Pouring out a can of beer

Craft Beer Is Losing Its Identity

What makes craft beer special?

Is it quality ingredients? A dedication to fans and community? Maybe it’s independence, that rebel streak signified by the craft brewer seal?

Brewers Association Independence seal

If it’s any of these things, the craft beer industry has a problem: taken as a whole, it no longer fits the bill.

I’ve been a fan of craft beer for about 10 years, which probably puts me somewhere in the middle in terms of tenure. Over that time, the industry has changed quite a bit. Such change is an inevitable and necessary response to a variety of factors, most notably its explosive growth over that same time period.

But when I look at the things that first captured and then sustained my interest in craft beer, I’m saddened to see that most of them are increasingly rare.

In its race forward, the craft beer world is leaving many of its core fans behind. And with growth slowing, it’s unclear whether it can replace them with fans who have the same level of commitment.

Here are five key ways that the craft beer industry is losing its identity:

1. Focus on quality ingredients

A major distinguishing feature between craft and macro producers has long been the product itself. In particular, craft brewers developed a reputation for avoiding low-quality adjuncts: the corn, rice and corn syrup responsible for the term “headache beer.”

When craft breweries did use additives, they drew from Belgian tradition or struck out with high-quality experiments. They often sourced from nearby farms, adding local fruit, honey, or other produce.

I’m sure you know where I’m about to go. In recent years, in an attempt to stand out with an ingredient that’s never been used before, brewers regularly clog recipes with anything they can think of. Innovation’s great, but Gatorade, donuts, and mass-market sugar cereals are just as bad if not worse than corn syrup. A product that uses commercial, mass-market ingredients is not “craft.” Most of the time, it’s not even good.

Even worse, US breweries are developing a nasty habit of failing to tell consumers what’s in the beer at all. I’ve already covered the nuts and bolts in a previous article about US labeling law, but the biggest issue is a lack of disclosure around ingredients that could make drinkers sick or even kill them.

In a recent phone conversation, a local brewery rep told me that “we put lactose in most of our beers, but the labels will usually not indicate that [they contain lactose].” I’ve visited other breweries where the menu calls out some of the beers as containing lactose, but other beers with lactose on the same menu are not so labeled.

Say what you will about the economic pros and cons of odd ingredients: a core aspect of the craft beer ethos was once inclusivity. I can think of few things less inclusive than risking the health and well-being of your consumers.

2. Acquisitions

Before there was craft beer, there was “small beer” and “independent beer.” Take a look at this diagram and tell me that some of craft beer’s biggest names are independent.

Of course, there’s no single, agreed-upon definition of craft (or of independent, for that matter). And the most authoritative one, from the Brewers Association (BA), changes whenever they decide they want to keep some of their wealthiest and most influential members onboard.

At best, acquisitions and changing guidelines dilute and confuse craft beer’s identity. At worst, they undermine it completely. Take the independence seal mentioned above.

It currently could be applied to:

  1. A brewery that produces more beer than all but the top five breweries in the country
  2. A company that is expected to make more than 50% of its revenue from liquid that is not beer
  3. A brewery that is wholly owned by a venture capital firm
  4. A brewery that deliberately walks right up to the BA’s ownership rule by selling 24.5% to a non-craft beverage company

At this point, the seal’s most notable influence is taking up label space that could be used for an ingredient list.

3. Assholes

“The craft beer community is 99 percent asshole free.”

This quote from Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione is one of the most popular in craft beer lore. If it was true when he first spoke it, it almost certainly isn’t true now.

Again, there are too many examples to cover here, and I’m not going to call out specific people or breweries. But no matter what it takes to make someone an asshole in your eyes, a good number of people working in craft beer are bound to check the box.

Some popular categories in recent years include:

  • Failing to pay staff
  • Accusations of racial discrimination
  • Accusations of workplace harassment
  • Marketing and labels that are racist, misogynist, or exploitative. (This problem is rampant enough that the BA added a policy about it to the advertising and marketing code, but I’m not aware of whether the policy’s been enforced. And I know I said I wouldn’t include specific examples, but this one stands out as pretty awful.)
  • Disputes, insults, and litigation between breweries

You might not agree that all of these situations are bad, and not every accusation is borne out by the facts. But we have more than enough here to invalidate the 99% clause.

4. Giving fans what they want is not innovation

In the U.S., craft beer’s pioneers charted new paths by expanding on European recipes, introducing bigger and bolder flavors, and testing the limits of what was thought possible. By doing so, they created a whole new market for beer and changed people’s perceptions of where beer came from and what it could taste like.

If they had asked current beer drinkers what they wanted, the result would have been more of the same light, flavorless liquid that macros were already producing.

Although craft beer was born out of creativity and personal vision, current breweries in a crowded market seem afraid to deviate from “what fans want.”

And if you ask fans what they want, they will keep asking for essentially the same thing, with only minor variations on existing themes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that as a business model – it’s worked reasonably well for the big brewers for years – but you will not chart a path forward.

Innovation is built on defying expectations. Sustainable, lasting innovation is built on defying expectations in a way that privileges quality and inspires both drinkers and fellow brewers to continue taking risks. Anyone hoping to innovate needs to fear stagnation more than failure.

5. “Taste and dump” culture

Most members of the craft beer community know at least one (or ten) drinkers whose fandom centers on racking up their Untappd numbers. The goal is to try as many beers as possible – a single taste is often enough – record the experience, and move on.

Ultra-limited releases inspire long lines, high prices, and artificial scarcity. Brewers produce thirty variations on the same recipe, tweaking only a single hop or additive, to capture buyers who can’t possibly tell the difference between them all.

And worst of all, drinkers buy 16-ounce cans only to take a single sip, then dump the rest.

Pouring out a can of beer

There are valid reasons to dump beer: it’s gone bad, it is bad, or you’ve just had enough. But when you’re opening a can (which you might have gone to great lengths and expense to obtain) just so you can say you’ve had it, it’s clearly no longer about the beer itself anymore.

And when the craft beer community leaves beer itself behind, I’m pretty sure it’s lost its way.

Julian Cantella

7 thoughts on “Craft Beer Is Losing Its Identity”

  1. Uh-oh, failing to list down the ingredients is not okay, I feel like that is not even legal. The regulatory board should make sure that all products for sale should disclose all of their ingredients

  2. Great article. When I started drinking what I like to call good beer there were very few breweries and the ones that did exist made 4-5 different beers and they were all good. Now you walk into a place and there are 40 choices including stouts that are like protein shakes and IPAs that are like Tang and they all cost an arm and a leg. I love the Founders Barrel Aged series but $26.00 for a 750ML beer is criminal. Need to get back to basics.

  3. Back about 1980 most people I knew wanted more quality. It didn’t matter who made it. It still doesn’t, to most surely.

    By any standard we have phenomenal choice and variety.

    Lactose has been used in brewing at least since c. 1900, Mackeson stout pioneered it. The brand is made in Florida now under license, and is superb.

    Finally, adjunct is adjunct. Whether the Belgians use it or we do. They, like we, offer variable results. All that matters is the end product. The consumer will decide.

  4. The industry was based on, initially, high quality ingredients and innovation. It was in stark contrast to the fizzy flavorless yellow stuff served decades ago. The industry still has room for growth for those breweries willing to commit to running a good business.

    Interesting to me that lack of market options decades ago, spawned a back woods home brewing culture. Many of us couldn’t find good beer so we made it ourselves. From this culture grew many of the brewers that founded some of the biggest breweries today ie. Bells and Founders

    1. I agree – but I think it’s important to recognize that “running a good business” is not the same as “making good beer” or even “being good people.” As the scene grows crowded, breweries that succeed at the business aspect are more likely to succeed than those focused on either of the other two.

  5. Do people really dump beer after just a taste? I mean, I’ve done it – with shit beer only.

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