The Blind Tiger Podcast crew is made up of a trio of craft beer enthusiasts not craft beer purists. While Mike, Jesse, and myself are insatiable fans of sampling beers brewed by craft brewers from around the world what we care most about is the beer. We aren’t married to the idea that every beer we drink must be from a craft brewery. While you won’t hear us extolling the virtues of Budweiser you might catch us discussing the merits of Stella Artois or other mass market beers if their quality and flavor is worthy of praise.
Thankfully this obsession with quality over definition puts us in a great position as the craft beer purist is having an increasingly difficult time determining what exactly is craft beer.
The Brewers Association is supposed to hold the proverbial “keys to the kingdom” in defining craft beer. Small, traditional, and independent are supposed to be the only criteria of craft beer. Yet over the years the definition of craft beer has been amended to be more inclusive than exclusive to the objection of many.
The Boston Beer Company successful petition of the definition of “small” to be increased to six million barrels of beer annual a number that to many is an extremely large number. It isn’t a surprise that this number was chosen to allow the Boston Beer Company, makers of Sam Adams, room for growth while allowing the countries most successful “craft” brewery to continue to market as being craft. This ignores the fact that they dwarf the production of their closest craft beer competitor Sierra Nevada.
It appears that the Brewers Association has decided again to modify the definition of craft beer. Rather than focusing on being more accommodating to large craft breweries (well lets be honest, accommodating to Sam Adams) this time they are focused on the definition of traditional brewing methods with traditional ingredients.
One of the definitions of traditional brewing that allowed a brewery to consider itself craft beer was that a craft brewery couldn’t make more than fifty percent of its beer, as well as its “flagship” beer, from another other than barley malt. This meant that adjunct beers that used cheaper ingredients like rice or corn to keep ABV levels higher while using cheap replacement ingredients weren’t considered craft beers.
Beers like Budweiser, Coors, and the other mass market, popular American lagers are considered adjunct lagers. Using barley malts to provide the complex sugars gives beer its signature sweetness and its alcohol content. Using barley malts is expensive as a raw ingredient when compared with using corn, rice, or just dumping in high fructose corn syrup. Thus mass market breweries use these adjuncts to make their extremely cheap, weakly flavored lagers. This also means that even huge craft breweries like Sam Adams cannot compete on price with mass market breweries as they use more expensive raw ingredients.
The amendment to the craft beer decision, which happened in February, means that brewing giant Yuengling & Sons Inc will now be considered an official craft brewery. Not only will they be able to advertise their immensely popular lagers and stout as craft beer but they will soon join the Brewers Association as a voting member as well.
The decision has been met with major controversy as many smaller breweries find the exception to be too self-serving and frankly ridiculous. Dan Del Grande of Bison Organic Beer is quoted saying, “I think the Brewers Association has watered down the meaning of craft beer, and of good beer.” In Del Grande’s opinion anyone over 200,000 barrels should be not be recognized as a craft brewery. He says, “Frankly, those guys don’t need the help.”
Julia Herz, spokeswoman for the Brewers Association, retorts, “Our board of directors decided not to penalize the most rapidly growing of our craft brewers from coming of age, for success. The definition of craft as evolved as the industry evolves.”
Those thinking that the Brewers Association may have lost their way as stewards of the ever important craft beer label should take note that the Brewery Association has made efforts to education the American drinking public on the differences between true craft beer and mass market ‘crafty’ knockoffs.
Personally I have no intention of not drinking Goose Island beers because they were bought by AB InBev. I have no intention of drinking more Yuengling because they are now craft beer. I don’t think that the Brewers Association definition of craft beer should determine what you drink, I think the quality of the beer in conjunction with what you like is what should determine what you drink.
The definition seems unnecessarily open to most breweries though. I think it is unfair to have a blanket term that covers breweries like Sam Adams and Burley Oak or Yuengling and the Alchemist.
I tend to agree with Del Grande that no one would have stopped drinking Sam Adams if they were no longer considered craft beer. The same way that Yuengling certainly wasn’t struggling with sales before the definition change to include them.
The Brewers Association is clearly an important organization for craft beer advocacy, education, and protection but as craft beer has exploded in America I fear more and more that the Brewers Association is making more political decisions rather than principled decisions. Having Yuengling as an ally in fighting legislation to protect against the dangerous influence of MillerCoors and AB InBev is important but I fear that if the definition of craft beer is ‘watered down’ to mean everyone other than the big and evil big two the definition really loses all meaning.
Was this change necessary? Was this change smart? What do you think about this definition change and the Brewers Association in general?