St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Craft Vs. Crafty

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.

10 Thoughts on “Craft Vs. Crafty

  1. Gage Dufresne on December 15, 2012 at 12:49 am said:

    There is a very well defined definition for craft beer. A craft brewery has to be small, independent and traditional with a very loose definition of “small”: 6 million barrels per year or less. To put that in context, the Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) produces just over 2 million barrels per year and they’re the biggest craft brewery in the US. Independent is defined as having no more that 25% ownership by someone (or group) who isn’t a craft brewer. Traditional meaning that the brewery either has an all malt flagship brand or at least half of its production has to be either all malt or use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavour.

    • Yes. I know. The problem is that the public does not and that it is a) kind of difficult to explain why these things ought to matter to them and b) excludes potential allies.

  2. “…People like the idea that their beer is identifiably brewed by someone; that it supports the local economy in a demonstrable and tangible way…”

    I see little in good beer that supports this. The relationship one has with the brewers is largely fictional and certainly not local in most cases. With it is a Belgian dubbel or a California DIPA, the beer is from elsewhere made by others who you will never meet based on economics that are unclear. There is much more tribal branding at play. The ABIB plant at Baldwinsville NY or the Moosehead plant in St. John NB have a much greater stake in their respective local economies than a couple of hipsters with a 7 barrel operation.

  3. Hey Jordan, it’s Forest from Molson Coors here, and I hope you don’t mind that I land a point of view.

    I believe your argument on community impact is actually pretty flawed, as a larger brewer like us does not just impact a small radius around our breweries. The fact is, we gainfully employ thousands of Canadians from coast to coast, and that is a major benefit to the ‘local economy’; nationally, and at a community level from coast-to-coast. We’re also really proud of the fact they’re not just jobs, they’re good jobs, and we regularly land on the “Top Employer” lists in Canada through programs that make it such a great place to work.

    Additionally I believe there are some flaws in your position that money spent at an independently-owned brewer does more in the community. While I respect you might feel that way, I would remind you that those businesses (and any profits) are indeed private, while a company like ours is publicly traded. That means that almost anyone who wants to can choose to benefit from our business’s success. There are also significant contributions we make in the community annually through community investment and volunteerism that again I think dispel that position. Please don’t take this is a slag against independently-owned business, only that I don’t fully buy into the assertions here.

    Again, I don’t mean to hijack your post, but I do think there’s a much fuller story that isn’t taken into account around some of the positions here.

    Best regards.
    Forest

    • Hey. Debate is good.

      I definitely cannot assail the position. Truth be told, I’d rather see talented brewers working for a living wage than trying to scrounge together success. Also, some of the community services are useful. At heart, I’m something of a utilitarian and I think that the Taxi program is a good one, even if I don’t understand the park cleanup one completely.

      I’m essentially framing this in regards to the position of the Brewer’s Association which had the same title. I don’t really think it’s a question of one side being right and one side being wrong. The system is the way it is because it has developed that way historically. I just think that if the issue that the Brewer’s Association has is dependent on three tenets for craft beer that are not easily explained to the layman, then that’s a recipe for failure. If I were them I would strive to create a bloc of independently owned breweries that had some kind of easily identifiable union label. The idea that the marketplace is discerning enough to be able to tell whether a company is less than 25% publicly owned is completely nonsensical. They should have an easily visually confirmed trademark if their concern is that Shock Top or Blue Moon is horning in on their territory. Why they are not doing this, I have no idea, aside that it might be like herding cats.

      Further, it might be more important to consumers to feel that they’re doing something for the local economy by supporting craft beer than to view the larger reality of the situation, even if the data doesn’t back that up. Your average consumer is a tangled web of allegiances and hypocrisies.

  4. Hey Jordan…best of the season to you…must say I sometimes get frustrated by those who try to put wedges into various segements of what is a brewing craft. I tend not to look at big vs small…and that all brewers are really craftsmen. I think the brewing association reference you point to may be in the US. Perhaps I’m wrong. The Brewers Association of Canada does have a number of smaller brewers involved, there are also over 40 brewers that are signatories to the industry standard bottle agreement. At Molson Coors we really like to think that we stand for the total “love of beer”. We have craft through to main stream beer. I also totally respect that there are different tastes and preferences in beer in that range. For community I’d suggest that no one holds a candle to what Molson has done in the community for 226 years. It’s part of who we are, how we go to market and still a really important factor for the seventh generation of the Molson family involved in our business today. Thanks for keeping the conversation alive for beer micro and macro. Again…cheers to the season @MolsonFerg

    • Hey Ferg! How’s it goin, eh?

      I’m talking almost exclusively about the US here. I like Canadian craft brewers whole big bunches, but I think we’re a ways off from a national organization of craft brewers within Canada. I mean, who would fund the thing? Who would organize the thing? Whose interests would it serve?

      Nah, I’m talking about the states, which is a vastly different situation.

      • …so true…and as you are aware Molson Coors is playing in the craft style area in the US. Actually Pete Coors works on some pretty interesting brews with the team over in Colorado. Might be neat to take a peek in that tent some day…cheers to the season @MolsonFerg

  5. I think a lot of the freaking out from the brewers association comes from the fact that the large brewers are making better tasting products all the time. I mean in years past it was easy to tell craft beer from the products of big brewers. Craft beer was beer was flavourful and beer from the big guys was stuff like Coors light. But now the big guys are figuring out that the only way to compete with the craft guys is to make better products (things like microcarbonated beer, or 30 sided cans isn’t going to cut it). So the Brewers association is trying to get ahead of this. I mean right now most of what the big guys are doing is buying up smaller companies. But what happens when they start making more flavourful beers in their own right? I mean how much would it screw up the craft market if A-B could make a decent pale ale (say something almost as good as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) and put it in every grocery store in the US at a price point that was significantly cheaper than SNPA? I mean if you can’t differentiate yourself by the quality of your product I suppose the next best thing is to make up some sort of rules so that your product is “authentic” craft and the other product isn’t.

  6. liam mckenna on February 11, 2013 at 12:42 pm said:

    Until craft brewers define themselves by something meaningful, like process or ingredients, the term, in reference to beer, will be hollowed out completely.

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