All About Beer Magazine - Volume 39, Issue 1
June 14, 2018 By
(Photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Words have consequences. Even if those words are as obtuse as “that’s not craft,” they can damage friendships, and that kind of thing is ripping up the American brewing industry. It’s time to consider the potential damage.

I remember a lot of nasty stuff being said about beer over my lifetime. In the early years of the 1980s, much of it centered on comparisons to some breed of animal piss and the inevitable question of, “How do you know what that tastes like?!”

Then small breweries started hitting the market, and mainstream beer drinkers taunted us for drinking “that microbrew shit” or “yuppie beer.” That was all just about being different from the herd, and the herd’s defensiveness. We were beer drinkers, but there was something not right about us.

But it was when the alternative beer market got big enough to divide against itself that things really got ugly. Contract brewing was the first big divide. If you weren’t making the beer yourself, it was no good. Brick-and-mortar brewers hung a lot out there, putting up the money and learning curve. But contract brewers jump-started the category, and they were helping to keep the older regional brewers open. I looked on that as an overall positive, but some folks loudly argued against them.

Closely related were the “fake beer companies.” That was originally leveled against the big brewers, who brewed beers “made” by new companies with different names. They were vilified as lying about their origins. The best-known survivor of that time: Blue Moon, a Coors product, but you’d never find “Coors” on the label at the time.

The practice trickled down to the newer brewers, and things got confused. In late 1994, Boston Beer developed a line called Oregon Ale & Beer, with a somewhat cloudy origin story, and the brewers of the Pacific Northwest were furious. This guy didn’t even have a brewery, and he was using their identity to sell his beer! The Oregon Brewers Guild and the Washington Small Brewers Association paid for an ad that proclaimed “Local Microbrewers Incensed at Imposter.” A lawsuit was brewing when more “pseudo-craft” beers released by Anheuser-Busch brought the small brewers to their senses. And no one seemed to recall that fanciful names like these had been a common practice in American brewing since before Prohibition.

When Blue Moon finally started selling big in the early 2000s, beer aficionados freaked out. They called it fake craft, “crafty” and worse. I just wanted them to try it in a blind tasting and see if they really hated it, or what it stood for. But argue the quality of the beer with a brewer, and it would inevitably come down to, “They’re taking the food out of my family’s mouths!” Really? More than other brewers, more than distillers?

Astonishingly, quality became divisive, notably at a 2014 speech delivered by Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. “While the top end of quality continues to improve,” he said, “there are some cracks with new brewers.” That touched off an angry discussion of how sincere the BA was about supporting new, small brewers and whether this represented barrier-building on the part of established brewers.

Then there was the wave of buyouts in 2015-2017. Medium-sized, independent brewers across the country were bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev, by Constellation Brands, by Heineken. Consumers felt betrayed by formerly independent brewers and spurned the beers. Brewers boycotted events run by these brewers.

Was it related when the most ardent of consumers increasingly had no time for large, established alternative brewers? As I write this, Smuttynose is up for auction, Mendocino has closed its taproom, Speakeasy hangs on by a thread, and sales of Boston Beer are down, while there are lines at small breweries, where limited runs of beer sell out in a matter of hours. New breweries can do no wrong; old breweries are ignored.

I think it is related. People want to be different, just as we old-timers did when we stepped away from the Budweiser tap. People want new and fresh. But the market has become confusing. Breweries seem to open and close and change hands daily, ownership is nebulous, and the defense is hyperlocalism. When you walk in a small taproom tucked in the back of an industrial park, with rough furniture and a concrete floor, it’s a pretty sure thing you know who’s brewing the beer.

I’m not angry about that. I’m not actually angry about anything, for a change. I just want good beer, and honestly, I don’t care where it comes from. I like my small, local taproom. I like Sierra Nevada. I like beers from several of the “sellout” breweries.

What I don’t like is the nasty crap we’re slinging about brewers. Don’t like their beer? Then just say that and move on. Don’t insult them, and don’t insult me if we disagree. This is beer, not “death before dishonor”-level stuff. Have a couple, maybe try something old instead of something new. But leave the hate for politics.

Lew Bryson has been writing about beer for more than 25 years and is the author of Tasting Whiskey. On Twitter @LewBryson.