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Can Big Be Craft? Can Corporate be Craft?

beer101logoI was challenged the other day by a representative of a unnamed brewing corporation. They claimed that my columns were biased against the big brewers and that I was providing distorted and misleading information about them. Specifically they took offense at how I frame some of their so-called craft-y or pseudo-craft offerings. As it turns out their claims of my factual distortions were more about hair-splitting and word nuances than actual, you know, factual problems. But the crux of their critique was not the details of the facts but my criticisms of how they conduct their business at times.

My primary response is simply that I am tasked in my columns (and choose to here at onbeer.org) with offering knowledgeable opinion about all matters beer and that is exactly what I do. Whether the subjects of my views are pleased with what I say is a different matter altogether. I endeavour to be even-handed, open and fair, but that is not the same as refusing to take a stand. I have and always will take a position on a matter of importance to craft beer.

I find the timing of the critique quite fortuitous actually, as it came just a few days before my latest Beer 101 column was published (you can find that column here). The column, which was actually penned well before said criticism came my way, emerges from the recent spate of corporate buy-outs of independent craft breweries – Mill Street being the latest Canadian example. It uses these mergers as a springboard to discuss the question of whether size matters in terms of craft beer.

The main focus of the piece is actually not the corporate brewers but the independent craft breweries that have grown quite large – the Sierra Nevadas, Samuel Adams and New Belgiums of the world. Here in Canada we might include Big Rock, Steam Whistle, and/or McAuslan on that list. Can a brewery become too big to be considered a craft brewer?

Many answer yes. Others disagree. It is an age-old argument that will likely never be fully resolved.

Similarly what are we to do with craft breweries gobbled up by the corporate brewers? Do we strip them of their craft credentials because the profits now flow to a corporate HQ somewhere in the world (usually not Canada, by the way)? Are Goose Island, Elysian, Lagunitas and so on sell-outs? Similarly should we be besmirching Unibroue, Mill Street, Granville Island and Creemore Springs?

My answer to both sets of questions is clear – and familiar to regular readers of this site. How we view the status of the corporatized breweries and the over-sized independent breweries should be determined exclusively by their approach to the beer. For me craft beer is not a category or a label. It is an approach to brewing, one that elevates quality and craftmanship in the beer and demands integrity, honestly and openness in marketing and sales. Craft beer is a principle.

Which makes the task of determining what is craft deceptively easy. Size doesn’t matter. Ownership doesn’t matter. It is what in the bottle/can that counts. Obviously we will all reach different conclusions about specific breweries, but at least that is a debate grounded in agreed-upon assumptions.

The column also highlights – for me anyway – the flaw in the logic of the corporate representative who chastized me. They interpreted my critiques as a criticism of the big brewers. Actually they are a criticism of practices that violate craft beer principles. Don’t engage in those practices and you won’t be criticized.

 

4 comments to Can Big Be Craft? Can Corporate be Craft?

  • Chad

    I never hear of big corporate beer companies working to support and promote the community, integrity, artistry, and entrepreneurship that the craft brewers of Alberta do as a matter of course. Alberta brewers are awesome people… people you can actually meet and talk to at any number of beer events that are happening all the time all over Alberta. I have never met a brewer from Molson or Labatt… maybe their circuits lack speech capability or the power cord isn’t long enough to reach outside the beer factory.

  • Mark

    Yep, if you cant see it, touch it, feel it, it aint craft.

    Corporate beer does not automatically equal bad beer or evil beer. But I cant think of any mega corp that actually acts like a craft brewer, or treats their craft beer “portfolio” as anything more than a cute oddity and a pawn to mainstain shelf/tap space.

  • Old Coyote

    Hopefully the big guys will learn, large corporations are always really slow with changes. I actually had a really positive experience with a gentleman who was touring the Mill Street airport brewpub shortly after the announced takeover. I had a couple of hours to waste between flights and was drinking an unfiltered IPA (new at the time draft product). I had a motorcycle t-shirt on from the Beartooth pass and this guy in a suit, being followed by 4 other people stopped and asked if I had ridden the Beartooth – we chatted about bikes for a bit and then he asked about my taste in beer and was very interested in my replies (not just polite but truly interested). I gave my honest opinions and mentioned that Coffee Porter should not be a seasonal as that and the IPA I was drinking were the two best Mill St. products. He turned and checked with the others behind him and asked the bartender about what I was saying, a very positive experience. Later the bartender told me that the fellow I was talking to was the new big boss from corporate USA. I think they can make fine beer eventually.

  • The term I use loosely around whether something is “Craft” or not is “Good Beer People.” You can take that however you want – Good people who make beer, or people who make good beer. I prefer it to be both. I usually find that the sort of people who make the beer I like to drink are also the sort of people I like to get to know.

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