Who Will Save the “Idea” of Craft Beer?

How much influence can a label have?

A lot, apparently, if you’ve followed the “craft versus crafty” debate of the past few years.

Remember when we called new beers from anyone other than Big Beer microbrews?  Those were the days of a few new six-packs from places unknown hitting the grocery shelves. Something unusual with new flavors. Just a faddish annoyance to Big Beer.

Miller Brewing Co. even played along in 1998, plastering billboards, television ads and bar placards with its retro-themed advertising campaign:  “Sometimes you just want a good old-fashioned macrobrew.”

From my memory, the term “craft beer” started appearing in earnest sometime after the lull in new beer expansion that occurred around 1997 to 2003.  As the Brewers Association evolved (it was formed in 2005 by the merger of The Association of Brewers and the Brewers’ Association of America) “craft beer” changed from a concept to a definition.

Light to Dark

The Brewers Association defines the term “craft brewer” for its own purposes.  It is a trade organization, not a regulatory agency. It produces websites, magazines, and beer festivals, collects and disseminates information, and undertakes many other activities to advance its mission to promote issues of interests to its members. It has neither trademarked nor does it otherwise own the term “craft beer.”1 Or “craft brewer” for that matter.2

The worth of any trade association can be measured by how well it stakes out a position of authority in its given field.  Another way to consider its worth is to ask, “how well does it drive the conversation?”

There is little question and ample evidence the BA is masterful at driving the “craft beer” conversation, even when getting it completely wrong.

Take the craft versus crafty debacle.  Apparently feeling the heat from Big Beer’s entry into the non-fizzy-yellow-beer category, the BA sought to distinguish the little guys by differentiating between real craft and faux-craft.  RealCraft™ were small, independent, and traditional brewers with “traditional” defined initially as those who did not use too many adjuncts (like corn).

That definition kicked out August Schell Brewing Co. and Yuengling and Son, Inc., the oldest brewery in the U.S.  The BA’s chart showing who was not a craft brewer disappeared quickly in the aftermath of appropriate criticism like that from Jace Marti, asked why August Schell was being punished by the BA for using an ingredient (corn) which started out of necessity when the brewery was founded in 1860 and continued out of tradition.

Fair question.

Yet, even in the craft versus crafty misstep, the BA was driving the conversation about craft beer.

But is it the right conversation? Or is the BA merely enjoying the spoils of our misinterpretation of the conversation?

Late last year a smartphone app appeared on the beer scene that allows beer fans to check whether the beer they’re buying is craft or crafty.  Scan a barcode or enter a beer into Craft Check and you’ll get one of two messages.

Pick “right” and you’ll get this one: “Congratulations! What you’re looking at is a genuine craft brew from a genuine craft brewery. This is as good as it gets (when it comes to beer).”

Pick “wrong” and look out: “Careful! What you’ve got there is an imitation craft brew from one of the big guys. It’s got all the soul of a spreadsheet. Crafty, but not Craft.”

It’s momentarily funny, then embarrassingly simplistic. It also demonstrates why this conversation has been so wrong.

Not long after the Craft Check app came out, the Brewers Association changed its definition of craft brewer. Principally, it changed the definition of “traditional” to now include brewers who use higher amounts of corn, rice and other adjuncts.

Traditional is now defined as: “A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.”

I guess they decided to change from exclusionary to confusingly contradictory.

With that flip of the switch, breweries such as August Schell and Yuengling and Son suddenly went from crafty to craft.  Or, to use the Craft Check language, August Schell and Yuengling went from having “all the soul of a spreadsheet” to a “genuine craft brewery.”  That’s as good as it gets!


When the BA announced the definition change, I contacted Jace Marti to see if August Schell had been invited to be part of the process.

“I had talked to a few of the new members on the BA board that I knew, and had asked them if they were ever going to do something about it,” Marti responded in an email in March. “They told me they were going to try and get it changed, but that was the extent of my involvement in the process.”

“Ken Grossman from Sierra Nevada called my dad on Monday morning to tell him that they had a board retreat and changed the definition,” Marti noted.  “I thought it was was pretty cool that he did that.”

“The reaction at the brewery so far has pretty much been ‘So… I guess we’re a craft brewer again?'” Marti explained.  “We’re all glad its finally over with and can just try and move on from the whole thing. We’ve felt we’ve always been a craft brewer, even if we didn’t meet their exact definition, so it’s nice to be recognized as one again, even though we’ve been doing everything the same the whole time.”

It’s the reaction you’d expect someone in Marti’s position to have. Perplexed that August Schell was ever not in the club, appreciative of the change for whatever it’s worth, and carrying on business as usual.

But business as usual in the craft beer discussion has not improved in the wake of the BA’s change of heart.

Perhaps no single article demonstrates this more than a recent one appearing in the Huffington Post by Associate Business Editor Kevin Short discussing the BA’s new definition.

Three paragraphs in, Short drops this line:

To use the term “craft beer” in marketing, brewers traditionally had to be three things: small, independent and traditional. The BA also required that brewers use only barley malt for their flagship beer, rather than rice or corn.

Stop right there.  “Craft beer” is neither a trademarked nor well defined term. No one “owns” it.  So, who gets to decide which breweries can use the term “craft beer” in marketing?

While you’re pondering that question, consider this passage from Short’s article which he uses to demonstrate the fear that widening the definition of craft beer “could render the distinction meaningless:”

“They’re concerned – rightfully concerned, in my humble opinion – that this will compromise the quality of beer produced and sold under the craft beer umbrella,” writes Caleb Houseknecht on the blog for Keg Works, a leading beer equipment seller.

It’s an incredible line which demonstrates exactly what is wrong with this conversation.

With the BA driving the conversation about “craft beer,” the idea that “craft beer” equals “quality beer” has become firmly entrenched in mainstream media and beyond. It’s a point so fully accepted that people actually believe changing the definition of “traditional” will “compromise the quality of beer produced and sold under the craft beer umbrella.”

Whose umbrella?

Charlie Papazian, President of the BA and the man from whom scores of us learned to homebrew, disagrees. “The term ‘craft’ is not about snobbery or being an elitist as some have suggested,” Papazian wrote in the September/October 2013 edition of The New Brewer and republished on Craftbeer.com.  “It is not a claim about the quality of the beer. It is about giving the beer drinker a tool to identify who makes the beer they enjoy.”

It’s not a claim about the quality of the beer?  Papazian may truly believe this, but it’s a point belied by nearly every message the BA delivers.

Papazian writes, “The term ‘craft brewers’ is an effort by small and independent brewers to differentiate themselves. It is not an effort to denigrate those who are not craft brewers.”

It’s a fair point, but determining who and what they are attempting to differentiate is perhaps the bigger part of the problem.

National Public Radio tried to decipher that mystery in an article heavily quoting Bison Brewing Co. owner/brewer Dan Del Grande.  Del Grande has been outspoken in his disagreement with the BA’s decision to change the definition of craft brewer:

“To me, craft means artisan,” he says. “Once an enterprise scales up, the beer is no longer craft. It becomes a brand with lots and lots of employees, and you can’t point to a small team of individuals who are responsible for the art.”

Del Grande’s preferred definition is a good example of the problems inherent in defining any subset of a larger group.  For him, it’s a scale issue. At a certain point a brewery loses that human to beer connection.  Del Grande suggests 200,000 bbls as the approximate cutoff, a point which quickly cuts out the likes of Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Deschutes, Stone, Lagunitas, Bell’s and, of course, Boston Beer Co.

This distinction based on an artisanal connection to beer is not reflected in the BA’s current or previous definition of craft brewer. It is, however, reflected in Papazian’s piece.

Papazian explains that craft brewer is an “idea” and admonishes us for reading too much into it:

The argument against the definition of craft brewer gets messy and off track if the term is taken literally. . . . . The point that the definition of craft brewer tries to establish is not about using the word ‘craft’ literally. ‘Craft brewer’ is an idea. Sure, there are brewmasters throughout the world who take pride in skillfully brewing their beer. But I don’t think the craft brewer definition was meant to demean anyone’s skills, expertise, or the integrity of any company.

Papazian is exactly right. A craft brewer is a subjective idea, something nebulous left to each of us to define as relates to our own experiences and values.

But Papazian’s organization defines it anyway.  The BA chose to adopt cutoff points and most definitely turned “craft brewer” into a literal definition.

Remember the BA’s chart showing who did and did not qualify under their definition?  Sorry, Charlie, but your idea got hijacked.

Other industries are not having this battle.  Grocery store giant Safeway sells an Artisan™ line of breads baked daily at its stores.3 Some of it is even pretty tasty.  Yet, we don’t see hoards of local bakers crying foul over corporate America hijacking a term that “should” be reserved for small, independent, and traditional bread makers.  You know, the community folks who are having to compete on price, location, convenience, distribution channels – and quality – with the big boys.

What do these local bakeries offer? A way to support local business, of course, but they also enjoy the presumption – though not necessarily the reality – of better quality.

Papazian can argue the term “craft brewer” is not about quality precisely because the BA has already driven the conversation in such a way that “craft brewer” is synonymous with it.  Don’t believe it?  Re-read the above quote from Caleb Houseknecht as reported in Short’s Huffington Post piece.

The acceptance of “craft beer” as quality beer is pervasive in beer reporting, writing and blogging. Yet, there remain many a craft brewer punching buttons in the mechanical production of beer who are disconnected from the art, to use Del Grande’s language.

Again, Papazian is right. There is no possible way to define cutoffs which encapsulate the subjective nature of quality.  If you think non-craft = low quality, you have not sampled a Bourbon County Brand Stout.

Quality, it must be said, has been but a phantom ideal on the drive through the craft beer conversation.

So it was no surprise and certainly not the least bit coincidental to see the BA make quality the primary focus of its message to brewers at the most recent Craft Brewers Conference in April.

Chris Crowell of Craft Brewing Business reports the BA’s Director, Paul Gatza, told the crowd, “If a lot of newer brewers are not focusing on quality, that reflects on the overall community. Sending beer samples to a lab, or counting bacteria in beer… these are the things new brewers are just not doing. We need to get more science behind the art.”

In other words, Gatza seemed to be saying “We’ve got everyone convinced that craft beer is better beer so don’t screw this up.”

Except Gatza only got it half right.

Why do “old” brewers get a pass?  Just last week I drank a sour oatmeal stout from a craft brewery that opened in 1996. It was not intended to be sour and most definitely should not have been sour.

This experience makes my point more than any words I could write.  The label craft beer is only theoretically about quality.  Papazian got it right.  It cannot be about quality no matter how many reporters, brewers, writers, and fans butcher the point.

Accepting Papazian’s basic tenant, that craft brewer is meant only to distinguish the truly, small, independent and traditional from . . .say . . . the few who don’t meet the definition, still leaves much unanswered.

If the craft beer label is not about quality, why should we care so much about the distinction between craft and non-craft? Why do certain members of the beer industry get so angry about Big Beer masquerading as one of the little guys?  (A phenomenon not unique to beer.)

There are legitimate reasons to dislike Big Beer that have nothing to do with quality.  Take Big Beer’s undue influence on distribution channels, which has an unacceptably large impact on everything from the beer you can buy to the politics behind it.

But if you’re going to argue that point,  you should also know that today’s plethora of hop varieties can be directly tied to Big Beer’s investment of significant resources into hop breeding programs.

It simply isn’t that . . . . simple.

Beer drinkers who have been around a while are tired of the simplistic categorization created by defining craft beer. Beer writers are increasingly uncomfortable using the term because it feels more like an agenda than Papazian’s “idea.”

Defining “craft brewer” and “craft beer”4 is useful only for something which can actually be measured: market share.  By defining who is a “craft brewer” the BA can count production and sales volumes and compare them to the whole.  The BA can even change the definition to help maintain (or even boost) the category’s market share.5

The reality is, for the BA’s internal purposes “craft beer” means nothing more than beer that is not tied too closely to A-B InBev, MolsonCoors, or SAB Miller.

That’s a perfectly acceptable definition for a trade organization trying to establish a metric for measuring its success.

For the rest of us, “craft beer” can only be something much less definitive. The brewers, their beers, and the experiences we get by visiting our local breweries are driving its success, not artificial labels and useless arguments.

No one owns the term “craft beer” any more than the label “craft beer” guarantees a quality product.

Only one real question remains. Can the “idea” of craft beer be saved?

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Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey are excellent bloggers  who occasionally encourage fellow beer writers to “go long” by providing meatier material than the standard short blog post. I’m using that as an opportunity (excuse?) to go longer than usual and dive into a subject I’m continually perplexed about.  Head to Boak & Bailey’s Beer Blog on or around August 30, to find links to others who chose to “go long.”  You’re sure to be enriched by the exercise.
1 A quick check of records at the USPTO shows 42 registered trademarks and 32 pending applications using the term “craft beer,” demonstrating the term itself is not protected.  Many of these specifically disclaim any exclusive right to the term “craft beer” except as combined with other words.
2 The term “craftbrewer,” all one word, is trademarked in the category of hot beverage makers.
3 Yes, Safeway claims a trademark to its use of the word Artisan.
4 The BA will point out it does not define the term “craft beer” but the terms are so intertwined/interchanged in the BA’s writings/marketing/products that any distinction has been rendered meaningless.
5 The BA appropriately acknowledges the 2010 definition change was made, in part, to prevent the loss of Boston Beer Co. from craft beer’s market share.