What is a "craft beer"? We use the term loosely to describe the 70 or so styles of beer that are not light lagers. I also like the alternative "specialty beers," which could apply to any of these styles, since none of them comprise even 1 percent of the total beer market. The fact that they are no longer called by their original name, "microbrewed beers," suggests that they no longer have to be made in microbreweries.
The world of micro/specialty/craft brewing has grown, with some notable California and Colorado breweries, for example, now opening second facilities in Asheville. The industry has expanded way beyond its pale ale, porter and stout origins: There are no styles that craft brewers haven't resurrected or reinvented.
In this state of flux, every few years a heated kerfuffle erupts about the nature of craft beer, and who can belong to the club of those who brew it. It's an argument about economics, dressed up to look like something nobler.
The Brewers Association, the trade association for craft brewers, fired the latest salvo last month. In a statement headlined "Craft vs. Crafty," the association drew attention to the number of craft-like beers brewed, they say, by non-craft breweries. Given the healthy growth in the craft beer sector, in contrast with losses in the beer world overall, the association warns that large brewing companies are attempting to steal business from smaller companies by imitating their products.
Which, of course, they are. They'd be crazy not to. But this is nothing new. Ever since the 1970s, when small American companies began brewing beer that presented drinkers with alternatives to light lager, the big players have pushed back—with derision, battles over freshness, attempts to exclude small brands from distribution and shelf space and, yes, with their own versions of these new beers.
Anyone remember Crossroads? It was a delicious, true-to-style hefeweizen that was test-marketed in the Triangle area by mega-brewer Anheuser-Busch. That was in 1995. It failed because Anheuser-Busch didn't understand how to sell unusual styles of beer. But along with Miller and Coors, the company kept trying, developing portfolios of atypical brews, produced more cheaply and distributed with better networks than small companies could match.
The Brewers Association fought back the way that professional associations, leagues and guilds do: by drawing clear lines between their members' efforts and those of the imposters. This has meant defining craft beer and craft brewers in tightly circumscribed ways that have only one real goal: to keep the big guys out of the club.
And they'd be crazy not to, because membership in this club represents genuine shared economic interests and burdens. Unfortunately, as craft beer evolves, it becomes harder and harder to frame a definition of a craft brewer that isn't immediately violated by a member of the club itself. As it stands, today's definition is a clumsy patchwork that combines brewery size and governance structure, as well as the types of beers brewed, their ingredients and the intentions behind using those ingredients.
The big brewers protest, with reason, that they produce some beers that are just as deserving in style and quality of the term "craft," which shouldn't be stigmatized simply because of where they're made. The defenders of craft beer point out, also with reason, that labels on the two biggest-selling "craft-like" beers, Blue Moon and Shock Top, don't reveal that these are products of Coors and Anheuser-Busch, respectively—a tacit recognition that those mega-brewers would rather the consumer mistake these beers for products of small companies.
What do consumers want? I don't think beer drinkers care as much as the association would like about who brews their beer. But they care more about supporting local David than the Goliaths would like them to. And they really care more about what tastes good than they do about labels.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fight club."