Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A House Divided

I've noticed something over the last few years of writing this blog.

American craft beer is fighting amongst itself. All of the boats that are raised by the rising tide of craft beer have begun to spring leaks. The focus of craft beers fondest argument has started to shift away from micro versus macro or craft versus crafty debate, and is starting to turn inward. While the perception still lingers that the big boys remain "the enemy", the debate is ebbing away from that point, and cracks in the foundation are forming. Cracks that are emanating from both sides of the trade—from the breweries and the consumers.

Last month Tony Magee of Lagunitas took to Twitter to engage in a proverbial pissing match with the Boston Beer Company, accusing the larger brewery of developing its Rebel IPA, a so-called West Coast IPA, as a surreptitious tactic to undermine and supplant "true" West Coast IPA brewers. Jim Koch, denies the targeting of other craft brewers—but that remains to be seen.

Granted, this is a pretty stupid argument. Brewing is an industry, and with that comes competition. More importantly, however, this little tiff gets at the point that craft brewing isn't the big happy family that it is touted as.

An interesting debate popped up on Facebook between two friends of mine (who shall remain nameless) one involved in the beer industry and one a consumer—all over a spilled bottle of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. The debate devolved from a question of preference: "Everything is better bourbon-barrel-aged" versus "Lacks balance. Too much bourbon",  to essentially an argument that good beer is good beer regardless of where it comes from, with the other side stalwartly defending the position that craft beer is better because it's not coming from a giant corporation. 

But, the lock step mentality of macro beer is always "bad" and micro beer is always "good" is starting to crumble. Consumers are starting to realize that the big boys of brewing can make, or facilitate the making and distribution of, some pretty great beer. Don't get me wrong, the standards and guidons of "Up with Craft" are still flying pretty high, but the reality of beer purchasing is starting to become decidedly more gray rather than black or white.

Max and Alan's book The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer, may illustrate the rift in craft beer best of all. As interesting as the book is, what I find most intriguing, is that two people who love beer, in literally opposite ends of the world—Canada and the Czech Republic—have become fed up with the bullshit of what they both love. Think about it, two men who have a combined 16-year, public history with beer—both drinking it and writing about it—have become so disillusioned by the nonsense of its production that them felt it necessary to write a nine chapter book about the ridiculousness of it all.

That, in and of itself says something, doesn't it? 

I think craft beer, or microbrew or the resurgence of beer not produced on a mass scale—or whatever you want to call it—is reaching a maturity. By no means is it a middle-aged a father of two, with a dog and house and a white picket fence, but at the same time it's no longer a gangley, teenager. It's the beery equivalent of a twenty-something, a bit older, but still apt to make the occasional bonehead mistake. Now, however its capable of taking responsibility for its actions, and adjusting occasionally. This maturity, however, hinges on the industry's ability to listen to what the consumer's are saying, and in turn also hinges on the consumers ability to not follow for the sake of following.

Craft beer needs to realize that it's gotten to the point that being independent isn't enough. The sales of craft-like beers made by large breweries is enough to prove that. The beer is what is important—not that the brewery started in a garage or that West coast IPAs belong to California. That idea needs to be embraced by both the breweries and consumers. We are at the point where it's not all about the craft beer mantra, but should be about the mantra of good beer.

In my mind, that's the next step.


  1. Exactly right. I am old enough to remember when there was a beer culture before craft beer. There was! We searched out the best of what was (Labatt Extra Stock, Maximus Super, Prior Double Dark, Ballantine IPA, etc.). We found some excellent imports including Belgian and U.K. ones., and Guinness. Some collected beer cans, or labels. Some wrote books, e.g. Jim Anderson's antiquarian series. (Jim is still very much with us, out in WA or OR I understand, why doesn't a journalist track him down for an interview?). Beer was great then and it is more great now, but beer was always will be more than "craft" however you define it, and the new-found maturity of the beer culture is starting to see that again. At the same time, I don't believe in taking too many shots at the craft independents. Their hearts are in the right place and they still make the best stuff.


  2. Lemme say that again: "...beer was always more than "craft" however you define it...".

  3. I , too, remember beer before craft. I came of age, literally, as craft beer began its rise, in the late 80s and early 90s. I vividly remember hunting out the best imports I could find—or at least what we thought were the best!

    I'm not taking a shot at independence. I've always loved the spunky, underdog attitude—but that in and of itself falls short as "good" beer matures.