Craft. Nano. Contract. Big. Gypsy. Small. Local. Brewer.

Unfiltered by | May 2013 | Issue #76

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

Craft beer spends an inordinate amount of time trying to define itself, not by what it is, but by what is not. More plentiful than IPAs in planning, semantic debates abound, and the industry has been lousy with them for decades. And during that time, small brewers and their representatives have sought to define themselves by a series of negative attributes. Too often these small brewers contented themselves with a David versus Goliath narrative instead of touting their positives.

The first 25 years of the craft brewing industry were defined by the battle over flavor, a trench-warfare fight to change consumer tastes. Despite having won that war—if the bulk of consumer research from firms such as Nielsen and SymphonyIRI is to be believed—craft brewers continue to exist inside the Cold War mindset of us against the big guys. While they haven’t publicly admitted it, yet, the big guys know the future lies not in its aging base of Bud-buying loyalist boomers. They recognize the new age of craft.

As craft brewers played word games with one another, the larger brewers seized an opportunity during the debate over “craft beer” to gerrymander the phrase to include their own products. When asked about the linguistic debate recently, a large brewery executive replied that the consumer would ultimately decide which brands qualify as craft beer and which fail to make the cut. The same consumer data that highlights the growth of small brewers also tells a tale of big brewer success in the fight for flavorful beer consumers. Brands such as Blue Moon and Shock Top, with their many line extensions, and big-brewer partner outfits, including Goose Island and Kona, are exploding with growth. Beyond online forums and beer nerd bottle parties, the overwhelming bulk of consumers consider these beers to be craft and have no understanding of or concern for name games.

At the recent Craft Brewers Conference, there was an increasingly palpable sense of fractiousness, if you could look beyond the pep rally atmosphere fueled by exceptional growth statistics. While brewers themselves were abuzz with questions about their industry’s future, the conference’s offerings solidified the sense of unease. With discussions such as “Allies or Competitors,” “Why You Should Not Start A Brewery” and “Surviving the Bubble,” along with three separate seminars on dealing with trademark disputes, the conference’s usual air of collegiality grew a touch more sober.

Whether craft brewers can control the narrative and maintain dominion over their cherished phrase, “craft beer,” remains hard to predict. It’s easy to forget that the term “craft beer” has not long been in existence, somewhat undermining the case for its ownership by the little guys. And where self-anointed craft brewers continue to fight scorched earth campaigns with one another over the meaning of terms such as “brewer,” “contract” and “gypsy,” it seems the larger focus is increasingly being cast aside.

We know a few things for certain: The volume of American beer sales remains stagnant or in decline, led by the slow collapse of heritage brands, including Budweiser and even many light lagers. We also know flavorful beer, whether produced by big or little players, is growing stronger every day. Flavorful beer, whether called craft or not, is the future. Craft brewers have won. But they will have to recognize another truth, one the big guys already know: In the future, consumers will set the criteria for membership in the craft beer club. And telling customers that they’re wrong is going to be bad for business. 

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