This Is How US Craft Beer Will Kill Itself

An odd, coordinated set of press releases today from the US Brewers Association (BA) and its leading members via any number of media can be summed up in the final section of the statement:

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. 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?

The first sensible reaction is, of course, who cares. But then you read the variation on the theme by Papazian with its needy and slightly offensive reference to Founding Fathers and blindness to the good jobs offered by the 94% of the beer market served by big beer, well, you just shake your head. Never mind that some US craft brewers are big enough to have multiple breweries and large ad budgets. Never mind that many US craft brewers use much the same processes slammed by their trade association as marks of falsity if not signs of the end times. What is most annoying is that the whole construct is based on the faulty definition of what is craft – therefore good – by the BA itself.

Whether it is the BA-named Shock Top or its step-cousin the BA-silent Matilda, each ultimately produced under the Anheuser-Bush InBev corporate umbrella, there are plenty of examples of perfectly good well priced beer made by brewers who do not qualify for BA membership. There are also plenty of duds and plenty of highly questionable value propositions placed on beer store shelves by BA members. Again, few are special, most are solid work-a-day folk and some suck. Given that, launching on another David v Goliath fight based on a questionable self-generated definition of “craft” without reference to the sort of quality and price determinations the consumer has to make when out buying beer is a dead end. It is thin stuff that most can spot. All that I can see is that I have been reminded that the bigs are making some tasty beer now at a pretty good price.

As I said, odd. But these are instructive moments. Look to see who lines up behind the press release, repeating the arguments. Ask yourself why. As long as the view of the consumer is not the focal point for the discourse, one has to be very careful about such things, sifting what is independent opinion from what is generated due to one’s job description.

One thought on “This Is How US Craft Beer Will Kill Itself”

  1. [Original comments…]

    Chris – December 13, 2012 3:00 PM
    It’s as if they’re attempting to mobilize consumers and treat them as soldiers in this “Us VS Them” battle. It’s a dead end, an unsustainable tactic. Cornering each entity into “big” and “small” is so transparently dumb. What about the bigger craft brewers who corner the market on supply of ingredients and effectively strong arm smaller craft brewers out of obtaining ones they’d like to use? Is that becoming of the “craft community?” What about the ones that use their financial muscle to bully taplines, as if that’s a problem restricted to big brewers only? There’s too much grey for this argument to be made so simplistic.

    Alan – December 13, 2012 3:09 PM
    I am waiting for the Evil Forces Of Wine to unexpectedly attack at this moment of vulnerability and make this a three-way!!! Then… and only then… watch for the distillers to swoop down launching gin bombs.

    …oh, this is just marketing stuff? OK, never mind…

    Lisa – December 13, 2012 3:19 PM
    Exactly. Eventually someone ‘craft’ will be big enough that changing the definitions doesn’t work anymore, and then this line goes out the window. There are very real points to make about access to distribution, but focusing on Big must equal Bad is not a long-term strategy, especially when some of those Big brewers are making perfectly good beer (and keeping brewers and other staff employed).

    If it’s good beer, I care who makes it insofar as I’d like to know more about it, but I’m not going to stop drinking Fordham’s excellent oyster stout because of 49% of their ownership. I’d much rather see a longer term focus on quality and access to markets, rather than a something that’s preaching to a specific – largely already converted – subset. Big picture, people!

    Craig – December 13, 2012 3:22 PM
    And yet, the big boys haven’t figured it out either.

    I think this is what’s behind the press release.

    If only they would listen to the beer bloggers. Then again maybe not.

    Joe Stange – December 13, 2012 3:33 PM
    Shut up and make good beer. Be confident in your product. Don’t suggest I’m an asshole if I like Honker’s Ale (and I do).

    Having said that: With the call-to-arms marketing nonsense, a hard habit to break after a few decades, they are marginalizing the more important point: truth in labeling. As a consumer I do want to know who is making by beer, and where… but the same should go for small contract brewers, gypsies, etc.

    But label requirements are a tricky issue for the BA.

    Jeff Alworth – December 13, 2012 3:44 PM
    Thank god your posted this reaction so I don’t have to. One other thing I’ll add is that Brewers Association is a TRADE organization. They work on behalf of member businesses to sell you more beer. They attack a group of other businesses who are trying to sell you beer. All well and good, but the gloss of goodness and mom and apple pie is a little rich. You’re peddling beer, period. Obviously, that’s not a bad thing. I love beer peddlers.

    bierfesten – December 13, 2012 3:53 PM
    I agree its a strange comment from BA. I personally think you have to start somewhere and its showing the Big Brewers are actually changing their views on craft beer. I too think Craft Beer by definition is too narrow, and I’m fine drinking larger brewer special beers.

    Agree @jeff as BA is a trade Assoc representing craft brewers who pay annual fees. Appears more like mis-guided politics by BA

    Alan – December 13, 2012 3:57 PM
    Yes, Joe, as we would find the 24,929 craft brewers of the USA actually produce their beer at 37 contract facilities, right? I do have those stats correct, don’t I?

    KM – December 13, 2012 4:07 PM
    While I’d like certainly like to be a able to see who actually brewed what I’m drinking, I think (a) this statement is overblown and (b) its not really worth reacting to very strongly. This will not “kill” craft beer anymore than big brewers will. At the end of the day, there is a marker for craft beer because (for the most part) it tastes better than mass market beer, and it’s hard to see that changing. One could even make the argument that mass market beers branded as “crafty” could serve as “gateway” beers to the dedicated mass market drinker.

    Velky Al – December 13, 2012 4:16 PM
    Could someone explain to me the difference between the BA’s ‘us vs them’ and CAMRA’s?

    Alan – December 13, 2012 4:19 PM
    KM, I mean it will kill it because no one will care compared to the few that care what “craft beer” is now. Arguing from the position of nonsense is a losing proposition. The beer will still exist but the label will be recognized as no better than, say, Corinthian leather.

    Daniel – December 13, 2012 4:43 PM
    “… there are plenty of examples of perfectly good well priced beer made by brewers who do not qualify for BA membership.”

    I think the only thing a brewery needs to qualify for membership is $15,000. Take a look at their , which includes AC Golden, Anheuser-Busch, Blue Moon, Leinenkugel, etc. — basically the very names the Brewers Association took shots at in this latest press release. Why is it verboten that a brewery buy their way into craft, yet these same breweries can buy their way into the Brewers Association?

    Jinx – December 13, 2012 5:35 PM
    I was just about the same thing Daniel. A-B, MillerCoors, Tenth & Blake and Goose Island are all members of the Brewers Association.

    Jeff Alworth – December 13, 2012 5:47 PM
    Based on the tweets going by (worth checking out #craftvscrafty), this appears to have backfired. BA needs to get out of the echo chamber if they intend to persuade people … outside the echo chamber.

    Tom – December 13, 2012 6:09 PM
    “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.”

    Holy deconstructionist rhetoric! “Crafty, craft-like” versus “true craft”? That’s some pretty heady verbal chicanery along the lines of “No Child Left Behind” for sheer linguistic audacity!

    Craig – December 13, 2012 6:10 PM
    I think BA jumped the gun on this. If the CNNMoney interview is indicative of big brewery thinking, then they seem to be shooting themselves in the foot. I think we’re looking at knee-jerk reactions from both parties.

    Mark – December 13, 2012 7:32 PM
    This is what I have issue with – from two TTB label approvals today –

    Brewed and bottled at Goose Island Beer Co. in Fort Collins, CO
    Brewed and bottled at Goose Island Beer Co. in Baldwinsville, NY

    I did not check NY but there is no Goose Island Beer Co. registered with the state of Colorado. Last time I was up in FoCo I didn’t see a GI sign on the A-B plant.

    David – December 14, 2012 9:45 AM
    Thanks for raising these points Alan. I was a little surprised at the press release too.

    I clearly remember seeing AB & Blue Moon as featured brewery sponsors at GABF this year (a BA event). Those end-cap booths aren’t cheap: $10-20k a pop for large capacity breweries.

    What’s that adage? Don’t bite the hand that feeds you…?

    Pivní Filosof – December 14, 2012 1:01 PM
    Five months ago, I closed this post with the following: Dear alternative brewers, instead of critisising the macros and their beers so much, you should be grateful that they make the shit they make and wish them success and prosperity with that rubbish. It is thanks to them that there are so many people willing to pay your premium prices and, believe me, I don’t think you’d like it if the macros started making “good beer”.

    Funny how things have turned out.

    Bill – December 14, 2012 1:15 PM
    Your post is excellent. It’s great to care about where a beer is from and how it’s made and who makes it. But it doesn’t follow that one has to care about where EVERY beer is from and how it’s made and who makes it. I’m as much a sucker for story as anybody, and getting to know brewers and visit places gets me excited about small and local… but you know, memories are important, too, and i have many fine memories with friends sharing beers of which provenance I know nothing. And taste and cost are important, too, and some of what I love is made by super giant companies.

    We could argue that the BA’s beliefs and assertions come from their heart being in the right place. We could also argue that their beliefs and arguments come from a desire to pull business towards their members from non-members. Whether the two positions are mutually exclusive, I’ll leave for others to argue. But let’s be clear that they’re not making an argument automatically on taste and quality. There’s no taste test or quality test a brewery’s products must pass in order for the brewer to join the BA. In the end, they might incidentally be arguing for better-tasting, higher-quality beer, but primarily, they’re arguing for the success of their members. That success is measured solely by profit. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that. There isn’t. But let’s recognize that they’re trying to woo supporters the same way the big guys do — by focusing on something other than the actual product. Taste and enjoyment of the product is secondary to the story behind the product.

    dave – December 14, 2012 1:21 PM
    Good point Pivní Filosof!

    Gary Gillman – December 14, 2012 3:03 PM
    Brewers Association is a fusion of two groups, one which dates from the start of the modern craft beer era and was associated with Charlie Papazian and his early (great) work to promote home- and craft-brewing, and a second, much older one, which was industrial breweries in other words but smaller regional ones. E.g., I would guess Leinenkugel was a member of that older group, it was called, I think, Brewer’s Association of America.

    Leinenkugel was sold to Miller Brewing in the late 80’s. Some craft breweries were taken over by a large brewery or acquired large stakes in them, so probably became members of BA through that route. True, one might argue that membership should not be available to a brewer who does not meet the BA size test for a craft brewer, but I suspect the answer would be, if one part of brewing wants to make what is for them a small contribution to brewing in general, to its image, why not? The beer world is more fraternal than other industries (distilling is similar, another industry with regional, craft roots) and the apparent availability of membership to these large concerns may simply reflect that. Nor clearly does their presence prevent BA leadership from speaking its mind and as to the actual message – a company should tell you who they are, who is behind a product – I agree with that. (I also would encourage contract craft brewers to indicate that their product is made for them, to me it is the same thing).

    Perhaps raising the issue will encourage U.S. lawmakers to tighten up beer labeling requirements for example, maybe BA is hoping for that.

    Personally, I think most people do know ultimately who makes what. They find out, e.g. drinking a pint at a bar, you will hear things like, “oh that funky beer isn’t from a small company, it came in today with Big Brewer Inc.’s other brands and the rep is the same..”. People tend to find out sooner or later who makes what and in the online world, they figure it out faster. Wide distribution too (e.g. Blue Moon) makes one wonder if a small outfit can really muster that kind of advertising and distribution. When Blue Moon first came out I could tell a big brewer was behind it, just by the design and graphics used, it was too “sophisticated” for the typical small brewery.

    So the effort may not really be necessary, but I do think it is reasonable to ask brewers to indicate the origin of their products especially for a segment that (most would surely agree) they did not develop on their own.


    Alan – December 14, 2012 3:58 PM
    Including every contract brew, too. It would be great to know all the “craft” breweries which rely on macro industrial complexes. And let me know how it is distributed, too, and (while we are at it) why the regional craft brewers of America need to muscle in on local craft brewers. Why should I buy craft from California in nothern NY? Big craft is the real enemy of local craft, far more an obstacle than big macro.

    Joe Callender – December 14, 2012 4:25 PM
    Craft or artisan as a definition makes no distinction between the types or material used or how big the operation is. Two craftsman make picture frames, one out of gold leaf and the other out of toothpicks. Both are handmade. Is one “craftier” than the other?

    Craft- An activity involving skill in making things by hand. By that definition that eliminates many “craft brewers.” That makes the truest form of craft beer the homebrewer.

    I have always had an issue with constructing a singular, self serving definition through excluding the other parties involved in the same market.

    Alan – December 14, 2012 4:48 PM
    Great response from a venerable but apparently not “craft” enough brewer.

    Gary Gillman – December 14, 2012 4:51 PM
    But BA is an association of (mostly) small brewers, its remit is to advance the interests of its members. Any trade organisation does that. Viz. Alan’s last comments, isn’t everything is a matter of degree?. The 6,000,000 gallon limit is. But still these distinctions, rough and ready and relative as they are, are meaningful to many. I would draw the line at whether something is brewed at a site not owned by the brewer – not the kind of site. By the way I believe not much craft beer is made in huge beer factories under contract arrangements. I’ve heard that some old-established regionals (famously Saranac) brew for some non-brewing producers, but did AB-InBev or SABMIller ever do that?

    At the end of the day, most of the big brewery craft-style products I’ve had aren’t in the same league as craft products. (I.e., there are exceptions). More power to them to take advantage of market trends, but I think they should tell people who is behind it.


    Ron pattinson – December 16, 2012 7:51 AM
    Gary, the limit is 6 million US barrels, not gallons. It’s a huge amount of beer. Using it as the dividing line between “large” and “small” is ludicrous.

    Bill Wallace – December 16, 2012 11:48 AM
    Kind of reminds me of the guy with low self esteem and security issues who can only feel good about himself by putting others down.

    This demonstrates a real lack of professionalism by the BA. I choose a beer because I like it, not because of how big/small the brewery might be, or because someone told me this is what I should be drinking.

    Gary Gillman – December 16, 2012 1:22 PM
    Ron, a typo, I meant barrels, thanks for picking that up.

    Every single thing in life is relative except pure math and we are not talking about that. You can’t have standards of any kind without making judgments. The U.S. is a huge country, so for a craft brewer like, say, Boston Beer Company, it makes sense to have a larger barrel number than in the recent past (when it was 2,000,000 barrels) so it can sell more of its beer across a large country and please consumers yet still retain its character for the purposes of a trade group like the BA. By the essential criterion, taste, Boston Brewing (Sam Adams) is pre-eminently a craft brewer, indeed one of the first ones. In truth, the expanded 6,000,000 number gives leeway, slack, to craft brewers to grow yet be regarded as craft in nature which they are by the essential criterion of taste (or IMO).


    Gary Gillman – December 16, 2012 1:27 PM
    Also just to give some perspective, I am not sure if even Sierra Nevada has exceeded 1,000,000 barrels. The new limit is more in prospect than anything else and based on what I’ve read, didn’t really change anything for the current players except possibly Boston Beer Company. This is, IMO again, pre-eminently a craft brewery, its beers are mostly superb and traditional in make-up. Its growth shouldn’t count against it, in other words.


    Alan – December 16, 2012 4:18 PM
    Any brewer that can sell across a continent is pretty much rationally disqualified from the concepts of craft and small.

    Gary Gillman – December 16, 2012 4:59 PM
    I don’t agree Alan. This is a world in which information circulates in a nonce around the world. Any information, not just from the big wire services or other recognized sources. Why not beer? Rogue was doing it years ago, when still quite small. I first tasted Rogue beer in Syracuse, at (you’ve been there) Blue Tusk, about 8 years ago. It was barrel aged Imperial Stout. And very good, too..


    B. Wallace – December 16, 2012 5:01 PM
    “Craft” – What’s in a name? If it’s good it’s good and if it’s crap it’s crap.

    Gary Gillman – December 16, 2012 6:14 PM
    Perhaps in 10-20 years, when Sierra Nevada may be the new mega-brewer of the land and the surviving brewers from pre-1976 (if any) all make beers the equal of the craft movement, I would agree there is no need for a BA. I don’t think this moment has yet arrived.

    It’s interesting that BA is the result of a merger between a post-’76 craft beer association and an old-style brewers association that was like the big players but distinguished only by their smaller size and regional presence (that was the old Brewers Association of America, from what I’ve read). Maybe in time BA will merge with whatever the main, large-industry association is. Honestly I haven’t checked but think it may be called, American Brewers Association.

    At that time or nearing it, I would agree there is no utility to BA’s distinctions of the various parts of the brewing industry. But at this time, I find them helpful, speaking for myself of course.


    Gary Gillman – December 16, 2012 6:34 PM
    Well, I’ve checked now, and could not find any association of American brewers that unites the big (industrial-scale) producers, perhaps this is due to the internationalization of the industry in recent years. Still, I do feel – while fully agreeing with Bill’s point re quality – that with a craft industry shipping only 6% or so of total barrelage, there is a way to go before the BA definitions of craft and adjunct brewer, etc., lose their usefulness.


    Joel A. Ohmery – December 18, 2012 1:04 AM
    Seems a bit crafty to me. But who am i to brew up trouble?

    Diego – December 21, 2012 1:03 PM
    I fully agree with the views of Alan Mcleod. I consider vital for continuing beer culture that such publications are not neglected. In fact I believe that the publications should be analyzed and questioned.

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