Craft Beer Criticisms? Part 1

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Craft brew enthusiasm often goes hand in hand with a smug sense of superiority.  Drinking a rather rare, delicious find frequently falsely elevates a drinker to assume a position of authority over the light beer swilling acolytes of the mass producers of highly marketed swill.  While this sensibility seems justified our enthusiasm for quality of taste over quantity of watery tripe is too often built upon a shaky foundation.  This series takes a look at the far too often unspoken side of craft brewing.  Dare I say the darker side of craft brewing.

Today we look at the practice of contract brewing.

Like all rational humans we assume that when we visit our local business establishments that the products that are for sale within their walls are made locally, by members of the community for members of the community.  Well we all know the saying about assumptions and how they make us look and often local craft breweries aren’t as local as they seem.

In the same way that it is impossible for your local farmer’s market to have fresh bananas in February (unless your home is sub-tropical) there are often limiting factors in creating craft beer that limits how local that beer might be.  Starting a brewery with any real capacity is an insanely expensive endeavor and depending on location can be a regulatory nightmare.  Some breweries contract out with other facilities, often several states away, to alleviate these pressures saving their local brewery to focus on experimental beers or one-offs.  A good example of this is 21st Amendment brewery that is located in San Francisco but brews and cans their been in far off Minnesota.  San Francisco residents might think that virginal can of Fireside Chat came fresh from up the street when the reality is that it was shipped from the western edge of the Great Lakes region.

Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with contract brewing.  As a Pennsylvania citizen I am thrilled that 21st Amendment contract brews so that I am able to find local shops that stock their beers.  But a craft brew enthusiast must take care not to assume their can of Monk’s Blood is somehow fresher than that can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.  This doesn’t mean the contents of that can aren’t more flavorful and of higher quality but it may be that the PBR reached your local bar in less time than you favorite local craft beer.

The real issue is that craft brewers have created a market space attempting to assure drinkers that they are not the mega-conglomerates like MillerCoors or InBev.  For many craft brew enthusiasts this sets up the same almost moral dichotomy as the Walmart versus local stores battle in the retail sector.  As craft breweries grow from  increased demand they will most likely have to consider practices of those business they are attempting to distinguish themselves from which blurs the lines between the local David and the mainstream Goliath.

Beer Production

We craft brewthusiasts all want to believe that the beers we love are made in a five gallon pail in our favorite brewer’s basement.  We want to believe that the batch that created the beer we are currently enjoying was tended to with loving care, an obsessive desire for the highest quality, and personally supervised by our brew heros.  Conversely we want to believe that the bottle of Bud Light with Lime was created in a soul sucking assembly line by disgruntled, mindless exploited street urchins.  The reality we have to admit is that the smallest of home brews and the largest of the mass producers are closer than we would like to admit.

Personally I have no objection to contract brewing if it is done to overcome the often staggering limitations for small brewers.  Anything to increase the reach of a beer is okay in my book.  But as with so many things in life the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Just remember not to be so smug about your local breweries brews.  They may not be as local as you think.