Thursday, April 24, 2014

Telephone 27: Putting the Craft in Craft Beer

          The term craft beer is a many-headed hydra. While I understand that most people want the definition of craft to be simple, clear, and easy, it is not. Even basic questions like “what makes a beer good?” are influenced by numerous considerations outside of the beer itself. For example, how does the producer influence your perception of the beer you are drinking? And how does the production process influence the final product that goes into your glass? The most obvious and oversimplified answers to these questions are that Big Beer is evil and craft beer is good, but this tautology ignores the shifting parameters of craft beer as an economic, political, and social entity over last thirty years.
          Before getting too far into these questions, I would like to take a moment to distinguish between quality and intensity. Often, beer geeks and new craft drinkers alike focus on intensity, allowing intensity to stand in as a marker of quality; this can be seen by the status accorded to massively-hopped imperial IPAs and Russian Imperial Stouts in most craft beer circles. In and of itself, however, intensity is not a marker of quality; there is not a pre-ordained hierarchy of beer styles marked by an increasing level of intensity—a Great Chain of Beer, if you will. Instead, quality refers to the beer itself, not the scale or intensity of it. Big does not always equal better. A lager can be as well-made as an IPA, heretical as that may sound. When the focus shifts to the beer itself—rather than the assumptions that consumers bring to beer as an overarching whole, like the admonition that adjuncts, like macrobreweries, are evil—we can ask different types of questions. 
          The Brewers Association—the trade group that represents craft brewers in the United States—defines a craft brewery as “small, independent, and traditional.” Their definition of “small” is “annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales).” 6,000,000 barrels. And a barrel of beer, in case you were wondering, equals 31 gallons. So that’s 186,000,000 gallons of beer. While I understand the increase of numbers regarding annual production in recent years to allow the Brewers Association to continue counting breweries like Boston Beer as a part of their yearly statistics, this number still goes beyond that which reasonably counts as small. After all, while 3 percent of U.S. sales is far less than, say Coors or Miller, it is still well beyond the numbers most craft breweries will ever approach. As a comparison, the only Dayton brewery with the current capacity to produce more than a 1,000 barrels of beer a year is Warped Wing. So in this scenario, as long as you are no more than 6,000 times bigger, you are still considered craft. As economies of scale go, that is a pretty large spectrum.
          Next comes independent. Redhook gets kicked to the curb by the Brewers Association for the 25% stake it sold to Anheuser-Busch in 1995, which provided Redhook with access to A-B’s national distribution chain and the money to open a second brewery in Portsmouth, NH. Widmer followed in 1997, selling A-B a 27% stake for distribution access; Redhook and Widmer themselves merged in 2007 to form the Craft Beer Alliance. While both have been vilified for their decisions, as has Goose Island in 2011, I’ve always had difficulty reconciling the differences between their actions and the similar brewery expansions pursued by Boston Beer in Cincinnati, OH and Breinigsville, PA, and more recently the second wave of these expansions by Sierra Nevada and New Belgium in Asheville, NC, and Lagunitas in Chicago, IL. Sure, these breweries have maintained their “independence,” but they are all moving towards the business model espoused by the supposed enemy, Big Beer, with multiple breweries across the country intended to maximize distribution, production, and profit. The notion of independent is further complicated in the case of Boston Beer; while initially critical of Redhook’s actions, it had its own IPO stock offering in the mid-90s, raising $60 million dollars in capital that allowed Boston Beer to finally built its own brewery—during its firstdecade as a brewery, the majority of its beer came from contract brewing. It is this type of duplicity that makes me wish for more craft breweries like New Glarus, which intentionally self-limits their distribution to Wisconsin. Sure, it makes getting their beer more difficult to obtain, but I’ll take less-often quality over more-frequent quantity. As it relates to craft, less is often more.
          Finally, the Brewers Association’s third term: traditional. The ill-conceived “Craft versus Crafty” statement from BA in December 2012 was intended to call out “phantom craft” brewers like Blue Moon and Shock Top—breweries actually owned by Big Beer—in order to provide clarity and transparency for craft beer consumers. At the same time, it managed to alienate several of America’s older independent breweries by labeling them as “crafty” for their use of adjuncts, most notably corn. As Jace Marti of August Schell Brewing Company told the Brewer’s Association on BeerPulse, “Shame on you.” This hewing to “traditional” brewing ingredients on the part of the Brewer’s Association—yeast, water, barley, and hops—stems more from a false need on the part of BA to adhere to the German Reinheitsgebot than it does to the actual history of brewing in America. In this sense, the stigma connected to adjuncts has been created via their association with Big Beer: it is a product of those producer’s reputations more than anything to do with adjuncts per se. While this reaction may be understandable given the particular history of beer in this country, the backlash against adjuncts is more a manifestation of our own personal discomfort with American’s brewing legacy. In a discussion we had regarding the American Weissbier recipe from Wahl’s and Henius’s American Handy-Book of American Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades (1902), a recipe that features 30% corn in the grain bill, beer writer Jeff Alworth aptly observes that “corn is so hated now we forget that it’s our claim to indigenous fame. We call it ‘cheap’ but if the Belgians had had corn, we’d call it ‘rustic.’ Time to reclaim it from the beer geek trashbin.” His point, that we look down on our own history in the same manner that we tend to valorize the brewing history of other countries, hits the proverbial nail on the head. I couldn’t agree more.
          So where does this leave us? I’d like to close with a question, one intended to expand traditional discussion regarding the definition of beer at a local level: if a brewery—let’s call it Brewery X—produces 2-3 million barrels of beer annually and distributes in all 50 states, is it still a craft brewery? After all, at that point, Brewery X would seem to have more in common with Big Beer breweries like Budweiser than a brewery producing 500 barrels a year, even though the scale of comparison between Budweiser and Brewery X is roughly comparable to the one between Brewery X and a brewery producing 500 barrels a year. Pretending that the giants of craft beer share the same concerns with those on the lower echelons of production is both foolish and asinine. And even a little bit insulting. Still, the desire to continue to count breweries like Brewery X, to acknowledge their role in the history of craft beer while also relying upon their successes to document the growth of craft, is important as well as understandable. It would just be nice of that history was based upon, well, history, and was a little more even-handed and based less upon marketing. Even so, craft beer, much like Dayton’s burgeoning craft scene, is at a crossroads.
          Next time, let’s try some beer.

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