For a long time now, I’ve been thinking about the craft beer vs. crafty beer problem. While it has really only sprung up as a discourse over the last week, you would have to have been blind not to see the issue coming.
The problem here is that large breweries are putting together craft brands like Ten and Blake and Six Pints and they’re making beer that falls pretty solidly in the craft category. It puts people in an odd position where they have to ask questions about authenticity and it makes everyone involved in the discussion look like ridiculous scenesters quibbling over detail.
The problem is that this debate about whether something is a craft beer is more or less inevitable. Look at something like Goose Island or Granville Island. The people who founded the breweries wanted to go and do other things and they sold their companies. On some level it must have been heartbreaking to do. You put your entire career into building something and then at the end you have all of this capital and time sunk into something that has been helped along by a community that enjoys your product. You have to sell it in order to retire.
The odd part is semantic. Say it was a potato chip factory instead of a brewery. You’d never blame a potato chip magnate for selling out. Beer has taken on some kind of emotional significance to a portion of the population and this kind of thing feels enough like betrayal to promote angry messages on internet forums.
I find myself wondering whether the problem is essentially economic. Until the 1980’s there weren’t many small breweries. Since prohibition, large breweries had simply consolidated breweries that they purchased and reduced the number of brands available in order to become more profitable. Brewing is a business, never forget, and that model is a really good model. Not for beer drinkers, necessarily, but if you’re a huge corporation and you want to maximize profit, being the only game in town is a good way to go about it.
The craft breweries are a response as much to a global business model as they are a response to bland macro beer. In the face of huge multinational brands like Budweiser, which represent a global trend towards a single monolithic product, craft beers made locally are a response to unsated demand. Not only do they promote local business, provide employment and a sense of place, they reinforce the idea that manufacture is not dead within North America. If you look at the 2000 microbreweries in the US and the 150-200 in Canada, there is a lot of tertiary economic activity that surrounds them. You need equipment and chemicals and packaging and design and social media and advertising and…. Well, you get the idea.
There’s an economic theory that states that the health of an economy can be determined by the flow of capital through the marketplace. Given the pressures of the 2008 recession and peoples’ fondness for a refreshing beverage during hard times, this probably explains why the craft brewing industry has done relatively well during the last few years. It’s very difficult to know where your money would end up if you bought a case of Budweiser. When you buy a craft beer, you know that you’re supporting a locally owned business. Craft beer supports local economies.
(It would be disingenuous to say that macro beer doesn’t support local economies. Imagine what would happen if the plant in Golden, Colorado shut down. If the Molson Downsview plant shut down there would be a lot of people out of work. What I’m suggesting is that not ALL of the purchase price of a macro brew goes to support local economies. There are huge parent companies to be considered.)
“Crafty” beer is the price that Craft Beer inevitably pays for its success. It is, however, at a significant disadvantage. It frequently does not have a sense of place associated with it. It almost never has a face associated with the brand.
The thing that I am continually baffled by is that people are drawing a line in the sand based on some aesthetic or intangible principle as to what craft beer is. This is an inefficient and, to be honest, downright silly way of going about the problem. Consider THIS letter from the August Schell brewery to the Brewers Association. I can certainly appreciate that the BA guidelines are fairly stringent when it comes to the use of adjunct in brewing. However, given the larger atmosphere at the moment, a situation in which “crafty” beers are going to continue coming down the pipe inexorably, there are other angles to be considered.
The problem here is that with multinationally owned brewers attempting to produce “crafty” beers that consumers may not be educated enough to differentiate from their Brewer’s Association approved “craft” counterparts, the delineation between the two products based on flavour ceases to be a reliable indicator of authenticity.
If you look at Yuengling or August Schell or say, Moosehead, these are all independently owned breweries that contribute massively to their local economies. They have a sense of place. They have representative faces and visibility and every single one of them is branching out into more interesting products. Aside from the adjunct issue, they fulfill basically every requirement for craft breweries. Perhaps most importantly, they contribute to the local or national economy in a nearly identical way to a craft brewery.
I would venture that the real battle here is not flavour based, but rather a struggle between economic forces and corporations that are globally relevant and locally relevant respectively. People like the idea that their beer is identifiably brewed by someone; that it supports the local economy in a demonstrable and tangible way.
The simple fact of the matter is that eventually, large multinational breweries and their subsidiaries will be able to produce beer that tastes like craft beer. They cannot, however, reproduce independent ownership. If this is the battle line that is currently being drawn, would the Brewer’s Association not re-examine their guidelines and allow large regional brewers like Yuengling a place within their ranks?
It seems to me that an alliance of independent brewers rather than craft brewers within a single nation has one very definite strength: We can discuss for hours the various nuances of what makes something craft. Ownership resides indelibly on a balance sheet.