Craft Versus Crafty: The Brewers Association Misstep

 Note: Post has updates (and more updates, and more...)

Can you tell if this is a craft brewery?
Yesterday the Brewers Association sent out a press release that rehashed a point they've made many times in the past: big brewers are peddling faux craft and this just isn't fair.  I have no idea what provoked the latest sortie, but this time the complaint has a really tone-deaf quality.  Craft beer already inspires cultish tendencies, and BA plays on that in spades here--right down to some creepy doublespeak.  You can follow the first link to read the whole thing, but I want to cherry pick a few sentences: 

  • "An American craft brewer is defined as small and independent."
  • "Witnessing both the tremendous success and growth of craft brewers and the fact that many beer lovers are turning away from mass-produced light lagers, the large brewers have been seeking entry into the craft beer marketplace."
  • "[I]t’s important to remember that if a large brewer has a controlling share of a smaller producing brewery, the brewer is, by definition, not craft."
  • The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers.
The Brewers Association has for decades been attempting to create the mental category of "craft beer."  They branded themselves that way and have been aggressive in promoting their definition.  But now here they use the passive construction to assert a bland truth about how a craft brewer "is defined," as if this comes a priori from the universe.  You invented "craft brewer," BA, so please own it.

Next they invent another new fiction, the "craft beer marketplace."  There is no such thing.  Large breweries do not have to "seek entry" into this fictive universe.  They sell beer, right there at the tap handle next to the imported Corona and the local micros.  They do not have to trawl the finer precincts where pubs bar the door to their kegs.  Finally, BA makes the unironic assertion that the big breweries are blurring lines.  Really?  Because it looks to me like these lines are pure inventions of the Brewers Association.

The response to this dictat was, even among the hardcore geek community, mixed.  There were articles, sharp blog posts, and lots of social media debate. Perhaps you even participated in it.

Here's what disturbs me.  The two parties involved in this debate are trying to sell me beer.   The BA has crafted a very strong, emotional brand and has attempted to hijack language ("craft brewery") as a way of enforcing it. As I think anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a huge fan of small brewers and a big critic of many of the practices of multinational beer companies.  But I reserve the right to make decisions about how I think about beer.  I get to call Goose Island and Widmer craft brewers if I wish. I decide whether a company makes good beer, and I get to ignore who the owner is. The Brewers Association may attempt to define categories of beer to benefit its members, but we don't have to accept it as fact.

Should consumers be aware that macros are setting up side brands to sell beer to a different target audience than their regular customers?  Yes.  Should the Brewers Association get to set the rules about what good beer is, who gets to make it, and what we should think about it?  That kind of answers itself, doesn't it?  All beer geeks want variety in the marketplace, competitiveness, and exceptional beer.  The Brewers Association is a powerful player in making sure that happens.  But we, as consumers, not the BA, have the final say over what good beer is, what craft beer is, and which breweries get to be called "craft."


Update: More commentary from around the beerosphere: brilliant post from across the pond; another skeptic; a faux craft brewer responds, appears real enough; and yet another skeptic.

Update 2: The plot thickens, as August Schell gets in on the action.  This is a must-read, and echoes a point I made three years ago.  Eric Steen posts some good thoughts, too.

Update 3:  And the debate continues.  Chris Staten at Draft Magazine, gets nuancey.  Sanjay takes the Brewers Association to task, but Ashley mounts a spirited defense.  Brian Leppla considers the "craft" question, and Stan, who says he has nothing new to add, decides to add something anyway.  The Motley Fool thinks about it in terms beer geeks don't.

To wrap things up, I'll point you to a very nice piece by Eric Gorski in the Denver Post that, more than anything I've read, lays out all the points in the debate.  Several days after the fact, I think it's pretty obvious that as a matter of messaging, last week's press release was a misfire by the Brewers Association.  It was designed to persuade, and it backfired even among many of its most ardent supporters.  I don't think anyone is averse to promoting (or even requiring) clear labeling information about where beer was brewed and by whom.  The mistake was way the message was delivered--surely a misdemeanor, not a felony--and something I hope they address in future communication.