Let the Best Beer Win

English: Anheuser-Busch plant, St. Louis, MO USA

Anheuser-Busch plant, St. Louis, MO USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over at the ever-relevant Beer and Whiskey Brothers blog (and my go-to blog for all things beer-taste related), Jim Galligan has posted, “Brewers Association Calls Out Counterfeit Craft Beers.” He said he asked Julia Herz of the Brewers Association (BA) why they’re speaking out now, since in the past they had “tiptoed around the topic….She simply said that talk about Big Beer offering up imposter brews has been growing increasingly louder in the craft beer community, and the BA felt it was time to state their point of view on the topic.”

I’ll have some more to say further down, but first, here is the BA media announcement in its entirety:

Boulder, CO • December 13, 2012—The Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent American craft brewers, issued the following statement regarding the increase in production and promotion of craft-like beers by large, non-craft breweries:

An American craft brewer is defined as small and independent. Their annual production is 6 million barrels of beer or less and no more than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.

The community of small and independent craft brewers has grown as beer enthusiasts embrace new, diverse beers brewed by their neighbors and friends who are invested in their local communities. Beer drinkers are voting with their palates and dollars to support these entrepreneurs and their small and independent businesses.

In 2011, small and independent craft brewers saw their industry grow 13 percent by volume; in the first half of 2012, volume grew by an additional 12 percent. Meanwhile, the overall beer industry was down 1.3 percent by volume and domestic non-craft was down 5 million barrels in 2011.

Witnessing both the tremendous success and growth of craft brewers and the fact that many beer lovers are turning away from mass-produced light lagers, the large brewers have been seeking entry into the craft beer marketplace. Many started producing their own craft-imitating beers, while some purchased (or are attempting to purchase) large or full stakes in small and independent breweries.

While this is certainly a nod to the innovation and ingenuity of today’s small and independent brewers, it’s important to remember that if a large brewer has a controlling share of a smaller producing brewery, the brewer is, by definition, not craft.

However, many non-standard, non-light “crafty” beers found in the marketplace today are not labeled as products of large breweries. So when someone is drinking a Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer, they often believe that it’s from a craft brewer, since there is no clear indication that it’s made by SABMiller. The same goes for Shock Top, a brand that is 100 percent owned by Anheuser-Bush InBev, and several others that are owned by a multinational brewing and beverage company.

The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers. We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking. [emphasis added]

And for those passionate beer lovers out there, we ask that you take the time to familiarize yourself with who is brewing the beer you are drinking. Is it a product of a small and independent brewer? Or is it from a crafty large brewer, seeking to capitalize on the mounting success of small and independent craft brewers?

A full list of U.S. breweries is available on BrewersAssociation.org. The Brewers Association list of domestic non-craft breweries is available for download.

The BA has a point. BMC (Bud-Miller-Coors) market-test their beers to make them appeal to the widest audience possible (or the lowest common denominator, depending on your point of view and how charitable you feel). And, like other large-scale retailers, they will copy hipper and trendier styles and market those products minus their Big Box brand’s label.

Now I drink “craft beer” and I make “craft beer,” but for me, it is an artificial distinction. Each beer must stand or fall on its merits (and, frankly, whether I like the style). The “big corporations are evil” story is getting stale. This is beyond beer-nerdery (if that can be a word) and into beer snobbery.

The big brewers make good and consistent beers. These brews may not be what you or I want to drink but that distinction says we have different tastes from the mainstream. That Anheuser-Busch can brew a beer in twelve regional facilities and produce a beer that tastes the same is a testament to their abilities.

Smaller and nimbler breweries make an asset of their attributes. They can produce new beers when the whim strikes them (without test marketing reactions); and, they have been known to distribute one-off mistakes, such as Lagunitas Brewing‘s Brown Shugga, meant originally to be a batch of their Olde GnarlyWine Ale.

BMC can do good and bad things. Anheuser-Busch endowed the beer program at University of California at Davis. This has benefited craft brewing immensely. A number of the brewers that today make craft beer went to UC Davis and studied under Dr Bamforth.  But, because they are big, BMC can really throw their weight around and play to win. As Jim Galligan wrote for the Today blog, The Big Beer companies have “done their best to push craft beers off the shelf, confuse consumers by creating their own craft beer lookalike brands, and they’ve purchased beloved craft breweries like Goose Island outright, replacing the folks who built the place with their own mass-market veterans.”

But hold on, the BA’s pronouncement has incensed other brewers, who have been excluded from the BA by its definitions of what constitutes “Craft Beer.” According to BeerPulse.com, August Schell of Schell’s Brewing, announced:

We put the same amount of pride and effort into producing our American Lagers as we do our line up of all-malt “specialty” beers, since we can’t dare call them “craft.” I know for a fact the same holds true for our friends at the Yuengling and Straub breweries. For you to say that the three oldest, family-owned breweries in America are “not traditional” is downright disrespectful, rude and quite frankly, embarrassing. – August Schell

Drink the beer because you like who made it. Drink the beer because it tastes good. Drink the beer because your server is cute. It’s beer, and while it may be art, it ain’t the Mona Lisa.

As Lagunitas says, Beer speaks, people mumble. Or as Sam Calagione, owner of Dogfish Head Brewing says, “Beauty is in the eye of the beerholder.”

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10 thoughts on “Let the Best Beer Win

  1. Essentially it does come down to what you like to drink and whether or not you care about that brewery’s business practices. I do care about who brews my beer, and how they are involved in their communities. You also have to look at motives behind their altruism. AB/InBev will practically blackmail a nonprofit/community event to accept their charity, just so they can have their name prominent at an event, and be the exclusive beer served there. Whereas most smaller craft brewers offer their time, money, and beer out of a true wish to help out and support.

    And as you mentioned, the Macro’s practice of taking up s much shelf space as possible, even when sales don’t justify it, is just plain criminal. Their strong-arming of distributors is also reprehensible; the threat of not using a distributor if they don’t do as told is just one example.

    All of those reasons and more are why I think BA finally said enough is enough and laid it on the line this past week.

    • Hi Will,
      Thanks for your comment. We agree on the broad contours of the matter and we have to discuss our disagreements over a non-BMC beer.

      I really did not want not to wade into this whole ‘World of Faux Craft’ thing, partly because I see BMC beers as gateway beers to better stuff. Shoot, I used to drink Annie Green Springs wines. We develop tastes for more interesting drink. Good beer will win out.

      • I agree that they can be gateway beers to something greater. And by all rights, you could define Blue Moon as a Pseudo-Craft; it was developed and originally brewed at a small brewery (owned by Coors) at Coors Field before it ever saw life in a bottle. I’m still amazed that it has taken off like it has, I wasn’t all that impressed by it when I had it that first year it was brewed. But Coors is a different beast now that it has become part of a huge conglomerate.

        My main beef with the macros is the same as the BA: transparency on how the beers are labeled, and the false impressions it gives consumers who don’t know any better. I can’t count how many times I’ve talked with someone in a taproom and they’ve told me their favorite beer is Blue Moon or Shock Top, and how they are blown away when they learn who actually brews them; they’ve thought they were supporting a smaller brewery this whole time.

      • 🙂 Last March, I was at an event and tasted a Shock Top. I didn’t know who made it. I thought it tasted okay even pretty good. I asked who made it and the server said Annheuser-Busch. I put it down and got something else.

      • I knew who made it from the start, and even had a few to give it the benefit of the doubt (plus it was either that or Bud Light at an event). By the time I had finished the last one, I couldn’t believe anyone would actually like it, much less mistake it for a craft beer!

      • I saw a video on YouTube where some BJCP judges (I think they were BJCP certified) blind tasted a number of faux craft beers (I remember Blue Moon for sure) against like styles. The faux crafts came in last (if memory serves) but were not judged to be awful (they came in a close last rather than distant last).

  2. You got a point. Mitch Steele, current brewmaster at Stone worked at AB for over a decade and he had nothing but respect for the ability of the brewers there. What I really really don’t like like about InBevAB, CoorsMiller, etc is their legal practices. They use their lawyers and lobbyist to keep and introduce laws that mostly benefit large brewers, and use lawsuits or the threat of them to harm smaller competition.

    • We agree on the broad outlines.

      The economist in me hates rent seeking (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent-seeking), that is, a company working to “obtain economic rent by manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than by creating new wealth.” In other words, rent seekers want money for essentially doing nothing (see the patent troll who have nearly bankrupted Research in Motion for an example of a rent seeker), rather than producing and selling something in the marketplace.

      That BMC uses lawyers and lobbyists to introduce laws upsets me but I can’t fault any corporation or group or special interest (e.g. BMC, Brewers Association, or Friends of the Suds) for doing so. We have a right to protect our interest and a right to petition our government. I wish they wouldn’t, but they have the right to do it.

      I really dislike our present tort system, but I’m not sure of what things might help reform it. Certainly the size of BMC with their lawyers and their threats chills the atmosphere. But, BMC is not acting differently from what’s happening with Google, Samsung, Apple, et. al. I don’t buy BMC products because I don’t like how they taste. If I decided my purchases companies based picking products from companies that didn’t sue and lobby, I wouldn’t be typing this on an iMac or using my iPhone to check messages. I wouldn’t be typing on anything probably.

      We have a right to petition our government. Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, alcohol has historically been treated unfairly–usually by taxation of the alcohol or the ingredients. The government limits distribution of alcohol (perhaps for revenue, perhaps for moralistic reasons). I can’t sell the beer I make. Permits and licenses appear to me to be overly complicated and as a result favor those already in business. I would like to see a freer market.

      My reason for posting was to say that we should focus on drinking good beer.

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