Barley Mowat 

Craft vs Crafty

with 5 comments

A lot of attention has been paid recently to the ongoing debate between “true” Craft Breweries and the big macros creating a shadow brand and marketing it as craft. The US-based Brewers Association (BA) is responsible for the latest salvo in the ongoing debate, recently issuing a press release on the topic as well as a rather blunt list of breweries they consider non-craft.

Before we start pointing fingers at non-Craft Brewers and saying all sorts of libellous things about them, we should first try and figure out what, exactly, a Craft Brewery is. For this purpose, we’ll borrow the Brewer’s Association’s own definition (see it here) because there is no accepted definition of the term in Canada.

Craft Breweries, according to the BA, have to meet three criteria, and I have issues with all of them. Read on:

1. Small
This is defined as an annual production of less than six million barrels, which is 7,200,000hl in non-yankee speak. Nothing about this volume is “small”–in fact, a brewery that makes 7,200,000hl would be colossal by pretty much any standard. OK Spring, BC’s biggest brewery by production, makes ~360,000hl across all their brands, for instance. Only the truest giantest macro breweries would produce more, and that’s what this number is all about.

As well, it has to be noted that this number keeps changing and growing as the former “small” breweries raise their production. Before “Craft Beer” was a broadly used marketing term, you’d hear about “Microbreweries” but that term became harder and harder to justify as these former small producers started brewing beer by the mega-barrel. Hence how we now have “Craft Beer” and it’s ever escalating production cap.

If this trick sounds familiar, it should.

2. Independent

Your craft brewery must not be more than 25% owned by an entity that, itself, is not a craft brewery (however if they are a craft brewery, bring it on!). So I guess selling out is okay, just not to The Man? No mention is given to banks, which likely hold the largest stake in all operating breweries. In the end, it doesn’t matter how great your beer is so long as the guy paying the bills makes macro beer (or his boss does, or that guys’ boss’ boss, etc, all the way up).

This requirement is the subject of the latest battle in the War on Macro Beer. It turns out the majors have been creating shadow brands and selling beer under those brands. The beer isn’t great, but it sure isn’t macro swill. Should Coors have to say they brewed Blue Moon on the bottle? I’m split on this, as the issue is more complex than you’d think. Does GIB have to say “brewed by Molson” on their main beers? Maybe. What about on Vern’s micro-produced one-offs, brewed by Vern on his tiny 10hl brewkit, which is about as micro as mirco gets? See? Not so easy to figure out, and I sure don’t have an answer. In the end, though, shadow branding and contract brewing upset me far less than bad beer.

3. Traditional

Your flagship beer (the one you sell the most of) must be an all malt beer, or a beer that only uses non-malt adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavour. If this seems a bit convoluted to you, you’re with me. Basically this rule exists to rule out breweries selling lots of corn-augmented Pale Lager, but they had to modify it a bit to allow for fruit beers becoming popular.

So where does all this leave us? Basically all three rules are structured in such a way as to effectively say “you’re craft beer if your name isn’t SABMiller, Sapporo, MolsonCoors, or Anheuser-Busch InBev” (and a few others). Why they didn’t save us a bunch of time and just list those companies by name and call it a day, I’ll never know.

But they didn’t, and now we’re stuck with three rules that are harder to apply than they might seem. Think about this:

1. Small: Let’s say that Lighthouse’s Small Brewery, Big Flavour series becomes wildly successful, and everyone across the country just keeps buying it, but the second they brew the 6,000,001st barrel it should be shunned by geeks? Why?

Shut ‘er down, Dean, the third from the right is now shit.

2. Independent: You’re Goose Island. AB-InBev buys you (this isn’t hypothetical). I guess your (previously excellent) beer is now awful?

3. Traditional: You’re making a nice, light, refreshing wheat ale that’s well balanced and very popular. Sorry, you’re not craft because you’re using wheat for it’s crisp lightness.

It seems to me that all this is just dancing around the core issue: Good Beer versus Bad Beer. It’s possible to meet every single one of those criteria and still produce a macro-esque swill that will make Coors Light seem full bodied and complex by comparison, and it’s just as equally possible to miss on all three marks and make a lineup of amazing beers (and 1 pale lager made with corn).

Personally, I don’t care who made this excellent ale in front of me; all I care about is the fact that it’s excellent, and perhaps I might also be concerned about where I might find another. If it was made locally by someone I can go thank personally for making good beer, then that has a certain nice appeal to it, but if it was made in a giant vat by Molson I might be surprised, but I won’t suddenly like it less.

Let’s worry about the beer, and not who makes it. Yes, that might lead us to a world where the big macro producers are making barley wines and call them “Craft Beer” but you know what, they’d be right to do so. “Craft Beer” as defined by the terms above is an entirely artificial concept. If we take it by the more popular definition of “Good Beer” then why can’t Molson also play this game? If the macros have to resort to producing “Good Beer” to stay in business, then that’s the kind of world I want to live in.

Written by chuck

December 19th, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Posted in Beer and You

5 Responses to 'Craft vs Crafty'

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  1. If AB-InBev brewed the greatest beer in the world, I’d drink it.


    19 Dec 12 at 16:52

  2. In the case of GI and the like, I’d like to see the on the label “Brewed at Granville Island Brewery or associated breweries”, as is the case where I’m from. People who care can then then find out more themselves. I would also love to see Navigator Dopplebock outsell Molson Canadian, and if that makes me macro, I’ll wear that parrot on my shoulder with pride.


    19 Dec 12 at 20:20

  3. I think some people are opposed to big business. That’s a totally separate issue from being opposed to bad beer.

    What we’ve seen in the past, however, is that big breweries run by marketing departments and cost accountants, frequently make decisions that lead to bland, bad beer. The fatal coincidence was that corn, rice or other adjuncts are cheap (thus pleasing the accountants) and they lighten the body and flavour of a beer. The entire industry chased the lowest common denominator of flavour: the more flavourless a beer was, the less there was for people to object to.

    If AB-InBev could produce a wildly diverse and creative variety of flavourful beers, they could replace the craft beer industry. Alas, their fermentors are too big. Their economies of scale require them to produce too much of a beer to make interesting, niche products. They’re forced by their enormity to dumb down the beer and go for the lowest common denominator.

    That’s not to say they can’t make interesting beer. They just won’t because not enough people will drink it.

    Ben Coli

    20 Dec 12 at 09:23

  4. @Ben – We have a winner! I should really just post links to other articles and wait for you to comment. It would make running this blog easier.

    What we’re currently seeing in the macro industry is their reaction to the slow bleed out that’s happening with their flagship lines. Molson is losing ~20% per year in BC (granted, to OK Spring and PacWest mostly, but still losing). Other markets aren’t as advanced, but they’re catching up.

    The result is the creation of smaller sized shadow brands like Blue Moon, which are marketed separately from the main brand so they won’t cannibalize already slumping sales. The goal here is to catch some of this bleed out without encouraging more.

    I have no real issues with that approach, as they’re just reacting to the markets wanting more quality and variety. Blue Moon (and the rest) is not great beer, but it minimally shows that the big players are noticing. They’ll get smarter and better from here on out.

    I suspect we’ll begin to see the majors creating smaller, regional spin-offs/divisions to compete in “craft beer,” but that just means they’ll effectively have *become* craft, and that’s all right by me.


    20 Dec 12 at 09:34

  5. […] Guess what? It worked. It worked so well, in fact, that the micro-breweries grew so large that the term “micro” was a fairly laughable misnomer for them. Therefore a new term was needed, and now we have Craft Beer. Only the USA has an official definition of craft beer (and one that seemingly constantly shifts to avoid including anything brewed by the big guys); Canada has no official designation but coloquially it means “sorta good.” You can read more after changing Craft Beer designations here. […]

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