27 May 2009 @ 11:34 AM 
 

The (Continuing) Definition of Craft Beer

 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. There’s a problem in the definition. That’s clear. After all, it’s been discussed in other venues prior to this ad infinitum (and those three are just a small example), and now I feel the new to add to the noise. The thing is, I think we’re all running up against the same problem.
Beer!
The problem is the Brewers Association is right and wrong all at the same time. Lemme explain.

The Brewers Association has it right

See this Examiner post by Larry Johnson for a succinct re-hash of the definition without having to scroll through the BA‘s entire statistics and definitions page.

This definition of a craft brewery and craft beer here is based entirely on regulations set by the U.S. Government for taxation purposes. If breweries produce under 2 million barrels per year, they qualify for a small brewer tax break on their first 60,000 barrels. If you’re above that, you’re not a craft brewer. That’s it. The smaller breaks in between are built in for statistical purposes. Plain and simple, when you’re talking about market segments, you need to be able to compare apples to apples. New Belgium and their amazing expanding distribution network just doesn’t compare well vs. a startup brewpub (much less how Sam Adams compares with anybody else). They’re two entirely different segments in the same industry.

There’s only one part of their definition of a craft brewery that isn’t based on an economic restriction:

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 it’s volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

And it kinda reads like an economic restriction, doesn’t it?

I take this as their way of saying, in every way they possibly can, “NOT megabreweries.”

So, here’s the thing. The Brewers Association is, first and foremost, a trade organization. As a brewery owner, I want them focused on helping to keep the most rigorously regulated industry in the country (aside from probably tobacco) a sane enough environment for my small business to exist in. A startup brewpub can’t afford to hire a full time (team of) lobbyist(s) to look out for their interests in the same way that MillerCoors can, but they can get help from the BA when they’re looking at challenging a law that’s coming through the pipeline. What is beneficial to MillerCoors may not be beneficial to the startup brewpub, so you also need somebody to push back against the corporate behemoths who, let’s be frank, would probably rather not have any competitors, even minuscule ones.

The BA needs tools to be able to do this job, and accurate statistics is one of those tools, consistent standards is another. These definitions are what the BA needs in order to do what breweries need them to do, and the BA can be an invaluable ally to a small craft brewer.

They are really crappy definitions for the average consumer. The consumer cares about good beer.

The Brewers Association has it wrong

Here are a couple of breweries that I would guess that consumers think are considered craft breweries that are not, according to BA definitions:

  • Widmer
  • Goose Island
  • Mendocino Brewing Co.
  • Brewery Ommegang

Soon, Sam Adams will join that list. I would challenge anybody to tell me that any of those breweries don’t make great beer, regardless of percentages of ownership and/or how many barrels they manufacture per year.

The problem is that the BA also makes attempts at functioning as a consumer advocacy organization, most notably via the GABF. And why not? People who make great beer are fans of great beer. It makes sense to function as an organization that gets consumers in touch with great beer. But the definitions of what craft beer is for industrial purposes don’t necessarily work for consumers.

Consumers want to drink great beer, and while I’ve heard a lot of people say they don’t really care where something comes from, I think they do. Behind craft beer there are personalities, there is passion for the product that is being made. That translates down to the customer very easily in small businesses. It’s something that the megabreweries will never be able to harness because they’re too far removed from the consumer.

Here, the problem is: How do you define passion?

In this case it’s almost definitely via selection of ingredients and processes. But you can’t define it as “beer without corn” or “beer without rice.” There was a little bit of a kickback from a few brewers after the IAACB video who do use corn and rice in their beers, but do it in really interesting ways. A brewer in Kansas or Nebraska using a local good (corn – what else?), malted and roasted to make a corn stout? How is that not a craft beer?

It’s sticky when it gets to passion definition. More on this later.

Where the Disconnect Happens

Quick story: At the end of CBC09, I was blitzing through the Farewell Reception grabbing a quick bite to eat and a quick drink before I had to rush to board my plane and I ran into Charlie Papazian. He was strolling through the middle of the ballroom, tie off, collar undone. In his right hand he had a goblet full of beer. In his left hand, hanging casually at his side, he had an open bomber. He wasn’t talking to anybody, he was just walking around with this enormous grin on his face. I wish I could have gotten a picture of him. The only thing I could think was: “This must be what it’s like to have your dreams come true.”

Think about it – this guy, who happens to just love beer, put this all together. He’s not a stupendously successful brewery owner, he’s not a Wall Street investment guru, he’s not a real estate tycoon. He’s a writer, and a homebrewer, and he loves beer so much that he has spent his entire life facilitating this entire budding industry. He is the perfect beer evangelist. Every brewery owner and beer drinker should take the time to shake his hand and thank him for loving beer. (I did.)

But, this is the reason for the disconnect. What eventually became the BA was born out of a passion for beer, but it has become (and thank god) a business organization. When Charlie started everything in the 1970’s, the definition of craft beer was easy: “Not the megabreweries.” But you can’t use that as a definition to define your business organization. You need clear rules that define the segment(s), even if they backhandedly say, “Not the megabreweries.” The definition of a craft brewery as recognized by the BA is spot on. They need to be built around the tax restrictions.

However, governing the definition of product made with passion with a tax-based definition is sure to lead to resentment from the consumer when they’re favorite popular brewery makes a business decision and is no longer considered a craft beer. The consumer wants to support craft beer, but also wants to support their favorite brewery. How do they make that call? By ignoring the tax definitions.

Here’s what I’d like to see: Let the BA define a craft brewery, and let the drinker define a craft beer.

There are a number of different ways this can be done. There are already what amounts to enormous consumer organizations who are devoted to good beer. Use the existing communities to refine a decent definition and go. Maybe the BA creates a spinoff non-profit that handles the GABF and works on creating similar standardized festivals across the US promoting good beer, and they leave the government work and business side of things to the Brewers Association. Let the consumers be consumers. They don’t need to be complicit in business practices, you just want them educated about good beer, because then they’ll be much more likely to buy from craft breweries.

Overall, I think these are growing pains. I think the reason that the craft beer community is hashing this out over and over again is because the segment has been so successful. After all, when the 2 million barrel cap used as the definition of a craft brewer, did anybody reasonably expect Sam Adams to get there so quickly? I doubt it. It’s fantastic that they’re pushing this boundary and allowing us to continue to go through this painful revision process.

In conclusion, I’d like to put out my definition of a craft beer, as a beer drinker: Any well-made beer that was obviously made with passion. You can see it in the labels, the names, in the bottles, cans, or glassware, and in the ingredient selection.

If the beer has a personality all its own, it’s a craft beer. I suspect that there are at least a few drinkers out there who would join me in that.

 

Responses to this post » (5 Total)

 
  1. Brian says:

    It’s rather unfortunate that the term “craft brewing” has become the established term and has become muddled between the product and the company, because the BA is really trying to represent independent brewers (“not megabreweries”) from an economic standpoint. I’m tempted to define an independent brewer as a brewery without general distribution, but that might fail the Sam Adams test again: is there anywhere in the USA where you *can’t* get SA?

    Might the BA be better off basing membership on a majority vote of the existing members rather than on a written definition? That opens the door to potential blackballing or xenophobia, but it would eliminate the stagnant definition or the requirement to keep moving the goalposts, and it would fall back on the old obscenity definition: “I know it when I see it.”

  2. erik says:

    Well.. distribution as a limiter is a poor choice, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that distribution laws change so much from state to state. Not to mention that logistically, it’s nigh impossible to grow your brewery beyond a certain point without some sort of general distribution agreement.

    I think I see what you’re getting at, though – a “if it’s not available on every street corner it’s a craft beer” kind of definition.

    I don’t know. Would you consider Genny Cream Ale a craft beer?

  3. Brian says:

    Actually, I was trying to define “independent,” since that seems like it would be easier to differentiate than “craft.”

    Rereading, I think I agree with you — “craft brewery” is a completely different thing from “craft beer.” And since the BA already recognizes economic/scale differences between microbreweries, regional breweries, and megabreweries, why are they trying to add another definition that implicitly assumes that larger businesses are incapable of creating a quality product?

    It’s because they’re trying to create a prestige label — but tagging businesses as “craft” through a combination of all-malt beer and size is restrictive. The definition makes sense from a 70s/80s standpoint, but it seems ill-fitting today. If the brand needs to be created to help out brewers, it seems like it would be more useful to define craft beers — or some other label, like “certified all-malt” or something — and allow those businesses who qualify to trumpet themselves as a “BA all-malt brewery.”

  4. erik says:

    This is where we should look at CAMRA, I think.

    Don’t they have some sort of “Real Ale” seal that they give to breweries for approved beers?

    Do I need to start a standards organization? Because I will!

  5. […] is the original post: Top Fermented: The (Continuing) Definition of Craft Beer Share and […]

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