Beer Math: “Micro>Macro>Craft, That Works”

I am watching and commenting on an interesting Facebook thread started by Maureen Ogle this weekend that was triggered by the article “A Not-So Nefarious History of Craft and Crafty Beer” by Daniel Hartis. It also triggered some thoughts from me which I am pasting here as both a place holder and to see if I can build on them. See if I can make the selected bits of the conversation make sense:

=> Alan: “That is an interesting bit of reverse engineering. “Craft” does not gain general traction until the mid to late 2000s except in early adopting regions. We had early 90s efforts in Canada by Molson and Labatt to pretend to be micros – not “craft” as the word and the brand/ethic did not firmly exist yet. It would be better if the author had tied how “craft” itself was marketeering itself injected into and upon micro brewing and created more of a juxtaposition of the malleability of all marketing of all beer. Part of the continuum that in the 1880s saw lagers advertised as temperance drinks.

=> Hartis: “Hey Alan, I noted that craft was not often used, and that many used specialty instead. However, note that Miller’s specialty line — which they created in 1994 — was called “American Specialty and Craft Beer Co.,” so I’m sure the term was out there at the time. And just as “craft” wasn’t used early on, neither was “crafty” — they usually referred to such brewers as “stealth.”

=> Alan: “I agree but I am coming to believe that micro and craft are sufficiently distinct that the relationship of macro to each is not a continuum – and that micro and craft have significant tensions between them. So if what we call craft now does not conceptually exist 20 years ago we can’t go back and draw the same conclusion from 2014 experience. Micro had not so much of the artisanal or even punk ethic then so much as the home brew, garage band think. “Craft” would connote a snootier approach or more precious word. It’s much clearer if you go back to the 1970s writers life David Line. The last thing the self sufficient skilled small scale brewer would defer to is the argument that beer is “crafted” as in difficult let alone a rare art.

=> David Edgar: “The word “micro” no longer applied once we had more than a few brewers eclipse the 15K Bbl mark. Thus we gravitated towards “craft.” The first year when we added up all the volume for Micros, Brewpubs, Contract Brewing Companies and Regional — we called it the Craft Brewing Index. After the first ‘craft’ definition was created, we changed the name to the “Domestic Specialty” Brewing Index so that it could still include the volume of ‘craft’ beer from Redhook, Shipyard & Widmer etc. … The Sam Adams radio commercials that were all over FM radio in those days also repeated the phrase “we craft brew…”

=> Alan: “This is interesting as it validates a bit of what I have been seeking but without so much of the “hand of doom” insinuation that Lisa was alluding to. If craft organically gets introduced as micro starts receiving bodies and ideas from macro, the transition makes sense.

=> Mitch Steele: “I know a number people besides myself who have done this transition-so if it does get written, let me know. I don’t think I ever felt tainted, but my story is a bit different than some, I started out as a craft brewer, then went micro, and then came back. I’ve been told that people at Stone were nervous when Steve hired me, but once I came on board and met everyone, that went away.

=> Alan: “If I might, you may have gone from micro to macro to craft. As craft is not used until the mid90s and only gains popular traction a decade later, the shift in language describe a shift and division in the trade that still exists today:

=> Mitch Steele: “Micro>Macro>Craft, that works. I told Daniel Hartis yesterday via Twitter that I never wanted people at AB to use the word “craft” to describe our efforts here-I felt it wasn’t an accurate representation, and would open us up to the critics. So we used “Specialty” instead. Chris Shepherd thank you. One of these days, I hope to brew that recipe again. It is in my IPA book too!”

=> David Edgar: “The whole microbrewing movement was about reintroducing flavor in beer and creating ales and lagers that were not available from domestic brewers — or from anywhere. “All-malt” was the flag that Fritz and Anchor were the first ones to wave. Simultaneously micro or craft became about 1) purity and 2) authenticity. (Some perhaps unfairly denied Anchor its rightful place as the father of this whole movement because Anchor did not start out as a microbrewery.)

=> Alan: “We may be speaking at different ends of the question but I understand the microbrewing movement was also about recreating flavours coming in from the UK through imports and pioneers like Peter Austin who trained people who trained people like Pugsley in Maine and Noonan in Vt. “Craft” comes in twenty years after Austin as well as UK home brewing guides from folk like David Line inspire early US micros. The “crafty” branding campaign is a bit of an unrelated bungle that has backfired and now reminds many that great beer can come from breweries at many points of the scale continuum. It also reminds that “craft” is something a bit distinct from the ethic of micro. “Micro” is a result of everyone being able to brew as Line taught. “Craft” includes a reversal of that – beer becomes claimed to be difficult and rare and even an art as well as certainly available only at a premium price. In The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer, we used the phrase disco for the worst excesses of craft. But I think that it’s in a way like pop music in 1976 – somewhere a garage band revival is in the works.

I have to think about all this but I like the information that I had not placed into the “micro v. macro v. craft” construct. Just for those keeping score, David Edgar is the owner of Mountain West Brewery Supply in Colorado and was Executive director, Institute for Brewing Studies in Colorado from 1987 to 2001 so speaks from that context. Mitch Steele is brewmaster at Stone Brewing formerly with Anheuser-Busch and author of IPA, Brewing Techniques, Etc.

A Summer Sunday Beer News Roundup

Why Does The NYT Perpetuate A US Craft Fiction?

Stan linked to a NYT opinion piece by Steve Hindy who is correctly identified as “a founder and the president of Brooklyn Brewery and a member of the Brewers Association board of directors.” I think it struck me a little differently from Stan. Consider this:

…state laws continue to empower distributors to select brands and manage them however they want — selling those they choose to sell, while letting other brands sit in their warehouses. The only recourse is to sue, and many small breweries lack even a fraction of the resources needed to take on a big distributor in court. As a result, they’re stuck with the bad distributor, which severely hampers their ability to perform and grow as a business. Buy a small brewer a beer, and pretty soon he or she will be regaling you with war stories about fights with distributors…

See what’s going on? Small brewers. No discussion about the different effect regulations have on actual small brewers compared to big national craft brewers like Brooklyn and the other oft cited Dogfish Head. As the owner of Notch Brewing, Chris Loring, recently shared with Max, the interests of big national craft are very much at odds with the interests of actual small and local breweries. The opinion piece, as would be expected from its source, references nothing of that. Gripes about regulations from state to state are only a burden to those business folk whose aims include 18 wheel transportation and national advertising campaigns.

So, while the title of the bit is “Free Craft Beer!” it really could better be “Unleash The Opportunity For Brewers With Scale!” We know what would happen were this sort of shift to occur. We’ve seen it before. It happened in North America in the 1860s to 1890s. It wasn’t that laws were change so much as the railway established itself. All over Ontario many many small brewers making good beer were crushed when previously local brewers like Labatt and Carling out of the southwestern town of London got their casks out of their towns and into the province, the nation and then the world. Yes, that Labatt and that Carling. Prohibition did not close the breweries. Advantages of scale did. The wiping away of borders and other obstacles did. As you can read in the article “The Canadian Brewing Industry’s Reponse to Prohibition 1874-1916” by Matthew J Bellemy in Brewing History, there were 61 breweries in Ontario at the turn of the twentieth century. There were 49 in 1915 and 23 two years later. The strictest form of temperance law imposed locally came into force in 1916. Historically, it is clear that beer and brewing likes a few things like peace and a good growing season. It also likes oligopoly. Beer responds well to aggregation. We know that because all big beer was once small.

Actual small, local and well made beer is antagonistic to oligopolistic economic forces. Actual small batch beer made by actual small brewers is easily crushed. By perpetuating the idea that there is that one homogenous thing called “craft beer” and “small brewers” we ignore that big commercial brewing enterprises are different. We cover over the fact that intra-national importing brewers moving beer coast to coast in the US like Brooklyn, Dogfish Head, Stone or Sierra Nevada pose as much or a greater danger to actual small brewers than Bud or – what ever is like Bud but not Bud – does. It is not wicked that this is the case… but it is a natural economic force. If you want to live in a world with brewers making good beer in every second town you may want to take what national and now exporting international craft argues with a healthy dose of skepticism. A healthy dose of skepticism actually pairs extremely well with actual small scale, local and good brewing.

Perhaps The Best Way Craft Beer Dies Off

With all the talk of bubbles and schisms, it is good to be reminded that the path to success for any good brewer is normalcy. If a brewery is accepted and its beers stand along taps and bottles of well accepted beers and bought along with them does anyone care what those other beers are?

That is what I saw at the Loose Moose in Toronto last night. Local craft brewers lined up again macros and imports. Local beer drinkers having whatever they liked without a sneer either way. People were paying attention to the game, the food and their friends without any concern for appearances. Loud music but not too loud for the smallest kid. Uncle Jordan picked a good spot. Not a snifter was in sight, thank the Lord. I had an Eephus by Left Field as well as Nicklebrook’s Headstock with my burger. Two of my favourite Ontario craft brews. I could have had a Coor Light, too, which is or is close to Ontario’s best selling beer. Peaceful coexistence. The food was good sport pub fare and the prices reasonable for the city.

So, if good beer is absorbed without being assimilated, if it takes its place without insisting others leave… isn’t that victory?

Has Discontent Struck Good Beer In A Time of Plenty?

A little bird, or rather an email correspondent, who was present advised me that at the recent Craft Brewer Conference there was a closed session at which at least one well placed big-mid-sized Midwest brewer “sure made for good entertainment at the voting members session of the CBC- you know, the one the toss the media out for”. Apparently, unlike what is seen on the public sessions, issues like the asymmetrical effect of tax breaks and grants are creating divisions amongst those who would like you to believe that they sing all from the same hymnal… and, then, would like to sell you the hymnal so you can keep in tune, too. Interesting, then, to read about one implication arising from this sort of thing as illustrated by one particular expanding good beer market, Ashville NC, as reported today by Bill Night at The New School:

If the $9 Mil for New Belgium that Magee mentioned sounds like a lot to you, maybe you’ll be interested to find that New Belgium actually snarfed up $13 million in total from “the public trough”, as explained in this post on the blog Ashvegas. As far as I can tell, Sierra Nevada wasn’t quite as gluttonous, and only needed a little under $5 million to set up beer camp in North Carolina:

– State of North Carolina: $1M grant to New Belgium
– Buncombe County: $8.5M tax incentives to New Belgium
– City of Asheville: $3.5M tax incentives and infrastructure to New Belgium
– State of North Carolina: $1M grant to Sierra Nevada
– Henderson County: $3.75M tax incentives and infrastructure to Sierra Nevada

You know who should be really pissed about all that money? The small brewers who built Asheville up into Beer City USA.

Redistribution of wealth is tricky stuff and it does not help that those receiving are national craft millionaires even though sometimes it seems they would like us to think that they are hunting for sofa change to try to make payroll. But it does not stop there today as Harry Schuhmacher in the Beer Business Daily touches on more of the questions left unanswered after the recent conference. He discusses questions of tax policy as I discussed here the other day as well as badly made and overpriced craft – and even how succession planning leading to big money buyouts are all discussed. All important big issues that can leave a bad taste… sometimes by actually leaving a bad taste.

But, most interesting to me is the “S” word – smugness. Harry puts it succinctly: “I’ve met a few new craft brewers over the last year, and I get the sense lately that many think they invented beer.” A great direct line. I can’t, however, speak to the truth of it as, being trained in the law, I assume this is a phenomena that is woven throughout all business sectors so I don’t know whether this is new to beer or that the guard has been left down a bit recently. Yet the other sources mentioned above might be indicating that might well be the case. Where does all of this lead? Good beer did well in the recession, expanding market share as the economy took a hit. But that does not mean the industry is immune to all risk.

For me, big business is big business and will act as such. Lobbying and entitlement will benefit the largest most. But the time needs to come when US craft will stop trying to pretend all brewers are small start ups even if only to argue for financing opportunities which can benefit businesses of different scales. Beyond that, the risk of fatigue needs to be addressed – and not fatigue of flagship beers as Harry suggests though that is happening too. Craft beer is starting to act like pre-teen soccer league where everything and everyone is special. Every brewer gets the medal. Every one gets the treat at the end of the game. In the case of craft beer, the treat is unending increased prices and increased sales forever and ever, amen. Nothing works that way.

Change will come and will likely be unexpected. Change may also be brought upon oneself. How would a brewer best situate itself to withstand a shift away from these present times of plenty? Admitting opening how things actually are might be a start.

Big US Craft Apparently Has Bifurcated Lobbyitus

Interesting piece on the impending decisions to be made in relation to Federal excise taxation for beer in the US over at MSN Money today:

…The Brewer’s Employment and Excise Relief (BEER) Act, which is promoted by Washington-based beer industry group The Beer Institute, is expected to be introduced later this year and would reduce excise taxes on beer produced by brewers large and small. Past versions of the bill recommended cutting the tax from $18 per barrel to $9 for large brewers while also cutting the tax for small brewers from $7 per barrel to $3.50.

The competing Small Brewer Reinvestment and Expanding Workforce, or Small BREW Act, promoted by craft beer industry group The Brewers Association would cut the federal excise tax on beer from $7 a barrel to $3.50, which is placed on a small brewer’s first 60,000 barrels produced per year. After that initial 60,000 barrels, small brewers must pay $18 per barrel, which would be lowered to $16 under the bill. More importantly, it would expand the tax code definition for a “small brewer” from one that produces 2 million barrels or less to one that produces 6 million or less.

See, this is how relationships end. As the article describes, brewers like Boston Beer Co and Sierra Nevada are active members of both the Beer Institute and the Brewers Association which are lobbying for distinct and conflicting tax regimes. Not sure that this in itself is enough to create “a rift in the beer industry that could signal last call for the ‘craft’ title” as the author suggests but the implications are interesting. First, the government has to decide the matter one way or another. There cannot be two systems of the one excise tax. Second, the actual small craft brewers who make up the majority of the Brewers Association may soon have to decide whether being led by big craft brewers who look a lot like big macro brewers makes any sense. Either way, it won’t be controlled by big craft.

It would be comforting to know that this question was actually being discussed at the Craft Brewers Conference but the Twitter feed for #CBC13 has all the diversity of first night at summer cult camp. Crazy kids. They just can’t stop marketing – even to each other! One can hope that Congress’s governing leaders will have the sense to reject the idea of including the expansion of 2 to 6 million barrel definition of “small”. It is all fun and stuff but, given the state of the nation’s finances, buying into that sort of belief system isn’t very helpful especially given the clear focus offered by the Beer Institute’s characterization of the implications as “a giveaway to a handful of brewers that each are worth more than a billion dollars.” A billion? That’s a large number.

Inventing New Words To Describe Beer And Things Beery

The other day I noticed I have been making up a few more words and phrases to describe what I have been observing in the beer world. Not expecting Websters to give me a call anytime soon but they are useful tools for discussion. Here are a few:

“fan pub” – a pub, tavern, bar that caters primarily to beer nerds. Judgement neutral term at least. Words of affection for best such as Bar Volo.
“scene” – what happens at a good fan pub or pubs. Can be part of a larger healthy diverse interesting community. Too focused to be community in itself.
“national craft” – makers of good beer who sell across USA or Canada and maybe UK. Rogue or Stone or Sam Adams in USA. Question of shark jumping and morph to kraphtt a continuing concern.
“regional craft” – makers of good beer who sell within a US region or Canadian province / region. Bell’s from Michigan or Creemore of Ontario. No requirement for the PR of personality that haunts national craft.
“local craft” – good beer of limited distribution. New Glarus from Wisconsin.
“kraphtt” – non-craft that looks like craft. Long standing new-ism and more and more triggered by beers like Shock Top and Blue Moon.

Do these help? Any more of yours you could add?

Craft Or Kraphtt: Porter, Michelob Brewing, St Louis, Mo.

I was going to write “wow” or something but that wouldn’t quite capture my surprise at how good this beer is. Poured at a chilly cellar temperature, there is an immediate mass of dry cocoa that sits in such balance with that bit of hop, a little java and that little nod to dark plum that immediately lets you know this is no ordinary budget beer. Chalky soft water makes it particularly moreish. In fact, if I had not bought this as part of a $10.99 12 pack at the A-Bay Mart the other day I could have been quite happy to pay $4.99 or more for a 22 oz bomber of this stuff.

Definitely craft. Nothing near kraphtt. Perhaps the most surprising value in beer that I have come across so far. BAers rate widely.

My Deep And Witty Analysis Of The Big Hop Giveaway!

My computer ate it. It was a virtual unified theory of beer blogging, an apology draped in an accusation resting on a question with its feet up on satisfaction. Brilliant. Gone. In sum: I didn’t like their variety packs, the special glass, Utopia, the ’90’s triple bock or their white-like thing; but, once called out, I found liked their value-priced Scotch Ale and premium Imperial pilsner a lot and the ads have grown on me; remember that good business knows it does one good to do good; remember, too, they are a big raft brewer with a range from perhaps some kraphtt, much craft, and some special; I have no idea what percentage of their total hops ordered this giveaway of allotment represents; but in the end it is great to see a breakaway brewery remember that a rising tide raises all boats. Good work, Jim.

The long version was better. An epic.

Craft Or Kraphtt: Sam Adams Scotch Ale, Boston Beer, Mass

Stan was rightly giving me grief the other day or at least a lesson in life when I spoke of the Sam Adams line of beers. I didn’t mean to be mean and I am a delicate flower in the face of such dressings down – but, as you all know, I am working with what I am thinking about beer pricing and value. To that end, I’ve suggested five general categories of beer quality. What is the goal of the five point scale? I suppose it is as useful as a Top 25 Brewers list or using the numbers 1 to 10 to rate a beer: it is a means to give order to things. And it is supposed to give order based on deeds not claims – sure, subjectively (as that is the essence of the experience of beer) but not to bash as I live in a post-sticks-and-stones universe. Further, taking up the challenge of Matt at Rutgers, I drove into another country and bought up not six not eight but seven different Boston Beer brews to make sure I had a clue.

Scotch ale is something one would think is very important to a Scot yet it is neither the national drink or the other national drink. There are plenty of examples in the archives and they share that sweet, toast and smoke malts the style is known for. Surely a nod to style that is otherwise defective can send a beer teetering from craft down into kraphtt, no? So – what with this one, 5.4% with a best by date of April 2008? If smell alone could win the day (and who amongst us has not thought that thought before?) this one would surely stand proud as craft with the deep apple butter aroma it gives off. Chestnut ale under a rocky lacing tan head, goes down in a rich wave of sweet malt (butterscotch, pear, apple butter, licorice, and maybe even blackcurrent) tempered by the burnt toastiness of blackened malt with a hint of twiggy hops, perhaps Fuggles, in the end. A lovely brew. “Tha’s a braw bricht brew the noo!” Oor Wullie would say…if he ever grew up to be old enough to try one.

A solid effort and one that makes me offset the same brewer’s white ale over there on the other side of line between craft and what is not quite craft. And, as part of a variety twelve pack for 14.99, great value. 19/20 BAers agree.