Craft Beer is Dead

Last Call by | Feb 2011 | Issue #49

Photo by Larry Spencer

As we ponder the future of craft beer, most people rely on the definition of “craft beer” to suggest which direction we should be headed. The Brewers Association defines a craft brewery as small, independent and traditional—which describes business practices, but not what makes up a craft beer.

So what is a craft beer? Can a macrobrewery make one? Some assert that beer is a business, and that the bottom line trumps whatever definition we could come up with for craft beer. That no matter what moral imperatives craft breweries try to stick to, sustained growing returns will always be more important. Bullshit. Defense contractors’ bottom lines are wholly dependent on the perpetuation of death and war; some things are just more important than the bottom line.

Let’s get something straight here: “Craft” is short for ”handcrafted.” That is its primary definition. Instead of bickering about what craft beer is, let’s just discuss what handcrafted beer isn’t: It isn’t mass produced. Over the past few years, it seems as though “craft” is fast becoming “kitsch.” The Boston Beer Co. is about to exceed 2 million barrels in annual production, which, until recently, would remove them from craft brewery status. Now, the Brewers Association has lifted the cap to 6 million barrels annually. Am I the only one who thinks that cutoff is mighty generous? They must employ multihanded mutants to “handcraft” that many barrels. Handcrafted beer isn’t contract brewed, period. If you aren’t brewing the beer, it isn’t your beer. Plenty of breweries are doing this, and in my opinion, it amounts to downright fraud.

The Alström brothers ask us: If it tastes good, does it matter who makes it? Well, that depends on whether or not you think beer is about a bottom line. It depends on how much you care about your local economy and community. Are you just a consumer, or does the beer you drink reflect your thoughts, aspirations, politics and ethical concerns? I shun the macrobreweries not because they produce lackluster-tasting beers, but simply because they’re giant, foreign-owned conglomerates that have objectified women in their advertising. Now, breweries like Unibroue and Magic Hat are being consumed by the behemoths who are trying to slice out a little piece of our double-digit growth pie. Once upon a time, these companies did this to eliminate the competition, resulting in fewer than 80 survivors. So it goes, consolidation after acquisition, until we’re all owned by A-B-InBev-SAB-MillerCoorsLabatt Inc.

So I guess we have to redefine “craft beer.” I suggest using a different qualifier. How about “terroir”? Sierra Nevada, Rogue, Weyerbacher and others are helping establish this precedent. Why shouldn’t beer be an expression of the regional soil as well as water? I envision an industry with new components: Regional hop growers’ co-ops and micro-malteries, organic growth distribution, emphasis on styles instead of brands, Wild Ales and Real Ales becoming more pervasive, blending houses reminiscent of authentic Belgium, appellations applied to ales and lagers. I envision an industry that moves toward ecological efficiency, not because it’s riding the coattails of some fad green market segment, but out of a necessity to reinvent itself. It’s not “craft beer”; it’s “bière terroir”.

In the end, the macrobrewers will produce better and better beer, which should be a victory, right? Craft beer in every bar in America? (Though hardly “handcrafted.”) Who knows, maybe one day, Tenth and Blake Brewing Co. will be mass-producing bière de champagne, but I doubt it. Thus Lew Bryson attests that we should have “any damned beer you want,” and he’s right. As a beer geek, I never judged anyway. It’s the beer snobs, who will always be around, so we might as well get used to it. Call it whatever you want: craft, terroir, luxury, boutique or artisanal—whatever helps you sleep at night. One thing is for sure though: “Craft” as an adjective has become meaningless. Craft beer is dead. Long live craft beer.

P.S. The I Am a Craft Brewer video still brings a tear to my eye.