Hottest 100 sparks customary debate: What is craft beer?

bio pic newAs the GABS Beer & Food Fest Hottest 100 Countdown for 2016 approaches, the usual discussions and debates arise as to “what is a craft beer?” social media and bar conversations across the country are rife with question, conjecture, division and the increasingly boring derision of certain brands and breweries whose beers might feature in what is, after all, a poll that’s just a bit of fun.

But it does bring to light a valid and seemingly indestructible groundswell towards making your dollar do what your heart thinks. Brews News’ own Matt Kirkegaard has often explained his decisions to purchase beer brewed by smaller independent operators through similarly set-up retail outlets as; “A way of making a statement as to how I want to see the future of beer in this country.” In other words, what I do today, is a small but ultimately significant step towards the range, choice and diversity that we can all enjoy tomorrow.

A second layer to this debate also co-exists and follows this issue; ‘the one about the brewery that was sold to a big multi-national but is still left alone to brew beers the same way as they always have’. Can I still enjoy the beer I have always fancied once the brewery’s ownership changes from ‘small’ to ‘big’ or ‘mega’? Even if the beer doesn’t change at all?

The ‘intention’ of the brewer is usually alluded to at this point in the debate as it can be a useful pointer as to whether or not a beer is ‘craft’. This writer has used the expression; “Is this beer brewed with the drinker in mind – or the bean-counter?” to gauge the ‘craftiness’ of a beer but even this is simplistic in terms of the ‘Big Picture’. Regardless of what you believe to be the intention of the brewer in crafting/brewing/making a beer, there is a consequence which is far more relevant to the core of the issue.

Founder and head of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Sam Calagione, on his recent visit to Australia said;
“Publicly listed companies have a legal obligation to turn a profit and provide increasing value to their shareholders …. at the expense of range, diversity and flavour.”
Think about that for a second. The prime motivator, the driving force the (pardon the juicy Dogfish Head pun) reason d’etre for all fiscally responsible publicly-listed businesses is TO FIRST MAKE MONEY. Which is, coincidentally, a pretty good bit of advice for even the smallest brewery making single batches in a big kettle but more of that later.

Once a business goes public it is beholden to its shareholders first and foremost. In a Business 101, legal and ethical way, beholden to its shareholders. Now, I fully concede that many businesses are run in a more humanistic way with genuine care given to being a good corporate citizen. Many work hard to be sustainable and generous and give back to their community or support good causes but they must still aim to make – and grow – profits. This may not necessarily come at the expense of range, diversity and flavour in the case of a brewery, but these considerations are often consigned to lower levels of importance.

Think also about this; when a ‘small beer’ becomes part of a ‘big beer’ family, it often no longer travels around town in the back of the rep’s car making friendly, personalised sales calls. Now it sits squeezed into a bigger truck with the big brewery’s other brands and may be offered up in bundle deals to many more outlets than was previously possible. This might be a good thing for the small beer but now another small beer will find getting shelf space more difficult.

Small is a relative term. Boston Beer Co head Jim Koch speaks of the competitive edge that a ‘small’ brewery like San Diego’s Saint Archer has over his beers. Saint Archer sold 18,000 barrels last year compared to Boston Beer Co.s 4 million barrels yet Koch argues the playing field is hardly a level one – and not in his favour.

Since selling to MillerCoors, Saint Archer might still be perceived as a small indie brand started by a group which included laid-back pro-surfers, snowboarders and other sporting types but it now shares a stable with some of the United States most widely distributed and powerful brands. Koch who describes his own brewery as “the tallest of the pygmies” makes a good point – if you’re a sales guy turning up with a cadre of recognised ‘craft’ beers, plus Corona or Budweiser or Guinness or whatever else, you’re turning up with real clout. And a merchandising/rebate/bonus/incentive deal that real craft brewers cannot hope to match.

There must come a point as a small brewery grows that its mindset shifts. At each stage of the story there sits someone keen to maintain their job whether it’s by increasing sales, trimming costs, sourcing raw materials, designing labels or moving pallets – all of which determine the style and quantity of beer that the brewer can, or has to, brew.

So while some independents who sell to the big guys might well be able to maintain the status quo as far as designing, brewing, marketing and selling their beers might go, there will always be the opportunity for beer drinkers to vote with their feet and choose to support the business model they believe best reflects their own values and ideals. In doing so they are making choices about the future they want for beer.

Many, of course, will be tricked into buying beer that appears to be made by a small independent craft brewer but is, in fact, made by a rather large corporation trying to hide behind a small brew kettle. But that’s a story for another time.

Now go out and buy some beer.

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