And that has more to do with distribution than anything. Widmer and Redhook got together to increase their distribution footprint, not because they wanted to make watered down beer. But apparently, wanting to grow your business is a sin to a certain segment of “craft” beer lovers.

    I have heard plenty of backlash from “craft” beer people against Boston Beer Co. because they are so large. Beer dorks are referring to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as a gateway beer that should be moved on from quickly (seriously – the beer that all but started the craft beer revolution?).

    Perception is the biggest problem with the “craft” beer folks who insist on standards (valid or not) at what they will consider to be craft brewed.

    The brewery is too big; the brewery has the “wrong” investors; the brewery uses contract breweries; and so on.

    For 20 years, the Widmer Brothers were heroes because, like several others, they worked their asses off to build a brewery from scratch. But they became pariahs because they wanted to sell more beer to a wider audience – how does that make any sense?

  • Tim says:

    If a “Craft” beer makes a deal with a big company to help distribution great! If the recipe is changed to make more profit not great. I read that when Goose Island was bought by AB they fired the head brew master and brought in there own. I don’t know why they did but that is the kind of thing that is disturbing.

  • Nasty Nate says:

    It all comes out in the wash. Just going at it from a flavor perspective, the smallest breweries all have the most aggressively flavored beers because they are unconcerned with flagship performance on a regional/national level, aka producing a generic product that the ignorant masses will gladly consume in quantity. Lakewood Temptress 99 on RateBeer I rest my case and will rue the day they go big time. I love the fact there is a beer called palate wrecker, barleywines that will leave you face down in the snow after two, because they are so concentrated in flavor. Maybe we need to switch from calling it “craft” beer to “essential” beer.

  • John Thompson says:

    I wrote a piece a while ago on this very topic. Well, not on the BA membership portion. But breweries like Goose Island are really split into two. One part that does REAL craft beer, and one that mass produces some formerly craft recipes. I don’t think Widmer should care about being in the club, just makes good beer.

    As for guys that make Bourbon County? They are craft brewers, and isn’t that what makes a beer craft is the people making it? The guys making Honkers and 312 aren’t craft brewers though. If you want check out the rest of my thoughts in my old blog:
    http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/lifted-boycott-goose-island/2014/01/24

  • Brett Newton says:

    I love how the author of this article ignores business practices of companies like InBev, SAB, etc . It’s not simply a matter of a mega-corporation throwing its money and weight in to back a craft beer brand. To think that is naivete. These are international (often not American-based) conglomerates that ruthlessly cut jobs and cut other costs by using cheaper, inferior ingredients. Maybe you aren’t discerning as far as whom you give your money to, but I don’t like giving mine to companies that make shitty decisions and only care about the bottom line. As for Widmer, they can take their often-mediocre (at best!) beer and their whining to someone who cares.

  • Terry McKenna says:

    I do not have a problem with craft beer consumers pushing back against corporate brewery buyouts. Many of said breweries still produce great beers. However, when you look at history there is cause for concern. In the 7 ‘ s the big players decided to buy up competition and close them down. I don’t think that could happen with craft beer, but who knows what tactics could be employed by the big 3 in the future?
    I don’t blame the breweries that sold out to the big breweries (I have friends working for them), but they shouldn’t be surprised by some of the reactions.

  • Aaron says:

    I do not support CBA, NAB or anyother macrobrewer owned company with my dollars. If a friend shares a bourbon county stout or an old embalmer at a beer tasting I am glad to enjoy it. My dollars will continue to support the independent brewers because it was the independants that got this whole movement started and they continue to drive innovation.

  • Dickie says:

    Craft beer has a sense of community – brewers share knowledge, collaborate on beers, help each other at festivals.

    Big corporate brewers are anti-competitive as a business practice – they bribe and bully their way to the best shelf space or most taps at a bar, often at the expense of craft.

    Power flows in one direction. If you move from craft to corporate, you’re basically switching sides. Don’t pretend it doesn’t mean something.

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