How should we define the term “Craft Beer”?
A recent USA Today article poses this question and will bring you up to speed with some of the recent jabs exchanged between the big guys and the little guys of the beer world.
As more and more people are turning to craft beer (in lieu of the conglomerate-owned, adjunct-brewed alternatives), the question of what craft beer is becomes an important one. The Brewers Association recently attempted to defined a “Craft Brewer” as follows:
“An American craft brewer is defined as small and independent. Their annual production is 6 million barrels of beer or less and no more than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.”
Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors are currently the two biggest players in the American beer market but they have been steadily losing market share to smaller craft breweries. Now craft beer is big business, and there are definitely big guys and little guys within the craft beer segment, but to put things in perspective all craft beer sales are still less than 10% in overall volume of the US beer market.
By comparison A-B and MillerCoors control over 80% of the US beer market. Predictably, A-B and MillerCoors have been buying up craft breweries where they can and also producing their own versions of “craft” beer dubbed “crafty” by the Brewers Association.
Is this a good thing?
Whether or not the big guys making crafty beer is a topic open for debate. On the one hand, if in response to the market’s demand for better beer A-B / MillerCoors start producing slightly better beer, then that’s a good thing right? The market forces are operating as they should.
On the other hand, if as a result the average beer drinker is not exposed to all the wonderful things that craft beer can be, then that is a bad thing.
Many people have been told (through expensive marketing campaigns) that beer brands like Shock Top or Blue Moon are independent, artisanal, or small. I would hate for someone to try those brands, think they are not so great, and go right back to Budweiser. Or drink those brands because they think they are supporting a small, independent brewery. Or just drink those brands and not be exposed to everything else that is out there.
The optimist in me hopes that people try Blue Moon and think, “Hey, this is pretty good. Maybe I’ll try some other craft beers.” In this model, these ‘crafty’ beers are like a stepping stone (or a gateway drug) on the path to the world of craft beer.
So what’s the answer?
Personally I think this is a truth in advertising issue.
One proposed solution that I have heard is to have a legal “Craft Beer” distinction and maybe an emblem that craft brewers could put on their labels distinguishing them from the mega breweries. This isn’t a bad idea, but I always error on the side of caution when asking the government to step in and I think there are too many subtle issues here for the government’s (generally ham-fisted) approach. This might be a good idea for a non-government organization to take on, similar to the “Certified Organic” or “Fair Trade” labels.
Instead, I propose some version of the following rule:
Any ownership interest greater than 25% must be disclosed on the label.
If A-B / MillerCoors want to release different beer brands to try to compete with craft brewers, bring on the competition. I am OK with just about any label or marketing scheme they can come up with. BUT… I just want it to say somewhere on the label who really makes this beer.
This would not be hard to implement. A company could proudly display their logo prominently on the front of the label, or they could put it in small (but readable) print along side the other legal disclaimers.
I just want to know as a consumer who makes this product. (In fact, this might be a good rule for food and beverage products in general, but I digress.)
I’m sure there would need to be some definitions of who is the owner, or what to do when there are multiple levels of corporate entities. I’m not saying that I have hammered all that out yet. I do think that if we got five or six reasonably intelligent people who know the beer industry in a room, that we could write this up in a one-page document.
Who’s with me?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments!