beer column

here are my notes from yesterday's beer column on cbc radio's on the coast:
There is no absolute definition of craft beer, but most of the industry and consumers agree that craft beer is brewed with quality ingredients, by a brewery owned by people rather than other companies and that produces a smaller amount of beer annually.  The Brewers Association defines American craft brewers as "small, independentand traditional": "small" is defined as an "annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less"; "independent" is defined as at least 75% owned or controlled by a craft brewer; and "traditional" is defined as brewing in which at least 50% of the beer's volume consists of "traditional or innovative" ingredients.  Most people agree that craft beer is artisanal vs. mass-produced.
Crafty beer is the name beer advocates have been giving to beers that are pretending to be craft beers.  These are beer brands owned and brewed by large conglomerates with a name designed to sound like they are their own smaller brewery.  A prime example of crafty beer is Shock Top, which is owned by Anheuser Busch InBev.  Nowhere on Shock Top’s website or bottle does it say that it is owned by ABInBev, which might lead consumers to believe that it is an independent brewery. 

There are other crafty beers out there that used to be independently owned breweries producing craft beers that were sold to large conglomerates but have kept their names.  Those who aren’t aware that the brewery was sold to a conglomerate probably think that they are drinking hand crafted beers when they may be drinking mass produced beer that only somewhat resembles the original recipe.
Granville Island is one of these kinds of crafty beer breweries.  It used to be a small brewery, but got bought out by a winery who made most of the beer in Kelowna and then in 2009 it got bought out by Molson’s.  Some of their beers could be considered craft as they do brew some of their beers at the brewery on Granville Island in small batches with quality ingredients to recipes developed by brewmaster Vern Lambourne.  Their regular line is currently brewed at the Molson plant, though, enjoying the marketing machine behind a big brand like Molsons and is outside the loose definition of craft beer.  However, you will still see some restaurants including Granville Island in their “craft” beer listings.  Nowhere on their website or bottles does it say that they are brewed at the Molson plant.  The website is particularly misleading as it keeps referring to the brewery, store and taproom all being on Granville Island.  If I didn't know better, I would think that all their beers are brewed there, and that when I took a tour of that small brewery that I was seeing the whole operation and drinking beers that had been made on-site.  I happen to very much enjoy drinking Vern's Black Notebook series, so I'm not knocking Granville Island Brewing.  I just think they should be more transparent about who is brewing most of their beer, and where it is being brewed.

Beer advocates are upset that the large breweries are trying to dupe the public with their faux-craft beers.  The craft beer movement is all about authenticity and quality.  If the beer is being mass-produced the likelihood of quality ingredients is not high.  And if they are willing to mis-lead you about who owns the brewery and the brand, what else might they be mis-leading you about?  What exactly is in these beers?
In 2011, total beer sales fell by 1.3% byvolume in the United States.Craft beer sales, however, rose by 13%.  The big breweries took a look at a statistic like that and decided to take advantage of the craft beer surge by introducing faux craft beers.  Independent brewers don’t have the dollars behind them to market their beers like the conglomerates do.  If the big breweries aren’t honest about owning the brands they are putting their marketing dollars behind, unwary consumers are easily taken in by the advertising.  The number of people who have told me they really like Shock Top craft beer have all been very surprised when I tell them that it isn’t actually craft beer and is owned by Budweiser.  They were duped, and aren’t happy about it.  It hasn’t necessarily kept them from buying Shock Top again, but at least now they know what they are buying.

From the AB InBev website I found a speechfrom Adam Oakley, their Vice-President of High-End brands from November 14, 2013 to potential investors.  He defines “high-end” beers as those priced 20% or more above Bud Light.  Shock Top is one of these high-end beers.  He goes on to state that their “research shows there are actually two types of craft beer drinkers, not one.  We categorize them as “Accessible” and “Discovery” draft drinkers.  Accessible craft consumers are influenced by advertising.  They’re image-driven, price sensitive, typically younger adults and often ‘new to craft’.  In comparison, Discovery craft drinkers are more interested in brewers’ back-stories.  They seek bolder beer styles and are more discerning about the beers they purchase and share with their friends.”  And AB InBev has a marketing scheme to tempt both kinds of drinkers over to their crafty beers - one they are backing with "significantly increasing marketing investment on each in 2014 and beyond".  Shock Top is their product for the “Accessible” drinker.  Their logo “Living Life Unfiltered” is aimed at the 20-29 year old consumer – tempting them to live their dreams and their lives to the max.  “It means not taking yourself too seriously.”  And they assume you also won’t take your beer seriously enough to find out who makes it, or the “back-story” of the brewer.
Consumers deserve to know who made their beer and how far their beer travelled to get to their glass.  Was it made down the street?  In the next town over?  Or thousands of miles away?  Is the beer still fresh?  How easy will it be for you to visit the brewery?  Was it hand-crafted or part of a production line?  Is there a person behind the brew, or a major corporation?

Eric Wallace, of Left Hand Brewing in Colorado, explained to the Denver Post:
“The authenticity of craft brewing is one of the cool things about it,” Wallace said. “It’s one of the things attractive to people – the fact you can come down to the tasting room, and there are the guys who work here, it’s all made here, they can have a pint and rub shoulders and talk to them about what they’re doing. There is almost a sense of ownership in the community.”

Also worrisome to the craft beer industry as a whole is losing their growing market share when formerly independent breweries sell themselves to the conglomerates.

From the Denver Post March 5, 2014:
"But perhaps no bigger hurdle exists to the growth goal than the likelihood of more craft brewers selling out to Big Beer. One significant defection could take a huge chunk of market share, potentially wiping out the gains from welcoming the likes of Yuengling and other heritage breweries.

Kansas City-based , the 12th largest U.S. craft brewer on the BA’s [Brewers Association] 2012 list, was acquired by Duvel Moortgat of Belgium in October and will be off the books. Same with of Patchogue, N.Y., which was snatched up last month by Anheuser-Busch InBev.

“There are most definitely brewers that have that exit plan in mind,” said Matt Cutter, a co-founder of in Boulder. “I’m not one of them. But that’s really the only card the large domestic players have left. They’re shrinking 1 to 2 percent a year. Craft beer is growing, 13, 14, 15 percent a year. So how do they fill up the extra capacity they have in their breweries? They buy brands. They fill up the capacity and they plug it into their existing distribution network.” "

And then there's contract brewing - when one brewery has another brew their beer for them.  Sometimes this is a brief relationship to tide the first brewery over, like when Steamworks had Dead Frog brew their bottled product for them until they got their new Burnaby brewery up and running.  Sometimes this is a way to avoid having to ship product long distances, like Double Trouble from Guelph Ontario who have Dead Frog contract brew their products for the British Columbia market.  It is a useful relationship for both the original brewery and the contract brewery.  But the jury is still out on whether it is unwaveringly good for the consumer.  But I'll save that discussion for another column.

At the end of the day, if you really like Shock-Top, I’m not going to tell you to stop drinking it.  Heck, if Budweiser is your favourite beer, I’m not going to tell you to stop drinking that either.  I would hate to be seen as discouraging anyone from drinking beer.
I’d love it if you gave craft beer a chance and tried to support your local brewers and local economy, but as a consumer it is your choice where you put your money.  I do feel strongly that no one should be duped though.  Beers should clearly state who they are brewed by, and where they are brewed.  You, the consumer, have a right to know.

Beer picks:

If you like Shock Top Raspberry Wheat - Why not try Steamworks Frambozen?

If you like Granville Island’s Pale Ale - Why not try 4 Winds Pale Ale?

If you like Budweiser and Canadian - Why not try Main Street pilsner?


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