November 3, 2012

Separating Craft from Pseudo-Craft

Filed under: Beer 101 w/ Jason Foster  Jason @ 11:20 am

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Last month I took the rather ambitious stab at defining what makes a craft beer. We didn’t get that far, as it is a rather complex topic, but we were able to establish that key principle is “integrity”, which means transparency about process and product and sincerity in brewing. This month I want to delve a bit further by exploring the boundaries of craft vs. non-craft (which I like to call pseudo-craft).

We already decided that beer brewed directly by one of the massive multi-nationals is ineligible for craft status – for obvious reasons. But what about craft breweries bought out by the big boys? There are many cases of this around the world, but in Canada this would directly apply to Creemore Springs, Granville Island and Unibroue. All were unquestioned members of the craft beer club but have been bought out by Molson-Coors and Sapporo. Does this mean they are no longer craft?

Some would say yes. I, however, argue that it depends more on what happens after the buy-out. For example after being bought out by Sleeman’s the beer at Okanagan Springs (which I have never thought were particularly well-made) were noticeably dumbed down. In contrast, Unibroue continues to produce world-class Belgian-style beer. I would strongly resist any effort to strike Unibroue from the list of craft brewers.

By most accounts, Molson-Coors has adopted a hands-off approach both Granville Island and Creemore. They have been allowed to maintain a craft approach to beer. In fact their spin-off umbrella (in which they put both craft breweries), Six Pints, may be an effort to not mess up the craft end of the portfolio by keeping the accountants at bay.

Corporate ownership, while it might raise the ire of beer purists (like me) is not enough to exclude a brewery from the craft label. If Fuller’s was bought out tomorrow, would we instantly turn our backs on this classic British craft brewery? No. In other words ownership, per se, is insufficient to strike a brewery off the list. But if the beer is ‘watered down’ in some fashion, it might be a candidate for de-craft-ification.

So how about breweries that over-sell or mis-represent their beer? This, for me, is a useful marker, but even it is complicated. An easy example is Minhas Brewing – the Alberta company that brews beer in Wisconsin and ships it up to the Canadian market. They have a whole series of “craft” beer – from Vienna lagers to bocks to farmhouse ales – that taste nothing like what the labels promise. Minhas also goes to great lengths to obfuscate where its beer is made (including a new Calgary “brewery” that processes wort made in Wisconsin and trucked into Alberta).

But, unlike wine, there are no hard and fast rules about styles and labeling. Even solid craft breweries can breach the style naming rules. Half Pints – a solid Manitoba craft brewer – makes a lovely Kolsch it calls St. James Pale Ale. How many breweries use generic monikers – like “premium ale”, “golden ale”, “dark lager” – which tell us almost nothing? Or they don’t say a thing about the style, making us guess (Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil is a good example of that).

And what brewery has never been guilty of “spinning” their beer a little too much? Brewdog earns derisive snorts for some of its antics (beer in a stuffed squirrel??), but is that all that far removed from Stone Brewing telling us we are not worthy of their beer? Marketing is a fact of the beer industry. It isn’t a matter of whether the marketing is overdone, but whether it misleads the consumer about what the beer is. Try to tell me you have produced a hop-bomb when it really has the bitterness of a brown ale, then you have a problem.

It is easy to get into an uncompromising, puritan space about craft beer and craft beer marketing. But that would be a mistake. This is an imperfect business, and the people running breweries have to find ways to sell beer. I suggest the way to determine if a brewery should be consider craft or dismissed as “pseudo-craft” is to look at the whole body of their work. Overall are they trying to produce good beer and being honest about what they are doing?

And to be clear, your personal reaction to the beer is not one of the criterion. Just because I might not like the beer a brewery puts out doesn’t rule it ineligible to be craft. I believe (and you can disagree if you wish) that you can have a craft Budweiser-esque pale lager. Craft brewers are allowed to make so-so beer. Too often we forget that not everyone enjoys a hoppy double IPA or a smoked porter. It isn’t what kind of beer they are making, but how are they making it and what are they telling us about it.

Everyone has their favourite breweries along with their personal whipping posts. But to clarify what craft brewing is, we need to get past that and establish some criteria about how to judge each brewery. These past two columns are just a starting point. Now we need to continue the conversation in multiple forums.

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