Given the many acquisitions and mergers, 2015 was quite a turbulent year in the American beer industry. Consequently, there’s been a few posts and ensuing threads out there on several Social Media groups discussing whether the term “craft” beer still means anything.
Personally, I don’t think it ever has and I’ve never liked the term for two main reasons
The definition of “craft brewer” changes too much
The Brewers Association is the de facto standard bearer for “craft beer” in the beer industry. It’s main purpose is “To promote and protect American craft brewers, their beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts.” They have set a definition for what constitutes a “craft” brewer. However, one has to remember that in 2011, when Boston Beer Company came close to exceeding the original 2 million barrel cap, the limit was revised to 6,000,000 million barrels. Triple the original cap. In addition, in 2014, it revised the definition to allow a wider use of so called adjuncts in the brewing process, which previously would have kept long standing American brewers like Yeungling, who traditionally added corn to the mash, out of the fold.
So basically, the one organization who defines what a “craft brewery” is, changes the defition regularly to either keep companies in the fold, regardless how big they get, or to allow companies that should have been regarded as craft brewers for years to join the club. I understand definitions change based on the current industry, but especially the size limitation is one that made me wonder where the limit it. Will they revise it again if Boston Beer Company gets close to the 6 million ? Those are arbitrary changes that have nothing to do with the quality, craftsmanship or artisan nature of the beer produced.
Please don’t misconstrue the criticism here. I wholeheartedly support the Brewers Association, I love what they do for the beer industry. I just have concerns around the definition of a “craft” brewer.
How does one identify a “craft” product ?
Does “craft” intrinsically mean it’s different ? Or better ? Can you distinguish one “craft” brewer from another purely based on their product ? It’s an observation I made many years ago when I first moved here and I even asked the question to two Belgian head brewers of fairly large “craft” brewers:
“Why does every American brewer want to make all styles of beer ? In Belgium, a brewery may make a few, or even one single one. But they are so exceedingly good at it, that their beer usually is synonymous with a given style. Think Duvel (they don’t do stouts and sours and IPA’s and…) or Rodenbach (who doesn’t do Belgian Gold Strongs) or De Koninck or….. Why don’t American brewers do the same ?“
The answer ?
Most American companies want you to consume one of their products under all circumstances. We don’t want a 10 person company that makes 3-6 beers very, very well and provides a living for our 10 people. We want a 100 person company, or 1,000, or 10,000. And the only way to get there is more marketshare and for that you need more kinds of beer to please and attract more kinds of people. And that in itself is against the word “artisan” or “craftsman”. It’s like an artisan painter taking on every single paintjob, from making a family portrait, to painting your house and shutters. Do a few things, but do them exceedingly well is for me still the hallmark of a “craftman” or an “artisan”.
It’s all beer in the end. Large breweries make good beer, small breweries make good beer. Large breweries make crap beer, small breweries make crap beer. Every brewery probably makes a beer that’s well made, but not my style. Every brewery probably makes a well made beer that I do like.
In the end, it comes down whether a company, large or small, is ethical in its business practices. And that’s where we know that some are…some aren’t. It’s the latter, regardless of size, that ultimately don’t deserve my money. They can still make good beer. But I can’t support their business practices. It’s still beer….
Off I go to have a good, well made beer from a brewery with ethical practices now. Cheers