That Craft Beer You’re Drinking Isn’t Craft Beer. Do You Care?

Beer drinkers don't encounter the word "microbrew" much anymore. The preferred term now is "craft beer." But there's much discussion—and quite a bit of bitterness—about which brews are truly deserving of the label.

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Beer drinkers don’t encounter the word “microbrew” much anymore. One reasons why this is so is because in the rapidly expanding craft brewer scene, popular independent beer brands like Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada, and Fat Tire are too successful to be considered “micro.” The preferred term now is “craft beer.” But there’s much discussion—and quite a bit of bitterness—about which brews are truly deserving of the label.

The Colorado-based Brewers Association, which represents more than 1,700 brewers in the U.S., has three criteria for a business to be defined as an American craft brewer: It must be small, independent, and traditional. More specifically, the brewer must produce no more than 6 million barrels of beer annually, less than one-quarter of the business can be owned or controlled by a company that’s not a craft brewer, and the products must be made with traditional ingredients such as malted barley.

It’s that second characteristic (the brewer’s independence) that has become the most contentious issue among beer makers. Blue Moon and Shock Top are the two highest-profile examples of brews that are not made by independent companies—their parent companies are MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev, respectively—yet which market themselves as craft beers. The Brewers Association and others have come to categorize such brews as “crafty” beers because manufacturers and marketers seem to deliberately conceal their true corporate heritage.

(MORE: Too Much of a Good Thing? Concerns That Craft Beer Has Reached a Saturation Point)

This summer, the “craft” question came to the forefront thanks to the August issue of Consumer Reports, which included a story rating craft beers—and which included Shock Top, Goose Island, Blue Moon, and other beers that are produced by companies that the Brewers Association doesn’t consider to be craft brewers. The editors acknowledged the Brewers Association guidelines before disregarding them, stating, “For the purpose of this report, we included craft beers that market themselves as such as opposed to making selections based solely on barrel production or company ownership percentages.”

CR’s craft beer report drove beer geeks crazy, especially because Shock Top, which is made by the same people who bring you Budweiser and Busch Light, was rated as one of the best craft ales. The Beer and Whiskey Bros blog wrote that the inclusion of “crafty” beers in the article “makes Consumer Reports look pretty stupid,” and that the editors must have been drunk when putting together the study.

While the presence of Shock Top and Blue Moon in the CR report caused many beer lovers to spit out their drinks in surprise and frustration, the article also included brands like Kona Brewing Company. That brand is part of the Craft Brew Alliance. So surely it’s OK to call Kona a craft beer, right? Not according to the Brewers Association guidelines. One-third of the Craft Brew Alliance, which calls itself an “independent craft brewing company,” is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. So Craft Brew Alliance beers aren’t craft brews, per the Brewers Association.

Unsurprisingly, the brewers and businesspeople being accused of producing inauthentic and misleading “faux craft” craft beers aren’t simply swallowing the criticism quietly. Tom Long, CEO of MillerCoors, has been the most outspoken defender of “crafty” brands like his company’s Blue Moon. “Blue Moon Brewing Co. has been around long before the vast majority of craft brewers,” Long said recently in the interview, quoted by Bloomberg News. “What exactly is crafty about that?”

(MORE: My Beer Can Is Better Than Yours: Aluminum Can-ovations for Better Beer Drinking)

“Whatever style beer you might prefer, all we ask is that you judge us by the quality of the beer in the glass,” Long wrote in an opinion piece at CNN.

Goose Island, a Chicago-based brewer that was purchased by Anheuser-Busch in 2011, continues to think of itself as a craft brewer to this day. “Goose Island is a craft beer, period,” Goose Islander founder John Hall said in a statement when asked for comment. “The so-called definition of craft beer has evolved over the years. Both the brewery size and ingredients have been changed. I believe the beer drinkers are the ones who truly decide what is a craft beer or isn’t.”

And what do beer drinkers think? Last week, Beer Advocate readers began weighing in on the topic via an online poll asking how they define “craft.” Though there haven’t been a ton of votes yet, and the sampling is not random or statistically accurate, the most popular answer has been that the term “relates to the quality of the beer.” Only 14% said that the word relates to the Brewers Association guidelines; an equal percentage agreed with the statement that “craft” does not have any meaning.

(MORE: Just Brew It: At Long Last, Fresh Air, Exercise, and Craft Beer Come Together)

Julia Herz, the Brewers Association’s craft beer program director, said via e-mail, “The Brewers Association does not define what craft beer is. That is up to the individual beer lover to discern.” Nonetheless, Herz defended the association’s particular usage of the “craft” label. “Craft brewer is not a marketing term,” she explained. “It is a description of a brewer who is different from the global brewing giants.”

Even more importantly, the Brewers Association sees the battle as one for truth in advertising. “If the lines continue to get blurred and ‘craft’ becomes commoditized, small and independent brewers will have a harder and harder time selling their products, getting shelf space, tap handles and placement on restaurant menus,” said Herz. “When a beer lover cares about transparency in brands that has nothing to do with being snobby. Beer lovers have a right to know when they are purchasing a product from a small and independent craft brewer or from a large globally owned brewery.”

Representing the beer geeks, Jim Galligan of Beer and Whiskey Bros said that while he mostly agrees with the Brewers Association’s guidelines regarding the “craft” label, “I also think a lot depends on if a brewer’s heart is in the right place.”

“The size of the brewery and who owns the brand isn’t the main issue,” he explained. “It’s really about a brewer trying to make the best product they can imagine, putting quality and flavor ahead of dollars and sense.” And Galligan and many others feel that “for mega brewers like A-B InBev and MillerCoors, and their ‘crafty’ brands like Shock Top, Batch 19 and Landshark Lager might look the part, but they really don’t taste the part.”

(MORE: After PBR: Will the Next Great Hipster Beer Please Stand Up?)

Though some may view the whole “craft beer” labeling debate as annoying and pretentious, Galligan sees the discussion as important for beer lovers everywhere. “People demanding an honestly good product is a good thing,” he said. It’s not remotely snobby or silly that people care enough about good beer to want to protect the scene from corporate brewers “who are simply looking to cash in without making meaningful contributions to craft beer culture,” Galligan said.

Ultimately, it all comes back to producing the best product possible, he said. “I think most people just want delicious and interesting beers to drink, and the size of the brewery that makes them matters far less than the quality of what’s in their glass.”

23 comments
cmillholland
cmillholland

Big breweries are about volume, pricing and shelf space. The crime is that they grab shelf space and marketing space with their faux craft brews, and that there is a share of people who are unable to discriminate. The fact that you won't find any large brewery identification on these faux crafts shows that they are happy with the deception and don't mind fooling the customers. In addition they crowd out true craft brews, of which there are now thousands. I agree with others that if a Big made a tasty craft style, I'd happily buy it. But that is just not their objective. They only want your money and ignorance, and not your loyalty. Now where's that bottle of un-distilled, spirited golden lager with a richer, balanced taste?

JuanVilla
JuanVilla

Ahh its good to live in San Diego.

CUBuckeye
CUBuckeye

Doesn't matter what you call it... Blue Moon sucks. I like Goose Island and Leinenkugel's (most of them). Craft, crafty, whatever-- sucky beer is just that.

arborwriter
arborwriter

I'm glad that this article touched on the idea of transparency in a brand.  But I needed a little more about that point.  As a craft beer drinker and a homebrewer I find what goes into a beer (the story, the ingredients, and the passion) to be extremely important.  I'm from Wisconsin and one of the premier craft breweries from my state is the New Glarus Brewing Company.  Every bottle of beer comes with a short little blurb about the beer you're drinking: what the name means and where it came from, what ingredients are being used, if its bottle conditioned, and basically a biography of the beer from its conception to its being consumed by a beer drinker.  It shows an appreciation for the craft and art of brewing as well as a commitment to keeping the customer informed.   And they aren't seeking to appease all of us Wisconsinites into buying their beer for the sake of making money.  When they say their beer is brewed for the Wisconsin community, they do it because they are a brewery built by two people in the heart of Wisconsin that wanted to take a passion they had and disperse it to their communities.  Also, the beer that New Glarus makes is delicious, interesting, and true to quality and taste.

TimBest
TimBest

Craft beer is about quality, not quantity or sales. If a company can produce hundreds of millions of barrels of beer, and have it still be good beer made from quality ingredients, then that would be craft beer too. But Big Beer has always put quantity ahead of quality, as have their consumers. They mass-produce thin, weak, tasteless beverages that are barely even beer; they're made mostly from corn and rice, not barley (let alone hops...I don't even think they know the meaning of the term). Their consumers want a weak, taste-neutral beverage that is vaguely reminiscent of beer, and that they can drink in mass quantities. It's soda for adults. Many brands, same product. Big Beer and their "crafty" brands like Shock Top and Blue Moon are afraid of craft beer because they think it's stealing market share, but they're wrong. It's a totally different market. [Most] people who drink Bud/Miller/Coors/etc. will never drink craft beer, and they're not going to start just because they see some fancy-looking belgian knock-off like those two brands. This line of reasoning would be akin to high-end vineyards worrying about Thunderbird, Night Train and MD 20/20 stealing their market share. 


JimboFranks
JimboFranks

I love all styles of Beer.  I love the dryness of Bud with like a burger and fries.  I love the maltyness of SAM ADAMS and the many different seasonal styles.  And I love the New Super Hopped up Movement of breweries like Sierra Nevada with the use of Cascade Hops.


I love all beer.  To say Cheap beer sucks.  Or Craft beer sucks.  Maybe you should just stick to your Wine Coolers then.

BelgianBear
BelgianBear

If Blue Moon believes they are "craft beer," why do they deliberately hide the fact they're brewed by Coors? BECAUSE THEY DON'T WANT THE PUBLIC TO KNOW! It's pretty obvious. People don't associate Coors with craft beer, and for good reason. 

"Beer geeks" know that Coors uses adjuncts to water down their beer, so they usually won't touch the stuff. Even non-beer geeks wanting to sample "craft beer" will search for brands other than Bud, Coors or Miller, because they correctly assume that all the buzz about craft beer doesn't come from the stuff the behemoth companies make. Thus, Bud, Miller and Coors all but deceive the public by packaging their "crafty" products without their names on it. They disguise it with other brands, i.e. Blue Moon. It's their way of trying to get in on the craft beer business.

But at the end of the day, any discerning beer drinker will recognize the difference. A good wit beer doesn't taste like Blue Moon, which tastes like it has 5 packs of splenda in it. Eventually, anyone who appreciates quality, well-crafted beer will move on to the real stuff and not Bud's, Miller's and Coors' deceptive alternatives.

MarshallLaw
MarshallLaw

Another Time "news" article attempting to muddy the waters between good beer and rich advertiser's macro crap.  Shocking.

"“Whatever style beer you might prefer, all we ask is that you judge us by the quality of the beer in the glass,” Long [CEO of MillerCoors] wrote in an opinion piece at CNN."

Interesting.  I guess I missed the follow up "opinion piece"  at Corporate News Network by the CEO of Three Floyds Brewing Co or Maine Brewing Co or The Brew Kettle.  Funny how that works.  

Nevertheless, of course they would like to be judged by their beer because, in the case of A-B at least, if you judged them by their insidious business practices, you would never let their beer touch your lips.  

Go away, Time.  Just go the f#$% away.


DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

Considering they all taste like somewhat moldy, watered, down, fizzy bread to me, it's moot.  But if you're drinking beer (or anything else for that matter) for the pretentiousness of the label, you need a life.

senorplaid
senorplaid

You say craft beer, I say crap beer: Sammy Adams, Sierra Nevada and Blue Moon all suck worse than Milwaukee's Beast that's sat out on a hot back porch too long. Now Bell's or New Glarus on the other hand ...

Cloutman
Cloutman

it's not all about the quality versus quantity argument. Even if InBev can make a genuinely delicious beer, it's their marketing and business practices which leave a bad taste in my mouth. Scaling a quality product up to competitive quantities without having to employ slippery business practices, now that's a craft. Once in the 70's a friend brought over some new beer, it was Killian's Irish red. My friend told me Coors was looking at investing in the company. The beer I tasted was actually brought over from Ireland, and it was really fabulous. I tried it again after it became a product of Coors, and it simply wasn't the same. it was generic-ized. I suspect this example has been repeated a thousand times since then. While ideally size shouldn't matter, most of the time it does. There are too many subtleties in brewing. The land and climate under which a certain variety of grain is grown can make a huge impact on the end-product and copying the recipe and scaling it up to volume isn't possible. Large Breweries shoot themselves in the foot when they acquire and then try to scale up a product to volume, ignoring the small details. Those small details are the magic in a micro brew or a craft beer. The variety from batch to batch is important, and when the breweries try  to force consistency on a product like that, they ruin it more often than not. It becomes generic. Perhaps this is a lesson the large breweries could take from the Wine Industry. Great wine is expensive because it can't be made in any higher quantity. It varies a little bit from year to year because weather affects the ingredients. Forming a committee and legislating on it only serves bureaucrats, not the consumer. 

RedCloud9
RedCloud9

As a beer drinker (more than I probably should), size doesn't matter when it comes to breweries. Unless, of course, quality and taste matters, because it seems that when a mega-brewery takes over a craft brewery, quality plummets so that quantity can skyrocket. I've seen it happen over and over, sometimes slowly, but always inevitably. It's also a double-edged sword: I'd like to see my new favorite brewery, Pipeworks, a startup in Chicago, become big enough to prosper, but not so big that they lose their mojo - whatever it is that has them putting magic in every bottle. The question is, is it economically feasible for craft brewers stay true to the craft?

JimVorel
JimVorel

Anyone who claims that taste is ultimately all that matters is ignoring the massive lobbying campaigns that Anheuser-Inbev and MillerCoors are using at all times in an attempt to implement more restrictive laws on craft brewers---laws that their corporate owned shill breweries like Goose Island would not be subject to. 

Only part of the reason to not support those guys is related to the actual beer. The rest is related to disagreeing with a company's dirty business practices. 

chrisstarke67
chrisstarke67

@DeweySayenoff Who mentioned pretentiousness?  You've given away your bias.  So you don't like the craft beers you've tried so far; no big deal.  I guarantee there's (at least) one out there that you'd like, if you're a beer drinker at all.  You've just been drinking the wrong ones.  There are a multitude of beer styles out there, with characteristics that are as greatly (or moreso) varied as wine.

TimBest
TimBest

@senorplaid Sam Adams rides the line between macro and craft, but Sierra Nevada is without a doubt craft beer, and they make some awesome stuff. Comparing them to Blue Moon makes no sense. Just because they're not hip and young and don't make people wait in line all night to pay $20 for a 3oz pour of their latest exclusive ultra-imperial stout aged in jesus christ's bourbon barrels doesn't mean they're not good beer. I really wish people wouldn't be such hipsters about beer; whenever a place gets too "mainstream" they all jump ship and suddenly say it's bad. I bet you hate Dogfish Head too. 

DustinMarvin
DustinMarvin

@senorplaid Did you just try and draw some comparison amongst two breweries and two specific brews?

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

@Cloutman Not sure I agree with that.  I like Blue Moon and don't really care that it's owned by a larger company.  If management is still empowered to run its business independently then it makes no difference who holds the stock certificates.  I haven't had a Killians in a long time, but if your description is accurate then that kind of parent company meddling is when it ceases to be an operationally independent brewer.

dp1582
dp1582

@RedCloud9 Ill have to pick some pipeworks up next time i go into the city. i enjoy Half Acre.. so i look forward to another Chicago beer!

tlasko
tlasko

Sierra Nevada is an example of a true craft brewery that has stayed true to their quality, principles, and their customers while growing at an amazing rate. In my opinion "crafty" beers are poor quality and an attempt by the large forgien owned brewery to stay relavent in todays exciting beer market.

TimBest
TimBest

@bryanfred1 @Cloutman Blue Moon wasn't a small company bought by Coors, it's a Coors brand, created by Coors to try and get into the craft market. In general I agree with you though; if a company owned by a larger brewer could maintain their quality, that'd be fine. But history has shown that the quality falls sooner or later...I'm afraid for Goose Island's future in that aspect. 

Above I made the argument that if craft beer could be produced in mass quantities while maintaining quality, that would still be craft beer. However, if Bud/Miller/Coors as they currently exist suddenly stopped using cheap adjuncts and started making good beer, I still wouldn't support them because their business ethics are deplorable. They put profits before quality, and attempt to push real craft beer off the shelves with their knock-offs, and they will stop at nothing to destroy real craft beer. There was actually supposed to be a reality show about Dogfish Head, a popular craft brewer, but it was cancelled due to pressure from a "large brewing company" (probably Anheuser Busch/InBev) threatening to pull their advertisements from the network. Behavior like that is why I will never support those companies, regardless of the quality of their beer. But for now, I don't have to be conflicted, because their beer's quality is crap. 

sleeeeez
sleeeeez

@bryanfred1 @Cloutman I agree wit Cloutman. How about a little honesty? Blue Moon may have been good twenty years ago when we could only compare it to other crap, but it's a whole new ballgame now. Try just about any small brewery's Belgian white (the style Blue Moon proclaims to be) and the MillerCoors product will be revealed as the cheap mess it really is. Stop supporting garbage! Brewer conglomerates use your profits in the most unfortunate manner.