25 June 2014

The post titled "So what is craft?" or "It is craft; so what?"

My friend Christine Johnson recently tagged me in a Facebook post.  She had just finished reading an article from Advertising Age that discussed television ads and craft breweries.  The article mentioned TV ads from Boston Beer and New Belgium.  Christine asked the question, “We’re still calling New Belgium and (Sam Adams) ‘craft’ beer? Really?”

The term “craft beer” is confusing for many beer drinkers, both professional and amateur.  So let’s clear things up.

The first thing to understand is who defines "craft".  The Brewers Association is a 501(c)(6) organization; it is a business league that represents small and independent American brewers.  As of December 2013, around 3,000 breweries were members of the Brewers Association, including 49 of the 50 largest craft breweries (I believe that August Schell Brewing in Minnesota is the non-member; more on that in a second).  As the primary representative organization of “craft brewers”, membership votes to define the term “craft brewery.”

The three requirements of a “craft brewery” are: small, independent, and traditional. 

So what is traditional? 

A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.

That is the current Brewers Association description of “tradition”.  It used to be that “traditional” excluded adjunct brewing.  Adjuncts are unmalted grains that can be used to add specific qualities to a beer, but it is frequently used to cut costs.  But in March 2014, it was decided to allow adjunct brewing as part of traditional.  The use of non-malted ingredients in brewing has been around for a long time and the Brewers Association did not want to penalize craft breweries that wanted to brew recipes that required adjuncts.  

When this change was made, several breweries were brought into the Brewers Association fold.  The biggest brewery that now meets the “craft brewery” definition is D. G. Yuengling and Sons, a prominent east-coast brewery.  In 2012, the Brewers Association made headlines when it released a list of breweries that did not meet the definition of craft; the phrase “craft vs. crafty” was frequently used.  But with the new definition, Yuengling is now a craft brewery.

Another brewery that now meets the craft brewery definition established by the Brewers Association because of the change in definition is August Schell Brewing Company.  When the “craft vs. crafty” list came out, August Schell was the most vocal in expressing displeasure with the Brewers Association.  So it is not a surprise that, despite meeting the definition of a craft brewery, August Schell is not found on the Brewers Association roster of member breweries.

So what is independent?

“Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.”

This definition means that a larger brewery (like InBev Anheuser-Busch and Miller Coors) or a spirit producer owns 25% or more of a brewery, it cannot be a craft brewery according to the Brewers Association.  It means that a beer produced by a non-craft brewery, no matter the size of batches or the ingredients, is not a craft beer.  It also means that if a craft brewery sells a large enough business interest to a non-craft brewery, it is no longer a craft brewery.  A well known example is Goose Island which was partially owned, and is now wholly owned, by Anheuser-Busch.  Goose Island is well known for the production of Belgian-style and barrel-aged beers.  But Goose Island is no longer a craft brewery.

So what is small?

“Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorship.”

The Brewers Association raised the limit from 2 million barrels to 6 million barrels in 2010.  The reason they provided was that they did not want to punish the success of craft breweries.  The increase in the limit allows Boston Beer Company, the producer of Sam Adams, to remain a craft brewery.  Despite the increase in the limit, 6 million barrels of beer per year is still only 3 percent of beer sales in the United States.

So what?

What this means to the beer drinker will vary.  Some drinkers are all about drinking local, though it should be pointed out that the majority of malted barley and hops come from the same companies that supply non-local breweries, both craft and non-craft. 

Some drinkers will say that they are all about quality, though it should be pointed out that Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors have incredibly large and thorough quality control and assurance groups in their companies.  It is difficult to produce the same beer over and over.  And over.

Some drinkers only drink “microbrews” or other small batch productions.  But as my friend Christine points out, breweries like Boston Beer has multiple, large breweries.  Comparing the size of a Boston Beer Company brewery to Indiana’s largest breweries, like Three Floyds, Sun King, and Upland, is like comparing a horse to a mouse.  Other craft breweries like Sierra Nevada, Stone, Lagunitas, and New Belgium are constructing or planning additional breweries to meet nationwide demand.  Also consider brewpub chains like Ram and Rock Bottom who have multiple small breweries across the country.

The reality is that the definitions and descriptions for a brewery are subject to change.  The Brewers Association has changed its definition for a craft brewery on multiple occasions.  Even the State of Indiana changes the definition of a “small brewer” from time to time.  This makes the discussion of things like craft, small, artisanal, and quality difficult.

And maybe, as consumers, that is okay.  A person may show preference to a brewery based on size or location, but in the end, the reason for repeat purchases is completely subjective: they buy the beer because they like the beer.  There are many ways to differentiate between beers brewed by Ted Miller and beers brewed by Miller Brewing Company, but definitions mean very little to the consumer that likes those beers.

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