23 Feb 2010 @ 9:00 AM 

Not long ago, in a private conversation about what makes a Classic American Pilsner different than a Standard American Lager, I was accused of getting caught up inside the box of style guidelines. While everything was civil I thought it would be a very interesting topic of discussion, so I present it to you here.

The thing is, he’s right. I DO get caught up in the details of style guidelines. It’s probably the years I’ve spent doing database management that makes me like to see things neatly filed into their own little boxes. Of course, if that were entirely true perhaps my desk, office, and closet wouldn’t be such an enormous disaster area. I would probably have things neatly filed away and labeled in really clear ways: “Non-pink-and-scoogy paperclips.” “T-shirts that still fit me.” and “Pants without holes in the crotch.” That kind of thing. And I don’t. Getting dressed in the morning or reaching into any one of my desk drawers is still a game of Russian Roulette that my co-workers have to pay for on a regular basis.

So, if I can’t figure out where my pants are, why should I get so caught up in Style Guidelines? They’re moving targets, at best. Just this weekend I was discussing with a friend where his beer might fit within BJCP style guidelines for an upcoming homebrew competition. Fact is, it could really fit into a few of them given the width of ranges of most of the style definitions.

Here, take a look at these stats which I have cut and pasted directly from the BCJP site:

OG: 1.056 – 1.075
FG: 1.010 – 1.018
IBUs: 40 – 70
SRM: 6 – 15
ABV: 5.5 – 7.5%

OG: 1.050 – 1.075
FG: 1.010 – 1.018
IBUs: 40 – 60
SRM: 8 – 14
ABV: 5 – 7.5%

Just off the top of your head, which one of these is English IPA and which one is American IPA? The primary difference between the styles is where the hops are grown. From a technical standpoint, it’s also when the hops are added. It’s not like one is a lot stronger than the other or more bitter or significantly different looking or anything, or even different in strength.

As an aside, my favorite one to do this with is Saison and Oatmeal Stout:

OG: 1.048 – 1.065
FG: 1.010 – 1.018
IBUs: 25 – 40
ABV: 4.2 – 5.9%

OG: 1.048 – 1.065
FG: 1.002 – 1.012
IBUs: 20 – 35
ABV: 5 – 7%

(I’ll hold the color measurements and let you decide on your own.)

Now, obviously I’m over-simplifying this. The numbers don’t do any sort of justice for what’s really in the style descriptions. Which are things like:

Color may range from rich gold to very dark amber or even dark brown.

Or

High fruitiness with low to moderate hop aroma and moderate to no herb, spice and alcohol aroma. … A low to medium-high spicy or floral hop aroma is usually present.

(I like the “low to moderate hop aroma” followed by “low to medium-high spicy or floral hop aroma” – so low-to-medium that they had to say it twice!)

Barleywine and saison, if you’re wondering.

My point is not that the style guidelines are weird or wrong or too wide or anything like that. If anything, I think they speak volumes to the wonderful variety that is present in beer and what makes it such a superior beverage, especially when paired with food.

No, my point is that getting stuck into style guidelines is:

1) Difficult, since the style guidelines range so widely.
2) Easy, because style guidelines range so widely.

Okay, maybe I’m being a little bit of an asshole, too.

Here’s the deal: The guidelines overlap like CRAZY. I have a chart that I built of all the numbers for all the styles and most of them are practically identical. If you put together all of the “low-to-medium-high” flavor descriptions it’s almost ludicrous how much they sound alike. But I’m here to say that style definitions – and getting stuck in them – serve a huge purpose in craft beer:

They manage your expectations.

Look, the casual drinker on the street doesn’t know or care about BJCP, World Beer Cup, or BA style definitions. They care about being able to pick up something in the store and being able to reliably identify what’s in the package. You want to know why BMC is so popular? Well, go back to the beginning of this paragraph and start over again. Craft beer can learn a lot from this.

So, yeah, I’m stuck in style guidelines. That’s not to say that I don’t do something wildly different every once in a while – I made my own Black IPA recipe up before people started clamoring for this whole “Cascadian Dark” style. I regularly play outside of style guidelines. I love playing with non-traditional ingredients. There’s no other way to move forward than to experiment, play, and indulge in creativity. In fact, that might be the single most important characteristic of the craft beer industry: creativity.

(Honestly? I can’t get behind “Cascadian Dark”. Yes, Black India Pale Ale sounds stupid. But “Cascadian Dark” has the following problems: 1) It suggests Cascade hops. 2) It’s ridiculously regional and totally ignores that 48 other states have breweries and the ability to make dark, hoppy beers. 3) It sounds like it’s made by elves or centaurs or some shit. I could – and may – write a whole column just about this.)

But you need to manage expectations. If someone comes to my taproom/kitchen and pours a beer, I want them to enjoy it. If I made a porter, but I ramped up the roasted grain, gravity, and hop bill through the roof, then I didn’t make a porter. I may have even made an Imperial Stout. But if I give it to people saying, “This is my porter!” then they’re either going to think the wrong thing about porters or think that I’m not very good at making beer when in reality what I suck at is telling them what they’re drinking.

This past weekend, I “judged” at the homebrew festival that I was at. There were no style separations and no information about what kind of beer it was I was drinking. Many times, when I was tasting the beers I was given I found myself thinking: If I knew what style this was supposed to be, I might really like it, but without an expectation built in it’s almost impossible to be able to tell if someone did what I was tasting on purpose or by mistake. It’s hard to tell if something is well-crafted if you don’t know what they were shooting for.

So, touche, sir. You were right. I do get stuck inside guidelines. Constantly. But only so much as I want to tell people what they’re getting. Information helps people enjoy my beer. Part of that information is a concise definition of what they can expect when they raise that glass in front of their eyes, to their nose, and to their lips. If you’re not stuck inside the style guidelines then your customer – the person drinking your beer – has no easy way to appreciate the beautiful thing that you’ve crafted for them.

I’ve heard it said that style labels are a very American sort of thing. That before we started building up all of these style guidelines people just drank beer and they didn’t care if what they were drinking was a porter, a stout, or a brown ale. Style be damned!

I’d like to posit that Americans need to create style definitions because of the breadth of styles we make in our creative marketplace. We’re not bound by regional specialties that are based on what ingredients were historically available in a given area. The American craft beer market is dynamic and exciting and without style definitions I don’t think we’d see nearly the amount of variety we do. Further, I think it’s the very presence of the definitions that allows our customers to appreciate just how dynamic and creative we are, especially when we do play outside the definitions.

Do I think we have to stick to them and get stuck inside of styles, making only beers that meet a certain numerical specification? No. But we need to promote them and use them, because they are the definitions of our success.

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Categories: Brewers Association, homebrew, marketing, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 23 Feb 2010 @ 09 01 AM

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 03 Feb 2010 @ 8:08 AM 

I sat down to watch Beer Wars last night. It’s interesting doing this now, almost a year after it’s been released, seeing the original reviews, the reactions, and seeing what’s happened over the past year. As a note, one of the first columns that I wrote on this blog was about Beer Wars – actually about the hype surrounding it which, at the time, was kind of rubbing me the wrong way. Looking back, I’ll admit that one of the reasons that the hype was bothering me was because I wasn’t able to actually go participate in the one day release. I’m now glad that I didn’t, because I’m sure that had I viewed it then, I would have seen it entirely differently.

Yesterday, due to a new distribution contract with Warner Bros., Beer Wars hit streaming Netflix and I was finally able to get a look at it, albeit a year removed.

Allow me to start here: I enjoyed it.

In fact, I enjoyed it a lot more than I originally thought I was going to. The first 10-or-so minutes of it, in particular, I thought were playful, fun, and educational and really showed the ridiculous scale of the beer industry quite well. Jim Koch’s regular statement of, “Bud spills more beer in a single day than I make in an entire year” (featured in the film) is very apparent here and that message alone is worth watching the movie for. I wish the entire film had carried the tone of the first ten minutes, even so much as to carry the cartoon Anat Baron all the way through.

From a “I’m critiquing this movie” standpoint, I think Beer Wars suffered a little from not really knowing what it was. It wanted to educate, and then it wanted to criticize. At times it was a little unfair in its criticism, sometimes ignoring reality in favor of a flashy point and in general I’m okay with that if that’s your modus operandum – but it clashed with the educational and feel-good parts of the film. I found myself thinking that if Beer Wars had merely presented the facts of the scale of the industry alongside the wonderful story of how craft beer has evolved, without trying to be edgy and in-your-face and make points against BMC (and especially Anheuser-Busch), that it would have carried its point much more effectively. In the end, it felt like an Anheuser-Busch critique vehicle wrapped around a warm and fuzzy story about Sam Calagione with a little bit of feeling embarrassed for Rhonda Kallman on the side.

Like I say – I enjoyed it and I would recommend this movie to others. I wonder at how it would play to people who are not beer geeks. I will probably never know. I’m not sure I know non-beer-geeks that I haven’t at least somewhat indoctrinated, anyway.

I cannot say enough about Sam Calagione in this film. He makes the movie and without him it would not have been nearly as compelling. Nevermind that he’s the GQ posterchild of craft beer, the guy is so damn charismatic and.. and.. likable that it’s impossible not to root for him. When he’s sitting there with his kids climbing all over his shoulders with that goofy grin of his, it puts the, “Yeah, so I had to put my family into a crippling amount of debt to try to chase this dream” into harsh relief and you want nothing more than for him to succeed. He was the perfect centerpiece for this movie.

I wish there was more Dick Yuengling in it. He just makes me smile. Go get ’em Dick!

I cannot, however, figure out the choice of Rhonda Kallman and Moonshot here. It looks, in the movie, like a failing brand from the get-go. The problem is that the film doesn’t convince me that the reason that she’s failing is because she’s getting roughed up by A-B. It sounds like a gimmicky product, she even sells it like a gimmicky product in the parts of the movie where she’s looking for investments ($6 mil! Holy moly. I’ll take the $800,000, please.). I don’t know. Maybe my opinion is colored by the fact that I know that New Century, who makes Moonshot, also makes Edison Light which is my second least favorite beer in the entire world (behind Leinenkugel Sunset Wheat which, I swear, tastes exactly like circus peanuts). Sorry Rhonda, I’m just not a fan. I’d feel more empathy if I thought it was a great beer.

The one moment where I really wanted to back Rhonda up was a scene in a bar, where some jackass patron who is trying the free beer she’s given him asks her, “Does your husband know you’re out here doing this?” right before another one asks, “Will this cure whiskey tits?” I never felt as bad for her as when she laughed along with them like it was all some sort of joke when by all rights those guys needed a good solid cock punch.

“Does your husband know you’re out here doing this?” Really? You sexist assbag!

Anyway – without getting lost in these details, I went into watching this with a couple of questions in my mind:

1) In retrospect, did the movie live up to the enormous amount of hype that was generated?

I think that the enormous amount of hype actually hurt this movie. It had such an onslaught of publicity that I think it needed to be Gone with the Wind to live up to the expectations of critics within the beer industry, much less traditional media. With all of the buzz, it needed to absolutely blow your mind to be treated with anything except let-down afterward. It’s really a shame. There’s a good story here and there are good messages, but because it wasn’t Citizen Kane it didn’t get the attention it deserved after release.

On the other hand, because Ms. Baron was working on getting this out without a distribution deal, because it was being released in the one-time-special-event manner that it was, I’m not sure I can come up with a better way to have marketed it. You had one shot, you had to make sure people were there or it was going to be an enormous financial loss. That’s rough.

With any luck, Warner Bros. will be able to help market it outside of the craft beer community which, frankly, is not the audience that needs to see this movie – it’s preaching to the converted.

2) Why was the BA so eager to support prior to screening it, and what, if anything, did they gain by it?

At the time of the Beer Wars release I kept asking myself: Why are so many prominent members of the BA wrapping themselves up in the promotion of this movie when, by their own admission, they have not screened it?

Watching it, it hit me: If I was filmed for a movie, and I knew that I was going to be on the big screen, I sure as hell would promo the shit out of it, too! In the grand scheme of things, they knew that the movie was going to be complimentary to their cause and their industry because they had spoken about the point of the film with Ms. Baron. At that point pushing this movie was a no-brainer; it was good publicity for yourself, your company, and the industry as a whole, regardless of whether or not the movie was brilliant.

I was surprised to find out that there were only small clips of Charlie Papazian, Greg Koch, Maureen Ogle and the Alström Brothers in this, though, considering how prominently they all featured in the promotion (and live discussion on release night). Good personalities! I’m glad they were used in the live discussion; it led me to believe that I would see more of them in the film than I did. I wish that a recording of the live discussion would have been available via Netflix.

So, what, if anything, did the BA gain? Awareness. But I think that’s it – not that that’s small. However, I feel that Beer Wars drew a harsh picture of the three-tier system and distribution that I’m not sure is necessarily in the best interest of the BA. The three-tier system and wide distribution networks have a lot to do with the fact that I’m currently able to drink Stone Arrogant Bastard and New Belgium Fat Tire here in North Carolina. Both Greg Koch (Stone) and Kim Jordan (New Belgium) were briefly featured in the film and I’m sure that they would both tell you that without distribution agreements that would not be possible.

She took a (warranted) passing shot at the tactics and bullshittery used by some distributors, but rather than doing an expose on slimy (and illegal) business practices, we got a short montage of Ms. Baron hunting for purportedly mythical Neo-Prohibitionists which, I might argue, are actually a real threat to the industry.

Overall, however, I think the BA – and the craft beer industry in general – receives a net gain here, even if just off of the first 10 minutes of the film, and the crazy freakin’ title that shows up on top of the Dogfish Head introduction segment: “Dogfish Head: 0.0002% Market Share.” I may have missed a 0 there. Regardless, it was REALLY effective.

3) What’s the best way to follow this up?

Yes, I’d like to see more. Maybe Beer Skirmishes. I’m just not a huge fan of war.

I think that, in actuality, there were 2 or 3 documentaries all smushed into one here and that either through lack of focus or lack of funding we got this movie. Here’s what I think we potentially have inside Beer Wars:

– The story of the craft beer industry, its inception and growth and a straightforward honest comparison between craft beer and BMC. ie – show off the little guys, and show just how little they are and what a disadvantage they are at without having to trash BMC. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar and all that. I suspect we’ll get a lot of this from the upcoming Beer Pioneers.

– An expose of the tactics of the less scrupulous members of the distribution industry in comparison with the distributors who are now focusing on craft and trying to play by the rules.

– A politico documentary of BMC lobbying vs. Beer Institute lobbying vs. BA lobbying. None of it’s pretty (lobbying just isn’t), but it would be fascinating to see where they differ and where they all overlap (and I’m sure they do).

Any single one of those could be a compelling documentary and some of them, if done correctly, could actually be a driving force for change in the industry. I hope that Ms. Baron will find success through her Warner Bros. distribution contract and will come away with the funding to pursue one of these topics in depth.

In verbose conclusion I say: Go forth and watch this movie. Most especially, make sure that those you know that aren’t huge beer geeks watch this movie and be ready to go to the bar and talk it over with them over a pint of good, locally made, craft beer.

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 01 Jan 2010 @ 12:13 PM 

This post was originally going to be for this month’s Session, #35: “New Beer’s Resolutions, but I canned it. It’s a cute topic, but I can’t do it. I don’t believe in looking back at mistakes. To learn from your mistakes is paramount, to dwell on them is folly. They are done and I won’t revisit them, but rather stay positive with their lessons in mind and move forward to greater achievement.
The future!
At the same time, I feel like resolutions are bunk. The number one way to not get something done is to make it a New Year’s Resolution. If you want something to get done, you need to roll out of bed in the morning and do it. Screw tying it to the calendar. Just get up and go.

I also won’t attempt to make any predictions about what could happen in 2010. The problem with predictions is that they are based on the past; they’re based on our current knowledge set and our current environment. We cannot forsee individual random events or, even more importantly, what will be invented that will change the world in the next 12 months. It’s impossible and fruitless to speculate. You can only be ready for anything and enjoy the ever-living-crap out of it.

But! The dawn of a new year is an opportunity to look forward to all of the wonderful things to come that you DO know about. Here’s my personal list of things to come in 2010:

Homebrew and Competition

After withdrawing myself from homebrew competitions for a while, I plan to get my feet wet again to see what comes out of it. I’ve had some rather snarky judges in the past that have made me feel rather jaded about entering competitions, but in the spirit of “I’m going to start a business.” I’ve decided to say screw-all to the critics, throw my hat back into the ring, and wait for the Gold Medal to arrive in the mail. If the rest of my big bold headings work out as I expect them to, this will also be the last year I enter into homebrew competitions.

Here’s where my beer is going:

  • 2010 Winter Brew Bash, Carrboro NC: Start local, right? These guys are working hard to have what appears to be a really incredibly non-traditional homebrew competition. What I like about it is that it is built around a homebrew tasting, so that brewers and the public alike can come in and try all of the beers that are entered into competition. It’s a lovely PR event for homebrew and has the possibility of getting a lot of new people involved in the hobby. At the same time, I love sharing my beer with other people and it’s a good opportunity for that, as well. Finally, as far as I can tell, it’s not tied to category, and thank god for that, because I don’t fit inside categories well.
  • LoneRider Brewery‘s Brew It Forward: Another style-less competition, where the prize involves getting your beer made and sold. I’m not sure when this is coming up – spring sometime – but they’re so close to my house that it seems ridiculous to not send them some beer.
  • National Homebrew Competition: My opportunity to play to style and send something out, and maybe – just maybe – I’ll get a feedback sheet from a judge that doesn’t make me want to punch them in the throat.

2010 Craft Brewers Conference Panel Presentation: I’m a Social Media Guru Now!
One of the things that I am both looking forward to and slightly terrified of is the 2010 Craft Brewers Conference where I will be part of a panel presentation entitled Storytelling 2.0: Social Media as Conversation with some colleagues that I feel rather starstruck about. Fullsteam’s Sean Wilson (one of my co-panelists) posted a nice up front review of what we’re attempting to do. Here’s the selected excerpt from our draft pitch that sells it best:

It’s time to stop thinking of Twitter, Facebook, and blogging as simple extensions of your press releases. Storytelling 2.0 will help you discover your own unique voice, and connect, build, and bond with your fan base. It’s time to talk with — not at — your audience.

Craft brewing is story-driven. Each individual brewery has a unique story to best engage its customer base. Social media empowers your brewery to include enthusiasts in that story, giving them access to your narrative voice in an unparalleled way. Well-crafted updates, photo postings, and personalized responses engage your customers, giving them a chance to see inside your operations and meet the characters in the story first-hand.

By the by, I hope nobody ever calls me a social media guru. I don’t use it enough (I’m sure my wife would argue that I use it way too much) – on purpose – because I feel like it’s easy to spam and therefore achieve negative impact through annoyance, but I think that automatically takes me out of “guru” running.

As we work on the conference panel over the next few months, you’ll probably see a few columns here about social media and how it pertains to breweries. These columns will not be meant as part of the presentation or may not even be related, but it’s the best way I have to work through things. At the same time, I hope that my ramblings will be useful to the internet/brewing community at large.

Know Your Brewer Re-Launches

We haven’t said a whole lot about this yet, but I am working with Sean over at Fullsteam on a little project that I think will turn out for awesome. Know Your Brewer, a website that was originally focused on North Carolina Beer as part of Pop the Cap 2.0. The site provided the basic template and early content for the North Carolina Brewers Guild website NCBeer.org, which I’m also helping on, but that left a domain and a concept unoccupied. I’ve somehow managed to convince Sean to let me help retro-fit Know Your Brewer for a new life.

The re-launch is coming and it’s coming nationwide. I’m not yet sure of our official re-launch date, I can say that I think it will be pretty terrific. The site will focus on the men and women behind craft beer – the people that make it, the brewers – and look at their beer and their breweries through their eyes. We’re hoping to have writers and bloggers across the country interviewing brewers from across the country, with lots of added content – recipes, Q&A, etc, all in a regular weekly format.

I’ve already done interviews at a couple of breweries and I have a half-dozen more scheduled in the next few weeks. It’s been a ton of fun talking to brewers about their work, how they got into it, and what they enjoy the most about it. It’s been a ball and I can’t wait to share it.

What you see there isn’t the final design, but it’s on its way. Look for an official announcement here (and, of course, on Know Your Brewer) soon. In the meantime, we’re recruiting writers – are you interested? Let me know!

Announcing the Location of Mystery Brewing Company

Finally, in either the second or third quarter this year, I will be making the announcement on the geographical location of my own startup: Mystery Brewing Company.

At that point, the blog will likely go through a slight transition where you end up hearing a lot more commentary about startup issues. On of my major criticisms with startup brewery content I have found, read, and yes, even paid thousands of dollars for, is the lack of practical detail. I get a lot of “you need to fill out TTB forms and apply for licensing.” And while it’s true, it’s not necessarily as helpful as telling me what forms are around, what information they tend to expect, and what pitfalls I should look out for. Not to say I’ll be posting how to fill out your TTB label forms here, but I will, whenever possible, post practical information about the startup process specifically pertaining to startup breweries in the hopes that others coming after me will find something useful. I believe that the future of the industry lays in continuing spread of the individual small brewery, rather than the continual creation of more megabreweries, and I hope that I can help the industry in the right direction.

Back when I was in high school, as a miserable teenager, I remember somebody taking me aside and telling me: “Remember these days, because these are the best days of your life.” And then I remember thinking, “Oh god – kill me now.” They were wrong. Totally and completely and in all ways possible: wrong. They were not even remotely the best days of my life. Every year that I’ve been alive, things have just been better and better, more fun and more awesome, and I can’t imagine that changing now. I’m looking forward to 2010, for all of these reasons up here and the hundreds of reasons that I haven’t found out about, yet.

Happy New Year, everyone. It’ll be a great one.

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 19 Oct 2009 @ 5:49 PM 

Presumably, if you have received this ad in your e-mail, it is because you are a member of either the American Homebrewers Association or the Brewers Association (or both). It is for Teach a Friend to Homebrew Day which, I think, is one of the coolest ideas for an event that AHA has thought up.

Teach a friend to AAAGGHHH!

Maybe it’s just me, but this is about the creepiest damn ad for this target demographic I can think of. Wow! Can I do it without this kind of “incentive?”

I hope nobody thinks this counts as targeting to school-aged children!

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Categories: American Homebrewers Association, Brewers Association, marketing
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 19 Oct 2009 @ 05 49 PM

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 27 May 2009 @ 11:34 AM 

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.

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