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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Fresh Buzz

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2007 Buzz

Feb. '07: Intro to Blog

Jan. '07: Best of 2006

2006 Buzz

Dec. '06: 10 Predictions

Nov. '06: Cold November Rain

Oct. '06: Just Because You Can

Sept. '06: It's Worth It

August '06: Messin' With Us

July '06: Break the Chains

June '06: Viva El Hefe!

May '06: Just Like Wine

Apr. '06: Mixed Messages

Mar. '06: We Print the Truth

Feb. '06: The Fairer Sex

Jan. '06: Best of 2005

2005 Buzz

Dec. '05: Look at Me Drink!

Nov. '05: Malt Monsters

Oct. '05: Sweetness

Sep. '05: When to Fold

Aug. '05: Little Nightmares

July '05: American Spirit

June '05: Miller Time 

May. '05: Breathing Beer 

April '05: Now It's Personal

Mar. '05: 7% Ain't Enough

Feb. '05: Down to 18 

Jan. '05: Best of 2004 

2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

Nov. '04: The Next Store 

Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes

 

March, 2007

Defined, or Divided?

I recently mentioned to someone that one of the things that I thought made my beer writing worthwhile to read was my longer perspective on things. I've been drinking beer out of the mainstream since 1981. I lived in California in the 1980s and visited Sierra Nevada when they were still in a steel building in an industrial park. (I had my first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on August 4, 1987 in a deli in Tahoe City, California; it was lunch, and I had a corned beef special with it. Hey, some people remember where they were when JFK was shot.) I've been writing about beer since 1993, full-time since 1995. I'm not bragging, it's just that I've seen more stuff happen over a longer period than a lot of the folks who are posting on websites. I've even seen more of it than a lot of brewers. Call it the long view.

I also have the luxury of a different perspective, one from outside the industry. There's an "in the trenches" mentality that sometimes focuses brewers' attention on the stuff right in front of them, things that seem very important because they're right there. Viewed from farther away, they are seen as small issues that happen to be close up. Call it the distant view.

Something's going on right now that sure looks a lot different from my two points of view. The Brewers Association has re-defined craft-brewing. I'll give you the whole thing, from the BA website (emphasis added, and for the rest of this Buzz, "BA" refers to the Brewers Association, not BeerAdvocate, unless I say otherwise):

The definition of craft beer as stated by the Brewers Association: An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional. Craft beer comes only from a craft brewer. Small = annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purposes of this definition.

Independent = Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer. Traditional = A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

Wow. That's got the brewing savages leaping around the fire, shaking their spears and shouting "BOOYAH!! CRAFT BREWERS GOT BALLS!! Yeah, brother, we're small! We're independent! We're traditional! And any sell-out swill brewer who isn't, CAN'T BE IN OUR CLUB!! YAAAH!!!"

Big deal. First off, trying to pass this off as a new or better definition of craft beer is about as disingenuous as Rogue saying they don't engage in marketing. Puhleeze. This is not about beer. You'll notice that this "definition of craft beer" starts with a definition of a craft brewer. This is about business, the bugaboo in all the impassioned discussions about craft brewing, microbrewing, homebrewing, megabrewing, every-damned-type-of-brewing. Don't fool yourself: the Brewers Association is a business association, and this is about business.

Which is fine. Small brewers need a business association, and if they have one, it should look out for their business interests. It's not much good if it doesn't, eh? But I say that if they put this out there as if they were speaking for the whole movement, instead of just the industry, they should be called on it.

The folks who don't understand what I'm talking about are the same folks who won't drink Redhook because they're sure that Anheuser-Busch has polluted Redhook -- oh, sorry, Budhook is what we're supposed to call it. Redhook, Widmer, Leinenkugel: these breweries aren't real craft breweries, they've sold out. (Leinie wasn't ever a real craft brewer anyway, of course: they brewed lagers that Grand-dad drank.)

That's why I hope some of those guys are Goose Island drinkers in Chicagoland. You thought you were a craft beer drinker, you drank local, fresh beer. Hell, you went to Goose Island every week for dinner and a handful of pints! Sorry, pal: you're a filthy swill-sucker. You haven't changed your beer, your beer hasn't changed, the folks who brew it haven't changed. All that happened was business. Less than half of Goose Island was sold to another small brewer -- Widmer -- who in turn is no longer a "craft brewer" because it is less than half-owned by A-B.

Wow. A-B is amazing. They own less than half of the business that owns less than half of Goose Island, but they've got John and Greg Hall goose-stepping to the Long Distance Mega-Beer Barrels Polka. Goose Island is no longer a craft brewer because of a twice-removed business connection to the big hairy BoogeyMan of Brewing. That's incredible.

Actually, that's bullshit. I'm going to Chicago next month for WhiskyFest. Greg Hall's speaking, as a matter of fact, and he's bringing beers, just like he did last year. And his beers are going to taste great, and different from the mainstream, just like they did last year. Goose Island is no longer a craft brewer? Pull the other one, it's got bells on.

That's how I feel about the whole "independent" thing. Might as well knock 'em all down. How about "small"? This is something I've always had a problem with. "Craft brewer" is obviously a title with some cachet, that a brewer of that ilk would want to keep. Time was, all these guys were microbrewers, and there were actually laws passed that defined that, often at 15,000 bbls. annual production or less. 

People quoted those laws like gospel: if it's under 15,000 bbls., it's a microbrewery. Sierra Nevada went over early, so did Anchor. So...the people didn't change, the beer didn't change, the passion didn't change...they're no longer allowed to call themselves a microbrewery because they were successful? Stupid, artificial limit. 

A limit on "craft" brewing of "small" as under 2 million bbls. a year is no less stupid or artificial, it's just higher. Does anyone doubt that Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, or maybe Boulevard will go over 2 million bbls. eventually? I don't. Does anyone believe their beer will be significantly different -- significantly lesser -- than it is now? I don't. But they'll no longer be craft brewers? Ridiculous.

Moving right along...  How about "traditional"? Well, the "all malt" provision is a non-starter. Despite all the hot air and buffalo snort about the Reinheitsgebot and how much all-malt is better always always always (stamp on the ground and hold your breath till you turn blue), brewers today are mature enough to acknowledge that there are brewing adjuncts that can help in the production of some styles of beer. Sugar in Belgian styles, for instance, or honey, or even corn in some styles. 

But to be a "craft brewer" you still have to kiss the all malt totem, or its slippery corollary, "

What's it all about? Well, some of you may think I think that Ashton Lewis is an idiot. I don't. Ashton is a bright and thoughtful guy who is a frequent contributor to the BA Forum, and I enjoy his writing. I just didn't happen to agree with him about negative beer reviews. I did agree with his latest post to the Forum. Here are some pertinent excerpts: 

It seems it would have been easier to simply say that a craft brewer is any American brewer, EXCEPT AB, Miller or Coors.  OK, OK, this is an exaggeration! The definition presented yesterday does exclude more US breweries than 3 from the list, but not too many.

According to the new definition of craft beer a great beer like Duvel is not a craft beer.

If I were one of the brewers excluded by this definition I might take offense to the negative connotation attached to certain ingredients and the implication that I don't use traditional practices.  This could lead to nastiness.

And that's where I really agree with Ashton, and hail him for having the guts and perception to state it. From that long view, I remember a bunch of Oregon brewers who joined A-B in a lawsuit against Boston Beer back in 1996...and who, a year later, withdrew from the suit because, in the words of Deschutes Brewing founder Gary Fish, "The petition has been used to create acrimony and disharmony in the craft brewing industry." 

Does anyone doubt that this new definition of "craft brewing" will have the same effect? 

So what drove its conception? That's where the other different perspective comes in. I'm afraid the craft brewers see Goose Island, and Old Dominion, and Widmer, and the new A-B "craft-type" beers, and they're circling the wagons. The true believers are getting ready to test you to see if you're staunch craft brewers, rock-ribbed and sufficiently orthodox to wear the name proudly. 

Guys: it's just not that big a deal. I'm not saying brewers shouldn't be concerned about this. Big brewers have the wholesaler clout to make real problems for you. Big brewers have the chain restaurant and supermarket to make real problems for you. But you are not going to make it better by turning on each other and going all craftier than thou. That's one step away from Beer McCarthyism. 

I'm all for going true believer. But dammit, folks, what is this about? I would say -- and have, over and over -- that it has never really been about the size of the brewery, or who owned the brewery, or how the beer was made. It's about the beer. And the people we truly want to reach, and the ones who continue to join that group through education (education that I deeply believe and participate in), are the ones who know that. One more quote from Ashton's Forum post shows that this guy, who is the brewmaster at a brewery that makes under 5,000 bbls. a year, clearly gets it.

To the true craft consumer, a craft-made product, be it beer, wine, cheese, bread, or clothing, is evident upon evaluation.  If the producer of a fine craft product is fortunate enough to become successful and spread their wares across the globe why should their size matter?

It's about the beer. It is not about the brewery, and that is the fatal flaw in this definition of craft beer. It does not put the beer first. Read it again: "The definition of craft beer as stated by the Brewers Association: An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional. Craft beer comes only from a craft brewer." Why doesn't the beer come first? 

Stay staunch. Brew good beer. Don't forget or abandon tradition, but in the spirit of American brewing, don't be bound by it, either. And that includes microbrewing tradition. Not many brewers use a kayak paddle to stir the mash these days, but back in the 1980s, if you didn't have a wooden paddle in the brewhouse, you were suspect. We got past that. We can get past this. Stay staunch.

Now...am I not concerned by the advent of large breweries nosing their way into the craft market, no matter how good their beers are? Of course I am. But I need something to write about next month.

 

 
Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: April 02, 2007