It’s a question that won’t go away: How do we define what is or is not a “craft brewery”? This post is prompted by that knotty conundrum but it absolutely applies, also, to how we all, as consumers, approach the questions of “Who makes this wine?” and “Who makes this Whiskey?”
Certain bedrock truths have to be stipulated here: we, as Americans, harbor a rooty mistrust of corporations, arising from our proud, 200-year history of Big Business hiding behind their facades of PR gambits, secrecy rules, and gangs of feral lawyers as they run all manner of shady strategies on us, all driven by the other bedrock fact that corporations have stockholders and making money for those guys is – Ford’s happy crap about Quality not withstanding – Job One. I’m not even going to claim that this is inherently bad. Profit, as a motivation, is what allows us to have an economy at all, and the pursuit of same has resulted in enormous good for all of us, as compared to the relatively small amount of crookedness (or outright evil) that’s whupped up in boardrooms everywhere. The monumental technological advances of the past forty years – inventions which have literally changed the very fabric of mankind – came about because Somebody Wanted To Make A Buck. I don’t begrudge anybody their fair return on investment – even their extravagant return on investment – because I regard starting a business, chasing an Idea with a single-minded Purpose, as an act of bravery greater than hang gliding or skydiving. Most of us don’t get a glider or a parachute when we start a business. If we crash and burn…it hurts and the damage is often permanent. So, the fact that my neighbor who lives 1.4 miles to the west of me, Bill Gates, is the richest SOB on Planet Earth, while I frequently have to wonder if I can afford a trip to Astoria for beer and fish ‘n’ chips, seems not at all unfair to me.
We also have to acknowledge that we all harbor a secret fondness for things that are “hand made”, as opposed to cranked out by machines or computer-aided processes. We all understand, I think, that some technology enters into the processes of brewing, oenology, and distilling. We just don’t want the whole thing done without human judgment and deliberation, in the same way that a lot of people – me very much included – regard leaving the wonderful, tactile, creative process of bread making to a bread machine, instead of making it from scratch and working that dough ball with your own two hands. (If you’re using a bread machine, please, stop it right now.) We all get, I think, that as long as technology is simply a tool of a careful brewer, vintner, or distiller, we can live with some compromises in the name of smart business.
But there are limits to what’s allowable in the name of business, and outright deception lies beyond one of those boundaries. For decades, now, the American version of what the French call “negociant” wineries have been uber-quietly turning out bottles that windup on dinner tables everywhere, without revealing what the French already know and don’t care about: that the wine in the bottle is not made by the bottler, is often not even blended by the owners of the label, and is bought on the dirt cheap from existing wineries which are forced to sell at a huge discount, in bulk, to see any cash flow at all. The same is true, in a different way, for distilleries and booze labels, many of which are issued by companies which exist almost exclusively on paper, with no stills, vats, barrels, or bottling line; just a well-funded backer or twelve who want to see their label on a Whiskey or Gin or Vodka bottle and make some $$$ while boasting to their buddies. French negociants like Georges DuBoeuf, Louis Jadot, E. Guigal, and several others may also make their own wine but they’re the support of dozens of small wineries which literally would not exist without their patronage. “Negociant”, in France, is an honorable profession, as it is in other countries, like Spain, where you find projects like Emilio Lustau’s “Almacenista” series, Sherries bottled by tiny, independent producers. Almacenista celebrates their origins, putting the small producer’s name proudly on the labels. In the US, because we tend to think of rebottling, relabeling, blending for relabeling, and the selling of “shiners” (filled bottles sold without labels and simply rebranded) as “cheating”, we’re quite likely to dismiss those wines, altogether. It’s not cheating, of course, any more than it is anywhere else in the world and is, in fact, frequently the salvation of small wineries that made too much juice. But we’re Americans and we choose to believe a lot of stuff that the rest of the world thinks is kinda kooky.
In brewing, this is all a LOT clearer. Even the most casual beer fan knows that there is s fundamental difference between, for example, 7 Seas Brewing of Gig Harbor, Washington, and Anheuser Busch, MillerCoors, or the Russian-owned Pabst. That difference is a well-established matter of scale and output and intent and craft and soul and a whole lot of other business and ethical principles, almost none of which share any common ground with Big Beer. It is inarguable that the mega-brewers are only in it for the vast dollars they rake in and the keeping of their stockholders as happy Fat Cats who get maximum return on investment. Don’t kid yourself: if Anheuser Busch – now AB/InBev, the Belgian/Brazilian mega-corp which owns Budweiser and about twenty other beer brands – had discovered, back in the Fifties, that Americans responded favorably to that weird Southeast Asian practice of macerating lizards in jars of booze, we’d all be drinking “SalamandeRita”and would know the phrase “…the finest Beechwood aging, using only the best American hops, and carefully-selected fresh-water Florida Ocellated Geckos from our own estate farms” well enough to recite it in our sleep. And GEICO would have been sued 2,428 times, by now.
In each of these beverage categories, the attempt to pass off corporate brands as small-producer, artisan products has become routine, just another business strategy that’s commonly and rather brazenly used by the likes of Gallo and AB/InBev and liquor congloms like Diageo, Pernod Richard, and Brown Forman, in recognition of that first fact: that Americans tend not to trust or support huge corporations. Even more common – which AB/InBev has now figured out – is to simply buy up reputable small producers and bring them under “the corporate tent”. In the case of companies like Diageo, they actually do, for the most part, respect and honor what made the brands appealing, in the first place, and usually stick to just making it easier for the distilleries to do their jobs. It’s far easier, when out shopping for your new bottle of Whiskey, to rationalize out the purchase of Bulleit Bourbon, Oban Scotch Whiskey, or Laphroaig by remembering their origins and their history as small producers which grew over time than it is to justify saying, “I want a Diageo brand because I know Diageo appreciates quality.” They do, in fact. But there will always be that suspect element about a company which a short google search reveals is “the world’s largest liquor company.” Diageo knows this and tries, at least, to remain managers, instead of manipulators.
So, this subject of what is a craft brewery and what isn’t gets beaten to death and we seem to get farther away from a definitive answer than closer. Like any other question in life, it’s not simple and has a lot of moving parts. Craft brewing is NOT just about how much beer your brewery turns out. The world’s largest keg-only brewery, Mac & Jack’s Brewing, is three miles from me, just over the hill in Redmond, Washington. They turn out 200 barrels a day, 365 days a year, three shifts a day. That, my friends, works out to over a million gallons a year…but you will find nobody who does not think of Mac & Jack’s as a craft brewery. Just across town, Hi-Fi Brewing turns out far less than one fiftieth of that total. Output doesn’t answer the question of what “craft” means. It also has to do with independence, ambitions, and, frankly, The Struggle. The crucible of the craft beer business tempers its members with struggle, persistence, endurance, problem solving, patience, and Belief. The financial stresses alone are enough to deliver copious ulcers, even before you get to the problems of distribution, promoting the brand, supply chain, and running a taproom; possibly even a pub. It’s all done without that parachute; a tightrope walk with no safety net. And the character of craft brewing is changed and largely abandoned if the brewery has the limitless financial backing of a sugar daddy or ownership of some mega-brewer. “Craft” is also about aesthetics; about the art of the beer and emphasizing that difference between “brewers” who just churn out insipid adjunct lagers for mindless swilling and maximum profits…and those who take the craft of brewing seriously and work at creating new tastes and textures and variations.
Believe it nor not – and it’s a tad less true in the case of American wine – but we’re all living through, this very moment in time, the infancy of the larger, more populist US brewing culture and the literal birth pangs of the artisan spirits boom. It’s entirely possible, given my determined focus on the actual beverages and less on the shenanigans of the business end of the beverage trade, that I’m not aware of trade associations for the wine and spirits communities, but, if I’m not, it’s not because I haven’t been keeping an ear open, which means that those organizations have NOT made great progress at representing their small-producer culture or getting consumers to recognize the difference between mass-produced products and those made by independent artisans.
I think it’s time to change that, if it’s not already too late.
What follows are some steps I think the three beverage categories can and should undertake immediately. They don’t have to follow this exact format. I don’t have all the answers and I’m dead-certain that any group gathering of half-bright professionals in any of the three disciplines could hammer out far better methods than these within a couple of hours.
The thing is…nobody is doing it. So I nominate me to lay out the first ideas:
1. American craft brewing has the strongest and most visible trade group, The Brewers Association, based in Denver. They’re the group that puts on GABF every year and develops general guidelines for a lot of what steers craft brewing forward. BA has its detractors, of course, but there will be nay-sayers to anything that presumes to represent any larger numbers of people and BA’s nay-sayers tend to the blithe, unhelpful viewpoint that craft brewing should be some vague form of benign anarchy and, honestly, I don’t even have words to express how silly I find that notion.
In trying to define “craft beer”, we run into the principle of “free association”, which was born in and used most by politics. The idea says, basically, that people outside one party should not be allowed to vote in primary elections because each party should be able to decide with whom they wish to share their selection process. It’s exclusionary and is meant to be. It says, at its heart, “This is our treehouse and you’re NOT one of Our Gang!“, which is the very essence of that larger and dearer principle, Privacy. It carries a certain punch. The idea that trade groups or political parties should be allowed to make their own rules goes to the heart of democracy, and even courts have proven loathe to meddle with privacy as fundamental right.
I contend that a community like Craft Brewing can and should make its own rules and that, while there are absolutely limits on what authority it has, that group should be fully empowered to say “You’re In and You’re Out“.
Here’s what I propose:
PROPOSAL ONE: A group of craft brewing professionals, writers, consumers, and brewery owners should be constituted to weigh the status of any new brewery as to its claim to be a “craft brewery”. Automatic exclusions would be that any brewery that’s a subsidiary, in any way including limited partnerships and distribution agreements, with a mega-brewer – defined as a million-barrel+ corporate entity that owns and operates bulk batch facilities and/or smaller satellite breweries – is disqualified. So is any brewery that starts out with significant financial backing from current or former executives of those corporations. Any brewery which is acquired by one of those mega-brewers loses it certification. Considerations would include ownership, goals, and size and public comment would be invited for a period of 30 days from the filing for usage. The granting of license for the symbol CANNOT be arbitrary. The presumption with each new brewery applicant is that the license will be granted and compelling evidence must be presented with any motion to deny. What happens when this determination is made is simple and direct: the brewery is authorized to use something like this image to your left on their packaging. That image is merely an identifier. It means exactly the same thing as a Non-GMO label means on a food package. It’s a way for consumers to identify the products of legitimate independent breweries – which operate according to all those principles like soul and intent and craft and experimentation and scale – from a product made by a mega-brewer hoping to pass off that product as craft beer. Critics of this proposal will instantly raise a couple of objections. Let me save you some time: The label costs nothing for a newly-licensed and opened brewery. That brewery is NOT obligated to join The Brewers Association. After two years in business and, presumably, strong indications that the brewery will survive and be profitable, the license to use the symbol will cost a nominal fee based on the brewery’s output; say $30 for breweries producing less than 1,500 barrels a year, $50 from 1,501 to 5,000, and so on. No brewery has to join BA at any time, even though it’s a really great idea. Some people simply are not joiners and that choice must be respected and must not be grounds to withhold the symbol.
PROPOSAL TWO: Similar panels should be assembled for the other two beverage classifications. The only winery trade association I’ve been able to find is WineAmerica and, to put it bluntly, WineAmerica, with just 600 members, is doing a piss-poor job of represent the nation’s 8,000+ small wineries. American Craft Spirits is doing a LOT better job of representing the nation’s artisan distilleries and could easily establish a similar panel for granting of a packaging/POS/tasting room window symbol that identifies small, independent distilleries. The same rules that would apply to the brewery designations would apply to these: a panel would decide on who qualifies under the agreed-upon guidelines and, again, no winery or distillery can be compelled to join as a condition of granting the trade symbol. Sample symbols appear below:
PROPOSAL THREE: As a more streamlined way of addressing the question of who’s in and who’s out for all beverage categories, an independent certification group could be established. It would be paid for by the memberships of all three beverage trade groups and operate solely to review new applications and verify changes to existing memberships for use of the symbol. Again, this symbol is solely for the information of consumers and carries no other power or obligations than to tell those buying beverages that the company making them is what they say they are: an independent, unsubsidized, unobligated American-owned producer of artisan beverages. I propose that such an organization – which should be kept as small as possible – could be called “SIP/US – Small Independent Producers of the United States”. Sample symbol appears to the right.
To those who moan that this is just adding a level of bureaucracy, I have this to say: Times Change. I wish fervently that craft brewing as I knew it 30 years ago and distilling as it was in its nascent stages could simply be preserved and never change at all. It was all so fresh and wide open and free-wheeling and innocent, in a lot of ways, and I miss that daily. But that was when craft brewing really didn’t exist in the eyes of the captains of American industry and was considered a joke by the upper management of AB and Miller and Coors and other large brewers. Once the boom started in earnest and those sitting outside our fanciful community began to see dollar signs, the inevitable change in the reality of the marketplace began to take effect. Today, it’s necessary for consumers to have a way to help decide, at the point of purchase, who to entrust with their dollars and allow them to support American brewers, instead of the Belgian and English and Brazilian and Russian interests that now scheme daily to infiltrate craft beer. Small wineries and distilleries that pride themselves on their craft and artistry should be able to distinguish themselves, quickly and certainly, from the mega-producers and repackagers and those out to buy credibility they are either unable, unwilling, or too impatient to earn for themselves. In short, just as in GMO labeling, we need information…and we cannot rely on either the government or the producers themselves to deal honestly and with integrity, when they’ve shown already that they feel integrity is nothing more than a passé notion that’s fostered by those who reject the current marketplace and don’t understand “how business works“. You CANNOT expect integrity and honesty from those who don’t even understand what those concepts mean. To make sure we get those basic facts about what we consume, we have no one but ourselves to rely on.
Comments are welcome, either on this post’s response field or via at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These are excellent suggestions. But there is something else craft brewers need to think about. Craft beer is fast becoming Beer for the Rich. Prices are more and more making it impossible for the millions of people lower on the income scale, including many retirees, to drink craft beer. (That’s especially true for the better imported beers, such as from Belgium, but that’s a slightly different problem.) Smaller brewers making money is a great idea, but not if so many people can’t afford to drink the product.