The Future of Beer is Hiding in the Footnotes

For decades, folks in Denver have been tracking the growth of craft beer and the size of American craft breweries, and each year the Brewers Association releases figures on both. This has become an increasingly difficult exercise in recent years, however, because many of the flagship breweries making craft beer have changed their organizational structures to better compete in the marketplace. And that puts them outside the Brewers Association defintion.  According to the revised definition, the Brewers Association says a craft brewery is "small, independent and traditional." (I'd have liked an Oxford comma in that definition, but that's a different debate for a different time.)

Craft beer is, tautologically, beer made by craft breweries. But 2015 was the year that brewing broke "craft beer." The once-elegant dichotomy between craft and noncraft, fraying at the edges since the formation of Craft Brewers Alliance, was shattered with brewery acquisitions, mergers, sales of minority stakes, and mission creep into non-beer products.

As usual, April heralds the annual Brewers Association list of largest breweries. The most startling element of this year's tally is how many breweries have a small letter appended after the name. Those footnotes connect to a description of the compromises and deviations from the pure essence of "craft brewing" each brewery has taken. (I'll include the entire, extremely long list in the first comment below this post.) In other words, these are in some sense all "crafty" breweries. And even with all those footnotes the BA elided some of the changes by failing to notice sales of minority stakes--which I've addressed by adding an asterisk.

So, of the largest 25 breweries in the United States, how many unambiguously meet the definition of "craft?" Six.

Brewing Company
Anheuser-Busch, Inc (a)
MillerCoors (b)
Pabst Brewing Co (c)
D. G. Yuengling and Son
Boston Beer Co (d)
North American Breweries (e)
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co
New Belgium Brewing Co
Craft Brew Alliance (f)
Lagunitas Brewing Co (g)
Gambrinus (h)
Bell's Brewery, Inc (i)
Deschutes Brewery
Minhas Craft Brewery (j)
Stone Brewing Co
Sleeman Brewing Co (k)
Ballast Point (l)
Brooklyn Brewery
Firestone Walker (m)
Founders Brewing Co*
Oskar Blues Brewing (n)
Duvel Moortgat USA (o)
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery*
Matt Brewing Co (p)
SweetWater Brewing Co*

This is not a list of the largest American breweries, it's an obituary for "craft brewing." It demonstrates that a mature market is not one in which the big players are "small, independent and traditional." No amount of fiddling with the definition will ever repair this breach, either--because "craft beer" won. It has become mainstream and is in the process of entering the mass market. And companies that make hundreds of thousands of barrels of beer a year need to use all the advantages size affords. So of course "craft breweries" now look a lot like "macro breweries." The difference between the former craft and macro segments never had anything to do with beer, it had to do with size.  The absurdity of a list that has to include a 300-word footnote to account for all the complexity in a market makes this reality explicit. We have entered the post-craft era; welcome to the future.

Craft beer is dead. Long live beer.