bubbles in my beer, pt. 3

via wearethelastbeatniksfiles.wordpress.com

“For several years now, beer hijacking has been an issue for small and independent commercial brewers. They’ve been working hard to differentiate themselves from very large brewing companies that offer special beers and would prefer that beer drinkers believe that their beers come from small and independent breweries. Speaking for myself, this is a turnoff. The beer is probably great quality, but the marketing is deceptive and erodes the perception of credibility.”

“I’m the only thing standing between the death of Irish music and … and … the life of Irish music. Hss hss hss hss!”

One of these is a quote from an op-ed piece in the New Brewer on the need for a clear, commonly-understood definition of “craft beer,” and the other is a quote from the Shane MacGowan biopic If I Should Fall from Grace.

Longtime readers will recognize your author’s abiding soft spot for the Pogues. I went to see If I Should Fall from Grace at the Oak Street Cinema back in the day and bore witness to the on-camera intoxication, the awesome music and terrible dentition, the dictionary pictures of codependent enabling enacted for those 90 minutes upon the big screen, and the above quote (whichever one it is) stuck with me down all these days. In particular, its outsized hubris … that maddening but vital hubris required to make art. Or, I think, beer.

Here’s where I think hubris gets us in to trouble, though: when it starts assuming responsibility for things it doesn’t need to be responsible for, when it becomes self-appointed arbiter of the cause instead of defender or promoter.

In the 1970s in the UK, CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) was a vital proponent of traditional breweries and pub culture in an age of consolidation, closure, and the watering down of England’s indigenous beer styles. It was a vehicle for education, awareness, and preservation. Today it’s arguably best known for quibbling over the definition of “real ale” and bitching about beers dispensed with CO2 instead of a handpump.

I’ve written before about the moveability of the official definition of “craft beer” and its seemingly arbitrary exclusions of breweries like August Schell (here’s the Cliff’s Notes for non-Minnesotans: second oldest family-owned brewery in the US, emphasis on European lager styles, and … they use adjuncts in their flagship [sad trombone]).

I’ve always found it problematic that stylistic exemplars like Guinness and Pilsner Urquell are not “craft beers.” I feel like bagging on Budweiser or Coors because of their position in the industry but wearing Nike or using Apple products seems like a giant glass house. Please understand I’m not making apologies for our various corporate overlords, but I feel like it’s time to learn from CAMRA and take it up a notch in terms of maintaining relevance.

Here are a couple more (telling, I think) quotes from the New Brewer piece:

The term “craft” is not about snobbery or being an elitist as some have suggested. It is not a claim about the quality of the beer. It is about giving the beer drinker a tool to identify who makes the beer they enjoy.

The point that the definition of craft brewer tries to establish is not about using the word “craft” literally. “Craft brewer” is an idea.

And here we get to the crux: if “craft” is not literal, if “craft brewer” is an idea, if it really is about “giving the beer drinker a tool to identify … the beer they enjoy” then it’s ultimately up to us, and not a trade organization (self-appointed or otherwise). It’s about the end-user in the experience, it is about the final destination for the beer, it is about everything that happens to the beer after it leaves the brewery, the packaging, and the glassware. It is up to the drinker. We don’t need a third-party definition.
Just as with the neatly delineated beer style guidelines, it should ultimately be up to the brewer and drinker what he or she should brew and drink.
Cheers as always, and thanks for reading.
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22 thoughts on “bubbles in my beer, pt. 3

  1. Good post Mike. I don’t need someone else to arbitrate for me what is ‘craft’. People are free to enjoy the beer they enjoy. If I choose to drink what I make or at places where I can chat with the brewer that is up to me and is done because I enjoy the beer and the people making it. Just let the beer speak for itself.

    If BMC made a delicious berliner weisse I’d readily drink it and be over joyed that the a style like that was popular enough to be main stream.

  2. I was at a tap take over for Goose Island not too long ago at a local pub. I enjoyed most of their beers very much, and even got to try some of their coveted Bourbon County Stout for the first time. But the next day, after researching more about the brewery, I could not help but feel disappointed that they are majority owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. Being owned by InBev may affect beer quality or creative freedom. Who knows, maybe they may have had to sell a majority stake for the brewery to survive. But corporate giant beer companies are buying up small breweries just to remain competitive to the Craft Beer movement. They are investing in Craft Breweries because they have the need and ability to protect themselves into potentially disruptive markets.
    This is exactly what has happened in the wine industry here in the US. On a trip to Sonoma and Napa, CA with my wife, we were surprised to learn that many of the wineries there are owned by large corporations, and that there are very few family owned wineries in existence. Different brands, that produce very similar, over-oaked wines all under the same corporate umbrellas. In fact, I just read an article about Chinese corporations buying up French vineyards. Does this take away from the quality of their wine? Maybe. In my mind it definitely cheapens them in a sense, takes away from their identity, and at some level must take away from their creative freedom.
    But when I stumble across one of the few remaining small family owned wineries, or new micro-craft brewery that is an actual part of the local community, I get excited about their passion, and creative freedom, and I find myself rooting for them more.

    • Thanks for the comment! I agree with you about how ownership affects a brand’s identity, and I think your anecdote about enjoying the GI beers on the first day and then having a shift in perception after learning about ABInBev’s stake the next day is a great example of how those intangibles surrounding the beer itself affects our attitude as cerevisophiles and beer nerds. The product doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

  3. Some part of me does not like this. I think it is the part of me that drove me to buy a neon green Haro freestyle bike in a super small WI town in the mid 80s and get all kinds of shit for it. I think it is also the part that skateboarded all over that same town, getting negative remarks from kids and adults alike. Maybe it’s the part of me that made ‘Zines, mail ordered obscure music, played in bands, and now as an adult, homebrews, makes videos, and tries to, as they say, keep it mostly real. My whole life has been in one way or another trying to stick it to the mainstream, whatever that means. I’m not saying a Berlinner Weiss made by Bud would not taste yummy (however unlikely that is to happen), but part of me would still have trouble drinking it. I’m not saying that makes sense.

    • I agree DonO. The problem is Bud would not make that Berlinner Weiss because the CEO/Chairman dreamt up a great recipe, or had romantic memory of that Berinner Weiss from that trip to Germany long ago. Bud would ONLY create that beer if it felt being in the Berliner Weiss market would give them and edge over a competitive brewery, or allow them to penetrate a potentially disruptive market.

      • Or even worse, not only to “give them an edge,” but to try to put some craft brewery out of business that might be making that beer for the very admirable reasons you mention. I read a lot of comments like “I don’t care who makes it. If it tastes good I’ll drink it,” but I think there can be more to how we spend our dollars than that. And certainly today, there is no shortage of choices of respectable breweries and great beer to support.

    • Thanks for the comment, Don O – I’m right there with you. Micro, craft, non-mainstream American beer has historically defined itself as much by what it isn’t (lite lager), but it’s now reached a truly impressive, unprecedented summit – thanks in part to the efforts of the organization who publishes the magazine from which the above quotes were taken, credit where credit is due – and it’s time American brewers and beer lovers consider where to go from here.

      I think what I’m getting at is that the whole discourse is drifting further from relevance: if what’s really at issue is small/independent vs. big/corporate-owned conglomerates (which the backpedaling in the above quotes [craft not a literal definition, craft brewer as an idea] seems to be skirting around) then that’s how the conversation should be framed. I think that’d be a worthwhile discussion to have, and brings forward some cans of worms that might benefit from being opened.

      And honestly, as moge’s Goose Island anecdote above illustrates, it’d be more important and useful to an increasingly savvy and plugged-in consumer base than who is and isn’t using corn in a pale lager grist.

      • Haven’t we already had this conversation though? Only it was micro-brew vs the big boys. I mean where did that term go? Does craft encompass all breweries other than the big 3? Is it a nano, micro, vs bmc debate?

        If its about the beer quality, then leave the brewery out and let the beer speak for itself. At the end of the day there are some “craft” breweries making bad beer. I can’t give them a pass simply becasue they are the little craft guy.

    • I have to echo pretty much everything DonO said. Although for the life of me, I can’t quite see any of the attempted definitions of “craft beer” having much of anything to do with the word “craft”. To me, things are slapped together (quick dirty and ugly but functional and cheap for fastest output at lowest cost), built (put together by rote without inspiration, although possibly well done for maximum output), manufactured (maximum use of technology and labor for consistent and fast creation with a focus to maximize profits), or they are crafted (personal focus, attention to detail, artistic inspiration for maximal product quality). Clearly, AB/InBev is involved in manufacturing beer. A lot of the flash-in-the-pan breweries that failed in the 90’s were clearly slapping their brews together. It’s obvious that the Trappist breweries are involved in crafting their products. Innovative breweries such as Dogfish Head and Allagash are on the artistic creativity side of craft brewing. What happens when a craft brewery such as Goose Island falls under the control of a beer manufacturer? The company loses its ability to maneuver and innovate and becomes simply a beer builder. The products might stay at the same quality (however unlikely), but expecting a new blow’your-socks-off release becomes unlikely. Craft is a fundamental part of the American landscape and history. “Crafted” is hand-made, built-with-love, locally-sourced, old-fashioned, down-home, comfort-food, all these terms that carry that heartwarming feel of a personal touch and a love of the work. We even have a unique style of architecture called the “Craftsman Home” – buildings that weren’t contracted where the designer/builder could add whatever he could imagine:exotic woods, extravagant trim and moldings, hidden rooms and passages, custom windows, etc. When comparing the craft of these homes and a quality crafted beer (such as Raison d’Etre) to manufactured suburbia kit homes and built/manufactured beer (such as Shock Top, Blue Mooon, and Bud), the analogy makes it clear where a brewery’s products would be. For a clear example, back in the late 90’s, Samuel Adams only had a couple flagship beers and a number of short-run seasonals and one-offs, still very much craft. Fast forward to today and even their smaller-batch labels have a sterile manufactured quality to them. Over the years, the business model has changed, most of the beer is not brewed in Boston where Jim and the head brewers mostly work, and I (and many many others) have noticed the difference and now choose something else tobuy….

  4. Frankly I’ve grown tired of the debate. Really what are we debating? A definition to tell me what I already know. I know the beer I like to drink, the breweries I support, the beers I brew. Craft beer is what I want it to be, and ultimately it’s what I enjoy pouring down my gullet. The notion that lager can’t be craft is insane. In the same, the notion that a “craft” brewer shouldn’t use adjuncts is equally as crazy. The final determination shouldn’t be a predetermined box, rather it should flow with the tides of the beer movement. Craft to me is the people making the beer I enjoy. I support the local brewers, the little guy if you will, because those are the brewers bringing inspiration and creativity to beer.

  5. I flip flop a lot on this issue. Kinda reminds me of the raging debate a few years back over Black IPA versus Cascadian Dark Ale as a style name. If and when a larger brewer makes a good beer -I appreciate it for what it is; I hope it was brewed to expand its market to a wider palate, rather than in an attempt to run a little guy out of business (why can’t the big guy or kinda big guy go “small” for the purists and still be pure in that going?) But then on the other hand, the little guy grows and becomes a kinda big guy – at least among the little guys – and he uses the same marketing ploys as the really big guys and that part stinks. At some point, though, why should he lose my appreciation for his beer, because “he” isn’t little anymore, as long as he makes the same good beers, only in a bigger production vat. Finally, should I hold it against him when he sells his business to the really big guys for the “big payoff”?

    This kind of reminds me of the quote at Jimmy John’s about the Mexican fisherman living in a small coastal village who is advised by an American venture capitalist while on vacation to expand his operation so he can get big, sell out and, ultimately, retire to a small fishing village in Mexico.

    I like Augie Schells’ beers, but I am affected by the fact that they are mass producing them. I wish (1) we could reach a saturation point in craft beer and microbrewing such that locally-produced beers would be readily available at the local beer store, rather than only on-site, and (2) that beer producers of any size were not barred from entry into the national beer market due to cost prohibitive regulatory schemes that favor the megabreweries only. Then the designation would mean little other than marketing budgets.

  6. Goose Island still makes great beers, but the point some may be missing is that Greg Hall Sr. chose to sell the company. It was (I’m assuming) pretty much entirely that one man’s decision. The quality of Goose Island beers has not gone down – not a bit. They’re still pushing into interesting territory, they’re still producing the largest volume of bourbon barrel aged imperial stout, they’re still top-notch brewers. That’s all that should matter. The decisions of a handful of guys at the top could affect people’s livelihoods, and that’s a story that I think many people can relate to more intimately, but the wonderful thing about the brewing industry is that it recognizes quality. So, continuing with the GI example, many brewers there are bailing in favor of Lagunitas’ massive new brewery. They have gone from quasi-corporate regional brewery to quasi-massive Tony Magee brewery. Both breweries produce craft beer, albeit different styles of craft beer; both have different ownership and structuring.

    For the record, I agree entirely with your musings, MD. CAMRA is a useful cautionary tale, arguing about the definitions of this or that will only make the situation more divisive.

  7. I’m a baker by profession. This is similar to the issue in baking of what constitutes “artisanal bread,” which has been debated in the American Bread Bakers’ Guild for well over a decade. The definition I prefer is: bread where one person, one artisan, is responsible for the quality of the bread at every step. That individual might not be the person performing each task, but that is the one person that takes the responsibility.

    This is why I like to see the name of the brewer on bottles or cans (as in Summit’s Unchained series). I try to keep up with the comings and goings of all the local brewers. If you know the brewer, if you know the artisan or “crafter,” if you will, you should know something about the beer. The small scale of the local brew pub (like the local bakery) makes this much easier.

  8. I think people too often forget that operating a brewery is about selling beer, not about brewing or crafting beer. Some breweries may have the luxury of limited releases of low profit margin beers, but even these must be subsidized by their flagship brews. As a home brewer I respect the artistry and passion of many brewers, but when it comes down to it, they have to make beer to sell, or they won’t be around long enough to make beer for the craft.

    Many people also dislike the fact that larger breweries are “encroaching” on craft brewers lately, and might argue that it waters down the craft movement. But frankly, anyone worried about the movement being watered down is discerning enough to know the difference, and anyone who isn’t might have just gained a taste for something other than light American lagers for the first time ever.
    – Dennis, Life Fermented Blog

  9. Latest from the craft or non craft front.

    NøgneØ of Norway announced today that they are selling 54% of their business to HansaBorg. $ Amount unknown What started out as a garage brewer is now a part of big business. In my opinion the quality of many NøgneØ beers is falling. in general all low gravity (the ones we buy in the supermarket normal stores in Norway) beers are boring. I fear they are tweaking the beers for mass market and saving the experimental flavours and interesting stuff for export and liquer store market. ANy way, Wish them all the best and they have done a big pioneering job for craft beer in Scandinavia.

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