Featured Contributor: Andrew Gavrin @
Craft Beer: Who Cares What It Is?
To be or not to be considered a Craft brewer? That is the question. And it’s a question that’s been asked a lot recently. It’s gotten a lot more attention recently not only because of Craft’s tremendous growth, but also a couple of events that have taken place in the market. The Brewers Assocation (more on them below) altered their definition of Craft. And, our (ahem) friends* at ABInbev have gone on a little shopping spree, purchasing well-regarded craft brewers — Goose Island, Blue Point, 10 Barrel and Elysian.
*If you haven’t seen it, our “friends” at ABInbev put out this little beauty during the Super Bowl: Bud Super Bowl Ad
A different question that many have asked is “who cares?” Does it really matter if a brewer is considered a Craft brewer? Why should it matter what the Brewers Association or anyone else considers to be “Craft”? Frankly, that was my initial gut reaction (pun intended — sorry.). It’s just a definition. Drink what you want, don’t worry about it, and just enjoy your beer.
But, as I thought about it more, I realized that defining Craft beer properly really does matter.
It does matter when a member of the Craft community sells to ABInbev.
It does matter when the definition of Craft is expanded by the Brewers Association to make sure that national brands like Sam Adams and Yuengling maintain their membership in the craft community.
It does matter when a drinker doesn’t know that Blue Moon and Leinenkugel are owned by MillerCoors.
For those who don’t know, the Brewers Association is a trade group that represents all Craft brewers in the United States. They are a self-described “passionate voice for Craft brewers.” As such, they pretty much have the definitive definition of who is to be considered Craft. To be a part of the club, a brewer must be: (1) be small; (2) be independent; and (3) brew in a traditional style. Sounds easy enough, right? Of course not! All three of these criteria have ambiguity. How small? If you have a distribution agreement with AB, can you still be independent? What is a traditional brewing method? And, recently, they changed their answers to these questions increasing the maximum size of a Craft brewer as Samuel Adams blew past the former 2 million barrel limit, and easing up the requirements for traditional brewing to allow long-time brewers like Yuengling and Narragansett to join the club.
Again, so what? Who cares?
I do. I love Craft beer. I love everything about it – the creativity, the community involvement, the passion, the independence, the stories of the brewers, the camaraderie, and of course, the beer itself.
If you are like me, the definition of Craft matters because you want Craft beer to continue to grow. You want this beer revolution to continue in the US and the rest of the world. You want to support local businesses. You want to support companies that care about more than the bottom line. You want choices. You want great flavors.
And as the lines blur, everything we love about Craft beer risks disappearing. I won’t spend time rehashing the details about the risks to Craft posed by blurry lines, as these great articles do more than a sufficient job defining the rationale: Michael Pizzi: A Battle is Brewing and Sam Calagione Squares Off Against Budweiser.
As important as this definition is, in all of the blogs, articles and OpEds I’ve read, I still haven’t read one that resonates with me. I’d love to use the old Supreme Court argument on what it considered pornography — “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” But, who am I kidding, that doesn’t give enough guidance. So, in my definition, a Craft brewer can be no bigger than regional, must use the best available ingredients, and have no (zero/nada) ownership affiliation with a non-Craft brewer. My definition excludes the craft-like brands owned by ABInbev and MillerCoors, excludes the independently-owned brands which brew with adjuncts like Yuengling and Shiner, and even excludes national brands like Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada.
To me, it’s easy to say that the ABInbev/MillerCoors brands are not Craft. Some say that their beers have changed since they’ve been bought. Others argue that they haven’t. Frankly, it’s irrelevant. The fact that they aren’t independent is what excludes these brands. They serve a different purpose for their master now. They are no longer part of the community that shares ideas, tips and ingredients when needed. Rather, they are part of AB/MC’s fight against Craft beer. It’s hard to blame someone for getting big money for a business that they grew from nothing, but selling out to AB/MC flies in the face of everything that Craft is about. These brewers took the easy way. They took the money above all else. They went from helping build a great American industry to being part of the war against it. As good as their beers may continue to be, I cannot in good conscience, support them. And, I certainly no longer can include them in the community of great small American brewers.
To a lesser degree, I feel that Yuengling and Shiner are also enemies of craft. True, they are great American companies with long histories. And, I harbor no resentment towards them at all. But, they are not craft. By using adjuncts, their beer doesn’t stand up to the quality of Craft beers and is produced at a lower cost. They can (and do) sell to wholesalers and, in turn retailers, at a lower cost. And, because drinkers confuse these brands with Craft, retailers can (and do) charge Craft pricing for their beers, giving themselves significantly larger margins. Larger margins make wholesalers and retailers happy. And, as a result, Yuengling and Shiner are able to push and keep Craft beers off of tap handles. They aren’t playing on a level field with Craft, and therefore, I can’t include them.
Speaking of great independent brewers, there’s the problem of categorizing Samuel Adams, and to a lesser degree, Sierra Nevada, Rogue and other national “Craft” brands. I love these brands and will continue to support them. With that said, I don’t consider them Craft brands. They’ve graduated. But that’s not a bad thing. They haven’t sold out. They use their resources to keep innovating. They continue to carry the torch for the Craft beer industry. They have felt a responsibility to smaller brewers, have supported the industry and should be lauded for this. But, considering them “Craft” actually minimizes their role. As Craft brands, they need to try competing with local brewers. Jim Koch (founder of Samuel Adams and the awesome guy from the commercials) talked about the frustration of this challenge himself: Sam Adams vs. Local Brewers. They fight for tap handles in Atlanta with SweetWater, Terrapin and Red Brick. They are constantly coming out with new styles in order to compete in Pennsylvania with Victory, Conshohocken Brewing and Prism. They don’t need this. Trying to maintain their image as the “little guy” is fruitless. Craft drinkers see through this. These brands aren’t small. They’re not local. They don’t brew small batches like the little guy down the street. They are wasting their resources trying to be “Craft.” If they refocus their efforts, they can do something even more important (and even better for their own sales). They can use their size and resources to educate the Bud, Stella, Corona and Coors Light drinkers about our amazing Craft industry, and introduce them to Craft beers. They should bring Craft beer to the masses and the masses to Craft beer. Brands like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada are Craft Hall of Famers. They are the Great American Breweries. When foreigners hear about American beer, they shouldn’t think about flavorless yellow beer. Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada should be the posterboys.
So what? What does all these mean?
If you are a craft brewer, think about all of the values that brought you into the business and drove your success. Continue to live by those values. Preach the value of independence to your wholesalers, retailers and drinkers. And, when you are ready to retire, sell or otherwise get out of the business, apply the same creativity you used to make great beers in order to find a solution that allows your business to continue with the same values, while rewarding you for your hard work along the way.
If you are a retailer or wholesaler, make sure that you are keeping Craft strong. A strong Craft industry is good for you. Craft brings more money and bigger margins. Don’t let the “big guys” impinge on your Craft space.
And, if you are a drinker, educate yourself about what you are drinking. Learn the stories of these great small companies. You are absolutely free to drink Goose Island or Blue Moon. But, know that doing so is hurting this great Craft movement. Ask your retailer for alternatives from the local Craft brewers. If you are at a bar with only a couple of draft beers where having a Craft brand may not be realistic, ask for a Sam Adams or a Sierra Nevada. Let’s continue growing this amazing industry together!
Andy Gavrin, President ABV Consulting
A promotions and marketing agency focused on the needs of Craft brewers
UK: 07474 163496
Twitter @abvbeer; Facebook/abvconsulting
#craftbeer #beer #abv #samadams #bluemoon #bud #ABInbev #MillerCoors #brew #adjuncts #Yuengling #Shiner #SamuelAdams #SierraNevada
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