In December last year, The Brewers Association (to be referred to as BA) released a statement discussing the “increase in production and promotion of craft-like beers by large, non-craft breweries”. The Association has done tremendous good in facilitating craft breweries to become financially viable and in driving the culture shift towards a high quality malt beverage. Each year they host the single most important craft beer event in America, the Great American Beer Festival. They lobby state and federal governments to allow small budget breweries to sell beer on more equal footing with enormous international conglomerates.
They wanted to explain to the general public that beers such as Blue Moon (Molson Coors), Leinenkugel (SABMiller) and Shock Top (ABInbev) are being disingenuously presented as “craft beers” while being wholely or partly owned by large macro-breweries. They claim that craft beers are by definition:
Small - produce six million barrels or less per year
Independent - Be owned 25% or less by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is themselves a craft brewer
Traditional - Must have an all malt flagship or have at least 50% of volume in all malt beers or beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor,
However, BA is has adjusted their definition of craft beer over the years to allow certain breweries to continue to be a part of their organization. In 2011 they increased their production quotas from two million to six million to allow for the growth of Sam Adams (whose owner is a member of the BA Board of Directors). At the time, the next largest craft brewery was only at 800,000 barrels per year. They have also discounted the volume of Boston Beer’s malternative line, Twisted Tea, to remain within this threshold. Further, the parent company of Sam Adams, Boston Beer Co., is a publicly traded company. The natural question then arises as to what constitutes “independent”. The BA questions the motives of large breweries because the brewers are not in absolute control of the decision making process. That being said, Sam Adams is without a doubt a craft brewery. I only bring this up to analyze the position the BA has taken.
There also arises confusion with breweries such as 152 year old August Schell using a “traditional” recipe August brewed and sold in Germany before emigrating to America. The high quality 2-row barley he was accustomed to was not native to America, so here he chose to use 6-row barley which has a much higher protein content. To make a stable, clear lager he had to substitute corn for a portion of the barley and eliminate some of the protein. This addition of corn has resulted in the BA denying the August Schell Brewing Company as a craft brewery. This is despite having won numerous medals at the BA’s own Great American Beer Festival.
Locally owned, Narragansett makes a lager and a light beer which include corn in their recipes, yet also make award winning seasonal releases. They are not considered a craft brewery.
There are also quite a few breweries owned by larger companies which maintain separate production and seperate sales forces. Goose Island (ABI), Kona/Redhook/Widmer (Craft Brew Alliance; partly owned by ABI), and Magic Hat/Pyramid/McTarnahans (North American Breweries) are all owned by breweries that are considered macro. Each of these breweries produces at least one, if not many, high-level delicious beers that represent what craft beers stand for: a full flavored beer using the highest quality ingredients and techniques focused solely on providing the best final product by for the consumer as possible.
The argument presented by BA implies that beer cannot be produced with care and dedication to excellence by a large brewery. They also claim that the large breweries are focused on moving into the the craft arena to make more money. There is not a single brewery in America that has founded without the goal of being able to in some way produce profits. Whether those profits are meant to subsidize the purchase of newer/better equipment, create a salary for the owner so they can dedicate their entire time to their passions, or supply thousands of salaries for people across the globe is irrelevent. They wanted to make a profit. Otherwise they would make beer and give it away.
Breweries and brands such as Blue Moon, Third Shift, Leinenkugel and Shock Top may not be your favorite beer, but they serve a huge role in the life cycle of craft beer drinkers that the BA is overlooking. They help transition new customers to realize that there are better beers out there. If you gave a lifelong Bud Light drinker a Stone Ruination as their first craft beer, you would never be able to convince that person to ever try another craft beer in their life. Bourbon barrel aged imperial stouts at 15% ABV can be phenomenal. But not for someone used to drinking Miller High Life. And don’t even get me started on sour beers! As with everything in life, there needs to be a progession. These “crafty” beers that the BA complains are stealing market share from “true “ craft beer are in fact helping to bring that light lager drinker a little closer to loving a wonderful Rauchbeir.
There are also price constraints that most of America operates within. To exclude a consumer who would like to drink better beer because he cannot afford the $16.99 12 pack or $11.99 6 pack of high level craft is elitist and exclusionary. The “crafty” beers are generally less expensive than what the BA considers true craft. We should be happy that the macro breweries are realizing that beer needs to taste better. They are also able to produce them, as introduction brands, at a price point that allows a large percentage of the population to experiment with more full flavored beers. I would love to drive a Ferrari but will probably never be able to afford one. If I buy a BMW, is that still not a luxury car?
As long as I can remember, craft brewers have complained that the macro brewers have gone to great lenghts to limit craft beer’s participation and distribution on-premise and at package stores. However, this press release sounds very much like a group of people try to exclude a new group of brewers from being able to participate in the craft beer playground.
I ask that when we read statements from the BA, we keep in mind that their mission is not to create a stronger beer culture for beer consumers with better beer widely available to more consumers, but is instead to protect their members, the craft breweries.