08 Dec 2009 @ 2:05 PM 

Craft beer and craft brewing: The need for aggressive definition.


Last week, a little press release flitted across the wire. You may not have noticed it, so I’ll post it here for your inspection. It was in regards to Blue Moon’s latest release, their Blue Moon Grand Cru. It’s timed to come out in the same month as the only actual blue moon (the second full moon of a month) that has fallen on New Year’s Even in decades. We won’t see another one for 20 years.
Blue Moon: Craft Brewer
At this point, you may be looking up at the title of this post saying, “What’s this supposed to be about again?” Fear not, gentle reader.

Here’s a quote from the press release that caught my eye:

“The craft brewer is celebrating this rare lunar occurrence with an equally rare brew: the limited-edition Blue Moon Grand Cru.”

Yeah. You read that right. Craft brewer.

You may also notice that their tagline – which I hadn’t noticed before – is, “Artfully Crafted.” I’m not sure if that’s new, but after seeing them reference themselves as a craft brewery, it certainly caught my eye and this mention of “craft brewer” in their press release really set off warning bells for me.

Now, just in case you don’t know, let me put this out on the line: Blue Moon is brewed by Coors. In fact, if you look down at the bottom of the press release, you’ll notice that the contact person that’s listed is from MillerCoors. They also list Keith Villa as the Blue Moon Brewmaster – which is not inaccurate – he did come up with the beer. Keith is a brewmaster at Coors.

Coors is not a craft brewer.

The Brewers Association has a definition of craft beer that’s centered around taxation. They list a craft brewer as being Small (under 2 million barrels per year – which is a taxation benchmark), Independent (tricky definition basically saying you’re not owned by somebody else), and Traditional (50+% of the brewery’s volume must be all-malt beers).

On their site, they have a list of “concepts related to craft beer and craft brewers” which I have a LOT of issues with (example: “The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.” That is in no way traditional.), but this is not the post for that.

This is also not the post where we talk about how this definition actually cuts a lot of good, popular, small American brewers (Ommegang, Goose Island, etc.) out of the craft beer category, even though their products fit the bill in an exemplary manner.

This post will address this:

If you’re a consumer and you’re in the grocery store or a bar, and you want to buy a “craft beer”, how do you know what to get? You can’t just look for the CAMRA seal. If you haven’t taken the time to educate yourself, how do you know that Blue Moon is not a craft beer?
You can say all you want that, “Well, maybe they SHOULD educate themselves.” but it’s not reasonable, it’s a real issue. If you’re a craft brewer, your ubiquitous competition is Blue Moon (and Sam Adams) because: 1) It’s a decent beer and 2) It’s everywhere.

The fact is, if breweries – or the Brewers Association, really – does not come up with a simple and consistent way of showing the average consumer what products on the shelf count as craft beer, they risk losing the term and the definition to the multi-billion dollar marketing machine employed by MillerCoors and InBev.

“Artfully crafted” is a first step, and if it’s successful at reinforcing Blue Moon as a craft beer, then don’t be surprised if you end up hearing about Bud Light Golden Wheat being “craft brewed in small batches” or some such nonsense. I’m not a big fan of slippery slope arguments, but it seems to me like it isn’t long before you have BMC rolling out brands that are successfully marketed as craft beers taking significant portions of sales away from small craft brewers.

If the brewing industry doesn’t take the time, in the next year or so, to aggressively define “craft beer” in a way that is easily recognizable to the consumer, I think they risk losing the term and BMC will have won another battle against it’s minuscule brethren.

I look forward to a point at which I can walk into a store and look for the label, “Real American Craft Beer” so that I know exactly what I’m getting. I hope that day is coming soon and that we don’t have to invent and defend another definition, first.

Tags Tags: , , , , ,
Categories: industry, marketing, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 08 Dec 2009 @ 05 25 PM


Responses to this post » (12 Total)

  1. Brad says:

    The thing is, whereas some people put a lot of stock into tying beer definitions to who brewed the beer and what that company’s story is, plenty others only care about the quality of the product itself.

    If it’s the latter mindset we adhere to, it might be easy to say that, based on ingredients, methods, quality, etc., a beer like MGD 64 is assuredly not a craft beer, whereas something like Saison Rue most definitely is under the same criteria. But what about examples that fall somewhere in between? Now personal taste and subjectivity enter the picture. One man’s “craft beer” is another man’s “Shiner Bock.”

    So the options are: 1) Define “craft beer” based on conditions that may or may not (or at any rate, do not necessarily) have anything to do with ultimate beer quality; or 2) define it based on conditions that cannot be universally agreed upon.

  2. erik says:

    Oh, it’s an incredibly difficult definition.

    And I’m actually of the opinion (though I didn’t put it up in this post) that there’s no reason that Coors, for example, can’t make a craft beer, even though they are not a craft brewery.

    From a consumer standpoint, if it’s good beer, it’s good beer.

    From an industry standpoint (ie – I want to sell you craft beer), it’s very important to make this distinction, because these are your largest competitors, and they’re going to cut into your market if they co-opt the term that you use to make yourself distinct from them.

    To add onto your options at the bottom, what about option 3) A composite definition based partially upon conditions that don’t have anything to do with beer quality (# of barrels – maybe even kettle size) but also based partially quality conditions.

    That way, you can have a looser definition on each end that more people can agree with, but still include 99% of the beer and brewers that should probably fit the bill.

  3. christopher says:

    I think the concern is valid but the problem is money. I’m not saying nothing should be done just that its a cat and mouse game. The term ‘craft beer’ is something that perks up peoples ears so marketers will take full advantage.

    Even with strict definitions there are always ways to bend or subvert the rules altogether (esp with big money). Look at ‘organic’ and ‘eco/green’ as examples. Organic is now a regulated label that is a watered down version of the original idea (organic coke?). Everything is pumped full of flax seed oil because omega3’s are the uberfood. Every product out there has green or eco slapped on it regardless of design intent. There is a huge uneducated population for any product niche – how do you reach those people without creating label to be watered down?

  4. erik says:

    Okay – but any seal or label or anything like that is only ever going to be as effective as the organization that owns it. “USDA Organic” is kind of for the birds by now, but anybody who does anything with ISO can tell you that standards can be kept incredibly stringent, even if it’s not a very good consumer-level comparison. Fair Trade Certified is a much better example of what I’m thinking of.

    And take a look at CAMRA – all of their current troubles, and over-strict aside, they’ve got what boils down to an effective seal/labeling system that, if anything, is the opposite of watered down. If you go buy something in the UK that has a CAMRA seal on it you know EXACTLY what you’re getting. It was an incredibly effective tool in re-introducing good, real ale in the UK over the past 30 years.

    Mind you – CAMRA is probably also a symptom of the pub culture dying, but that’s a different issue and has a lot to do with drinking culture there, anyway.

    I’m not saying that we should have an American analogue of CAMRA, but some independent organization that was interested in keeping craft beer in the hands of small brewers could probably do well with a “Real American Craft Beer” seal built around a reasonable definition of “craft beer.”

  5. christopher says:

    I agree then. I think the important part is “independent organization that was interested in keeping craft beer in the hands of small brewers…” Like you said, control over who can and can use the label is the critical part.

  6. erik says:

    So, then, does the Brewers’ Association count as an independent organization? Or are they too close?

  7. christopher says:

    Does the Brewers Assoc control any labeling? I know precious little about craft beer branding; I just saw the parallel to green-washing where the same thing happens. If the Brewers Assoc has the authority to enforce the definition then they may do. If they are influenced by larger breweries then the seal will become established and then the definition will be chipped away and loosened until we have another ‘organic.’

    To be honest, until I started seriously brewing I knew precious little about beer. I thought I knew a bit but I didn’t and that’s where most people find themselves. A seal could help.

    Do you think it should be as tight of a definition as CAMRA has? Some well-meaning breweries will suffer by being outside of a strict definition but it could curtail abuse as well.

  8. erik says:

    No – the BA has no control over labeling. But they could set up a definition and a seal to be included on labels if they set up reasonable criteria. They already have a pre-existing relationship with hundreds of breweries. Whether or not they have the authority or will to enforce a rigorous definition is something completely different.

    I think the CAMRA definition is cool, but I don’t think it’s necessarily realistic. There’s a LOT of good, well-crafted beer, made by small breweries, that doesn’t fit CAMRA. In fact, I’d guess that the majority doesn’t fit CAMRA guidelines.

    To be honest, until I started seriously brewing I knew precious little about beer.

    Same here, and it’s probably true for many-to-most. Education is the best way to make craft beer accessible to the masses and while people can (and do) self-educate over time, it’d be even better if you could just make it easy to educate themselves.

    I think that giving the consumer an easy way to identify what they’re looking for is a good first step, anyway.

  9. Brad says:

    I suspect some brewers may grow leery if the BA started getting into the business of what goes on labels, especially since that would be done as an extension of their existing functions and not part of their original reason for being. (I’ve not read the BA’s charter, but I’m assuming here…)

    Would it be possible for a brewery to be a BA member, and then subsequently have their products not qualify for “craft beer” status for one reason or another? How would this brewer now feel about their membership in BA in light of what could appear as differential advocacy on some brewers’ behalf and not others?

    This may be an aside, but more so than the notion of “craft beer,” which can be a bit squishy and hazy on the periphery, I’m personally irked when beers declare themselves to be certain styles that they clearly are not. I think this is more apt to confuse the consumer, since style definitions are more rigidly established (than what is or isn’t craft beer, at least) and can set up more specific expectations of what kind of product you’re getting.

    Miller Lite has for years claimed to be “a true Pilsner beer” even though we can state, empirically and subjectively, that the beer fits no one’s definition of “Pilsner” other than perhaps that of Miller themselves. I’m also not too fond of American unfiltered wheat beers labeled “Hefeweizen.” Though from a literal standpoint (“yeast/wheat”) the name may be accurate, stylistically “Hefeweizen” has long been used to describe certain attributes that these beers just don’t possess.

    And then there’s the whole matter of places like Texas forcing brewers to call beers over a certain strength “ale” regardless of what’s actually in the bottle…

    I doubt you’d have much luck getting the FTC to put a stop to all of it, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could be sure that beers are labeled with what’s actually inside them, rather than what the marketing department thought would sell best…

  10. erik says:

    Brad – excellent point. Because of the BA’s role as an advocate to brewers, especially in government affairs, they wouldn’t be a very good organization to make and enforce that kind of standard, mainly because of exactly what you say – what happens when one of your beers doesn’t fit the definition but your brewery does or vice-versa? Weird politics.

    My pipe dream is an industry in which there’s an unofficial standard the craft brewers adopt among themselves to show off the ingredients in their beer – grain, hops, etc., but getting 1000 companies to agree on that is going to be impossible.

    Still – an independent organization a la Fair Trade? An advocate for the small brewery (for certain values of small)? I could get behind it.

  11. Vernell says:

    ? can’t remember when it happened, ?erhaps gradually, but on? day, during
    a trip t? the liquor store I f?und myself staring at a whole wall ?f beer.
    Bert Grant kindled th? ?hole craft revolution in Washington in the 1980s ju?t through th? convincing taste of h?s high quality
    beer. Wh?n seeking the answer t? the question “is organic beer better for your health.

    My web site: craft beer world (Vernell)

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