Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What makes a craft brewery?

The Brewers Assocation lays out a few keycriteria:

Small: Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels.

Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.

Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of it’s volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

Most beer lovers think of craft beer like pornography: you know it when you see it. Or taste it. Hey that's not what I meant, get your mind out of the gutter. America's taste for beer isn't so much changing as morphing at light speed (despite a recession-driven drop in beer sales, and a heavy drop in import beer sales, Americans are actually buying MORE craft beer in 2009 than in 2008...the more expensive option! That's a powerful trend). Seriously, take a look at the founding dates of all your favorite craft breweries: Smuttynose/Great Divide/Magic Hat [1994], Six Point [2006], Stone [1996], New Glarus [1993], etc. This is our generation's revolution.

But the explosion in popularity of so-called craft beer is beginning to challenge its defining criteria in a few critical ways. For one thing, all-malt brewing leaders like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada are humongo; they're starting to push that 2 million barrel ceiling, and soon could be over. In an excellent article on the Washington Post, Greg Kitsock explains that Sam Adams last year produced 1.992 million barrels; when they eclipse 2 million in 2009, their barrelage production will be expunged from the Brewers Assocation statistics (that 2 million number was defined by Congress in 1976 as the ceiling for the small brewers tax differential).

For another, the big breweries are starting to get into the game: Blue Moon, for example, is officially brewed by the "Blue Moon Brewing Company," an entity that doesn't exist, since in reality it's owned and brewed by Molson/Coors at their on-site brewery in Coors Field. Does its financial backer and marketing powerhouse disqualify it as a craft beer? According to the Brewers Assocation: yes.

A more complex case is that of Chicago's flagship craft brewery, Goose Island. They formed a distribution partnership with Red Hook Brewing, a granddad from the craft brewing homeland of Seattle, who own a 40% stake. Red Hook merged with Widmer Brewing to become the Craft Brewers Alliance (bumping the brewing partners out of the Brewers Assocation), and sold a 25% stake to Anheuser-Busch, or should I say InBevBelgianmouthfulAnheuserBusch. That's a lot of Kevin Bacon's of separation, but enough to disqualify Goose Island as a craft brewery.

Ultimately, what beer you choose to drink is your decision, and when im shootin' cornhole on a 70 degree day with a cool brew in one hand and a beanbag in the other I'm not thinking of ownership interests or distribution partnerships. But for beer lovers it's something to worry about: artistic integrity (for brewing is art), independence, and the uncommercialized pursuit of taste perfection were trademarks of the craft brewing revolution in the 80s and 90s, and they could just as quickly be compromised as our favorite breweries grow out of their microbrew roots.

And geez, 2 million barrels...remember when the definition of microbrewery was 15,000?

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