“Craft Brewery” vs. “Craft Beer” – Yes, There’s a Difference

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Last year, one of my favorite events during SAVOR week was Flying Dog’s Backyard Symposium, and this year was no exception. So while most of you guys were slaving away for the man at work on Friday – suckers! – I was kicking back a few brews and getting teased mercilessly by many for taking close to ten pages of notes combined for each of this year’s panel sessions. (Panel sessions that were run expertly by Bill DeBaun of DCBeer, I might add.)

The topics were:

  • How Non-Saccahromyces Yeasts Are Changing the Beer Market
  • What Does “Craft” Really Mean?

I’ll talk more about the first panel later this week(ish). For now, I want to focus on that second topic, because while both were really fascinating, it was the latter panel that got my noodle going.

Defining craft beer has always been a bit of a challenge – at least in my eyes. It kind of felt like that old saying about pornography: “I know it went I see it.” (A crass comparison, I know. But words are failing me at the moment. And by “at the moment,” I mean all the time.) My struggle is that I’m able to define what a craft brewery is, thanks to the folks at the Brewers Association who set the standard, but craft beer itself gets a little murky. I mean, let’s face it – just because a craft brewery produces a beer doesn’t mean it’s good. I know a lot of people don’t like to point that out, but it’s the truth.

Not everyone seems to agree with me, however. In fact, the vast majority of consumers value local over quality when choosing what goes into their respective pints.

So where does that leave craft beer? Is it simply defined exclusively as the product of a Brewers Association-designated craft brewer, regardless of quality? Or is it supposed to hang out there in the ether as some unattainable intangible – like a hangover cure that actually works?

This is where the expertise of last Thursday’s panelists (along with my epic note-taking) comes into play.

Right off the bat, Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association acknowledged this ambiguity: “We do have a definition for a craft brewer, but not for craft beer – the latter is different things to different people.”

On the one hand, I was happy to know I wasn’t crazy – there was indeed an acknowledged disparity between the terms. But on the other hand, just saying “Oh, it means different things to different people,” didn’t sit right with me.

Later on, Hayes Humphreys of Devils Backbone got to the heart of this concern when he said, “The fact that many don’t see the distinction between ‘craft beer’ and ‘craft brewer’ is a sign that we need to take ownership of that term. Otherwise we’ll lose control of what that means.”

(I appreciate when people smarter than myself articulate things clearly so I don’t have to.)

One example of this loss of control is Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout – a beer brought up by DeBaun while moderating this panel, and one that I can admit I totally buy, drink and enjoy. At one time this was a craft beer, but after Goose Island’s AB-InBev acquisition, that changed in the blink of an eye. Now, once a year around the holidays when it’s released, you can count on the collective beer nerd community sniping at each other over the validity of Bourbon County, much in the way I can count on making one thing at Thanksgiving that even my dogs won’t eat.

Bill Butcher, founder of Port City Brewing Company (Virginia), said, “We don’t know how [situations like this] are going to play out in the industry. The question hasn’t been around long enough.” Ben Savage, CMO of Flying Dog, agreed with him, but did go on to say that history shows those companies are focused on profit and shareholder maximization, which can lead to product being commoditized away from a brewery’s original core mission.

“It also matters when folks are getting locked out of retailers,” Herz said, pointing to the gray areas that now exist in distribution. “This can have a negative impact, when innovation isn’t allowed to thrive.”

So if we know there is a difference between the terms, and we know it’s imperative to “take ownership” of craft beer’s definition, how the heck do we define it? The consensus among the panelists, for the most part, seemed to be motivation and quality.

“To me, it’s about motivation and accessibility. Why is a brewery making the decisions they’re making? For example, if you’re lowering the ABV to save millions of dollars, that’s not craft,” Savage said. “[But] quality is a slippery slope. Plenty of bad beer is being made by craft brewers. Again, it comes down to motive.”

“Are you striving for quality? Is there corporate focus on quality? You need to be able to dump a bad beer – and have the personnel and resources to do so,” Humphreys said.

Herz continued to hammer the importance of quality home, saying that in order to have quality in your product, you have to establish and stand up a program with that focus within your brewery.  Butcher pointed to Sierra Nevada as a great example of this, sharing that Sierra Nevada will only increase production as they have the resources to support the quality of their beer.

“Sierra is the benchmark for growing and ‘staying small,'” Savage said. “But it still comes down to motive – how and why you’re growing.”

While I didn’t walk away from that session feeling like I could outline what craft beer is in the black-and-white way one does a craft brewer, by ownership, volume and ingredients, it did confirm for me that this industry is changing and growing to a point where larger questions are being asked that may not always make everyone comfortable.

Even the bigger guys are feeling the tug at their purse strings and pushing back.

“They just spent millions of dollars legitimizing what we do,” Humphreys said in response to the now infamous Budweiser Super Bowl ad, which has only 1,600 likes and 9,593 dislikes at the time of writing this.

“Yeah, it felt like shitty marketing. It was such a weird fight to pick,” Savage agreed.

More importantly, however, while you may not be able to break down what craft beer is by a value as specific as production volumes, the question in this game is shifting from not just “What are you brewing?” but also to “Why are you brewing it?” It makes sense, in a way. This industry relies a lot upon cultivating camaraderie and the desire to build a community – both with consumers and other brewers. And with that comes an implied level of trust that, as a contributor to that community as a brewer, you’re not just there for yourself. You’re there to do your best work.

More to the point, even as a business owner seeking sustainability and growth, you believe in what you do as an actual craft, and not just another labeled sixer on a shelf in a grocery store.