When is craft beer not craft beer?

Q. When is Craft Beer not Craft Beer?

A. When a large brewer takes over brewing a “craft beer?”

Are you repulsed and offended by the big brewers offering of what they call Craft beer? There are always 2 sides to a story and we discuss them here.

This question has perplexed me for some time now and I know it is a very emotional issue for some “craft” beer drinkers and small craft microbrewers. But before we get all emotional perhaps we should look at what craft beer is on a technical basis and then see where all the emotion is coming from. Is that emotion justified and if so is there anything that can be done to separate “true craft brewed beer” from those that just want to make millions.

The Oxford dictionary defines craft as follows; noun an activity involving skill in making things by hand: the craft of cobbling [mass noun]: art and craft (crafts) work or objects made by hand: the shop sells local crafts (as modifier craft) a craft fair [in singular] the skills in carrying out one’s work:

The first sentence probably relates to beer more closely than other definitions; “an activity involving skill in making things by hand”. So it may be that the skill of the brewer in designing and executing his craft in making a unique beer is the crux of making a “craft” beer. It appears that there is an amount of art or invention involved and then knowing how to carry out and reach the goal initially envisaged by the brewer that defines a craft beer.

But more than that it is a unique beer that discerning drinkers can enjoy and reflect on that uniqueness. Its the emotion it evokes and that is different for every drinker so it is a personal experience. It’s like a piece of art that can be interpreted differently by the beholder that makes a fine painting. But let us not forget that brewing beer is also a well established science and in my opinion probably more so than even winemaking.

It matters not whether its craft beer or mass produced beer the same scientific principle apply to making beer. So if we put it all together making beer in general is both an art and a science. Perhaps making craft beer is a romantic pursuit in that those doing it may consider it being more of an art than science. And you would not blame homebrewers thinking that when they start out in their shed. It is a very attractive proposition and why would you need to know all the science; surely that is for the big boys who pump out millions of litres of sameness and blandness.

But the big boys are now recognising the growth in the craft beer sector and are they “muddying” the waters with their own versions of craft beer? Are their beers technically any less inferior to those produced by the independent, small craft brewer? One just has to look at microbrewers such as James Squire, Little Creatures, or Emerson’s in Dunedin to recognise that they had started small, were independent and successfully producing great craft beer. But when taken over by large brewers had their technical and artistic merit changed. Certainly not and in fact their consistency probably would have received an injection of help from the mother company. I would argue that technically the beer hasn’t changed in most cases and now benefits with a better and wider distribution network so that it reaches the consumer in a fresher state and become more available to all.

This cannot be a bad thing. But many argue that because the multi-nationals are deceiving the public by not being transparent and declaring the name of the mother company it is unlikely for the unsuspecting consumer to make an informed decision as to whether they want to make a stand against them purely because it may disadvantage the small struggling microbrewer. This very argument forms part of the current affairs program aired last year on the ABC program Landline. Although I understand their sentiments are we just crying over spilt milk?

Yes, there are challenges for the new start up microbrewer but isn’t that the case in any type of small business. Don’t a number of small businesses close their doors in the first 5 years after opening? Yes, the big companies have a distinct advantage over the small company both in their experience, huge sales force, competitiveness and ability to purchase raw materials at bulk pricing. But that is as a consequence of capitalism, is it not?

Recently, Blue Moon has become one of the most successful “craft” beers in the US. It has raised controversy because it is owned by MillerCoors and the small microbrewers are crying foul as did the Craft Brewers Association (CBA), who black-listed them (but later reneged). According to the CBA Craft brewers are “small, independent and traditional”. But the emergence of Blue Moon has raised the level of awareness of that style of beer, “Villa, who has a doctorate in brewing from Belgium and tours the world talking about Blue Moon’s pedigree, said the beer has been instrumental in recruiting consumers into craft beers, especially Belgian white.” If so, and it would appear to make sense, the small brewers have also benefited in that more people are now set in their quest to seek out more craft beers resulting in increased sales for the small microbrewer. And furthermore the company (Blue Moon) has sponsored the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Apparently, no-one is complaining about that.

I have considered the pros and cons of craft beer produced by the small, independent producer and the large multi-national brewer but I am still finding it hard to side with either of them. But I guess my strongest driver comes from my training in Science and looking at the objective difference and merits of what craft beer is; and that is one that is designed to add flavour and enjoyment when consumed with a variety of foods in the company of good friends.

So I guess I look at the end in mind first before considering who produces it as long as the producers do no harm to anyone in the process, and act in fair competition which is usually regarded as healthy in a society such as ours. But I do detest unscrupulous actions by big companies (or anyone for that matter) that put the publican or retailer of beer at ransom and in an uncompromising position to take their beer.

Maybe the decision comes down to the individual and even though the big companies choose not to label the parentage of that beer news travels fast enough these days because of the net and social media that it would not be long before you find out who the producer is. If you are still opposed and offended by the large brewers then it is unlikely you can influence the big companies entry into this segment. All you can do is boycott their beers. And if you are still unsure about it all maybe just apply this test; if you were offered a job at a large brewery would you take it or reject it? In fact you could apply the same principle to any industry, whether it be insurance, accounting, mining or whatever. But one thing is for sure. The controversy will keep raging and sales and awareness of this new phenomenon will continue to grow at an incredible rate for many more years. And perhaps one day the majority of beer will be craft beer and the insipid offering will be in the minority. Then someone will come up with the novel idea of starting a brewery that produces easy-drinking lager style beers once again.