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The Craft Debate: The Brewers Association Weighs In

ba logoYesterday the U.S. Brewers Association released a statement, entitled Craft vs. Crafty, outlining its position on craft beer and the incursions into craft by the multinational corporate brewers (which you can read in full here). A couple of key things arise from it that are worth noting here.

First, they express their concern about the proliferation of craft-like products from the big brewers. They specifically single out Blue Moon and Shock Top. They accuse the big boys of “deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers”.

This leads to the need for them to state clearly their definition of craft beer: “it’s important to remember that if a large brewer has a controlling share of a smaller producing brewery, the brewer is, by definition, not craft.”

Finally, they take the additional step of calling for honesty in labeling.  “We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking”.

I pondered the statement all day, trying to decide what I thought about it. For what it’s worth, this is what I have come up with: Their statement, while well-intentioned, serves only to muddy the waters of the craft debate, rather than resolve it. There are two concerns here. First, they link craft to ownership, which (as I discuss here and here and other places) is highly problematic. How does a beer go from craft to non-craft simply because the brewery is sold? I won’t repeat my argument, but will simply point to Unibroue as Exhibit A.

Second – and this is the more troubling aspect – their definition completely separates the notion of craft from issues of quality, process or ingredients. By the BA’s definition Minhas or Moosehead is  a craft beer while Creemore or Unibroue are not. That seems backward to me.

I appreciate that they have a large and diverse membership, some of whom make crappy beer and others who make among the best in the world. Hence their hedging. But still, it makes the whole exercise seem self-interested and the BA to appear just as disingenuous as the big boys they are criticizing. Shock Top is bad (well, okay it is) but some cheapo adjunct-laden discount beer that happens to be owned by one guy is good?

I am all on-board with their call for transparency in labeling. I have long argued that integrity in marketing and production is what demarcates real craft beer. I would love to find a way to make the big boys own up to their faux-craft lines. But I also want to make so-called independent breweries do the same thing.

Finally, I can’t help but chuckle at how the BA goes on and on about the importance of “small, independent” breweries, and then they remind us that they define small as “6 million barrels of beer or less”. Hello?? That is the combined capacity of all of Canada’s craft brewers, for God’s sake (okay probably not – I haven’t done the math – but it is scarily closer than you might think). I continue to love Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada beer, but there is no bloody way you will ever convince me that they continue to be small breweries.

The issue of faux-craft beer is a serious one, as it undermines the growth and reputation of legitimate craft beer. But we need more than self-serving press releases from the largest craft beer organization on the planet if we are to do something about it. The route, in my mind, is more consumer education and, occasionally, unrelenting mockery of beer that pretend to have real craft credentials (*cough* Shock Top *cough*).

How are you going to help in that fight, good folks over at BA?

12 comments to The Craft Debate: The Brewers Association Weighs In

  • Jason your obsession with this topic baffles me your starting to sound like this guy. This was meant in fun please take it as such.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZbE8ebQdwE&playnext=1&list=PL4D34B4E56F043A99&feature=results_main

    There is good beer and bad beer can’t we just leave it at that.

  • Great video Hoser, thanks!

    That BA press release was utter bull.

    And like Hoser says, there is good beer and bad beer. Perfect.

  • Chase

    … in the basement of a nanobrewery in portland.

    good god.

  • Graham

    It might be that associating ‘craft’ with quality is wishful thinking. Quality, process, and ingredients are important, true, but maybe that means a single brewery can produce both ‘craft’ and ‘non-craft’ beer simultaneously? A local example: does the use of syrups in Aprikat and some of the Sherbrooke contract beers mean that Alley Kat sometimes produces non-craft adjunct beer because it could be better or more natural? A beer made with real apricots would be nice but I’m sure is impractical and far less profitable.
    Smaller, independent breweries can produce inconsistent, flawed, or underwhelming beers that I would not call ‘quality’ products, but do they still get a pass because it is a smaller amount produced? Maybe it’s more about the ‘craftsmanship’ involved, regardless of size. Drop in Wine and Beyond and check out their ‘Craft’ and ‘Premium’ aisles for an example of the cluelessness on display regarding this issue.
    Looking forward to your summary of the issue if one is possible Mr. Foster.

  • Graham

    That was a poorly formed argument. I think what I am saying is ‘craft’ is a term that has been twisted and no longer holds the same significance it once had…like ‘hipster’, ‘geek’ or ‘fiscal conservative’.

  • Don

    Jason,

    I appreciate your thoughts on this topic and am for full disclosure of who owns the breweries but I think it’s ultimately the end product that determine whether it is craft or not. The same should be in effect for some restaurant/pubs “house brews” to disclose the brewer. Guests are mislead to believe that these places actually brew their own offerings or that they are unique when, in fact, quite a few are rebrands or blends of existing products.

    • beerguy

      Don, that is a good point. There is a big difference between slapping a cute name or label on a beer and actually going through the process of making your own. Nothing wrong with “house beer”, but it should be transparent who made it.

  • There’s a relevant article in the most recent issue of TAPS that touches on the size vs. quality issue. The online version is for subscribers only, unfortunately, so I can’t link to it, but if you happen to pick up a copy of the magazine it’s worth a read. It hits many of the same notes that you do, Jason.

    • beerguy

      Yeah, I read it (I am a subscriber and occasional contributor). It is from Stephen Beaumont, one of the most experienced, smartest beer writers around. I agree with most of what he says. In short he points to White Shield, Granville and Creemore of examples of how corporate ownership has either had no effect or a positive effect on the beer. And he is certainly correct. While I am not as quick to duck the ownership issue (it does matter, even if only where my consumer dollars go – and I will always try to privilege local, independent ownership on that front), he is right that it isn’t the defining criterion. thanks for highlighting it.

      Jason

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