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
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
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.]