Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Wednesday Weekly: To the “craft” of the matter.

The idea is to stay disciplined by continuing to write Wednesday columns here, but to try posting one each week instead of every other week (as was the case for Mug Shots in LEO). The following had been submitted as the next LEO column. So much for that! I'll come up with something better for a column name as we go along. Thanks for your support during the past few days, and the many notes and kind thoughts.


To the “craft” of the matter.

It was in a moment of sodden, resigned and benumbed weakness, to be repeated only once in all the manic, hazy years since, that I agreed to attend either the second or third Thunder Over Louisville.

Don’t ask me to specify the date. In those heady, early 1990’s days of blessed, expanded, real beer choice, I was pioneering a veritable self-Stakhanovite movement dedicated to exceeding quotas of alcoholic consumption wherever and whenever possible. As a result, the rear view mirror now is blurred on occasion. So be it.

Otherwise embarrassed, I mention this “thunderous” error in event attendance judgment for one reason alone: We’d booked rooms at the Seelbach, and when the fireworks ended and our flasks were damnably emptied of spirits, it was decided to close the evening at the hotel bar. There, amid the classicist’s interior opulence, we were surprised and delighted to find Samuel Adams Boston Lager.

It was in a bottle. Or: On tap. I don’t remember which.


The Sam Adams flagship was, and remains, dependable default lager beer, and the line has expanded to include numerous other styles. It’s impossible to criticize these many well-made products, and it’s just as unlikely to find well-versed beer enthusiasts who’ll express undying love for them.

From well-documented, humble origins, and with zeal, diligence and a considerable measure of sheer blarney, Boston Beer Company has consolidated strengths with few missteps. It has registered steady growth, while at the same time striving to maintain its small-scale renegade micro sheen, except that nowadays, Boston Beer is equipped with a productive capacity to play the game at a near-macro level.

Sam Adams can be enjoyed in stadiums, airports and country clubs, those “special” places where the notion of free markets capitalism is less popular than in Pyongyang, and where genuinely local “craft” breweries struggle to penetrate the archaic vestiges of monopolist distribution ... and usually fail, such that we sigh, shrug, and mutter to ourselves: Well, at least Sam Adams is better than Heineken, right?

Wait. What was that? That’s right. 200 words into this essay, and I could no longer avoid the use of the “C” word. Perhaps now, you’ll see where I’m headed.


As any parent can attest, growing pains can be awkward, and semantic dominoes began falling earlier this month when it was reported that the Boston Beer Company could lose its status as a “craft” brewer by climbing past the two million barrel yearly production limit.

In this instance, “craft” is more than shorthand for marketing purposes. In part, it’s about prestige. Without Boston Beer’s oversized two million barrel output, craft/micro/artisanal brewing’s overall beer market share would decrease overnight, even if all the other 1,500+ smaller breweries reported gains of their own.

And yet, the “craft” segment sales leader is undersized compared with the heaviest hitters – with implications in the realm of taxation, where the real story lies. Sammy’s 2,000,001st barrel will place Boston Beer in the same excise taxation class as Anheuser-Busch, even though A-B annually brews at least 50 times more beer than Jim Koch’s famous car trunk start-up gone big time.

The immediate and prosaic solution touted by Boston Beer and the Brewers Association is a piece of national legislation that would increase the yearly production limit on "craft" breweries from two million to six million barrels, and then cut the excise tax on the first 60,000 barrels brewed by half, with a more modest discount up to the limit.

On a more philosophical plane, a freshly minted discussion of the word “craft” is underway. I tend to use it freely, almost as slang: We’re experiencing a “craft” beer revolution, our peers comprise “Craft” Beer Nation, and it’s all about fresh, local “craft” alternatives. It’s hard to define, but we persist in thinking that we know it when we taste it.

At the same time, there can be no doubt that the word “craft” was co-opted long ago by those larger and less scrupulous brewing industry denizens like the AB InBev monolith, which always have depended on subterfuge and deceptive advertising to take the place of artistic creativity.

Fact is, they’ve already soiled the “craft” nest, even though bloated multinational megabreweries can no more produce a “craft” beer than an elephant can sire a butterfly, although they employ squadrons of soulless PR flaks to fashion micro-exterior Potemkin packaging to willfully blind the drinker to the insipid reality of robotic mockro-liquid in the glass.

Repeat after me: Michelob Brewing Company is marketing-speak. It is not a “craft” brewery. Wishing and advertising dollars will not make it so.

Those of us who are willing to search for the genuine article might as well accept the loss of “craft” and move on to a different way of describing what we drink, think and do. I favor simplicity: “Good beer,” as opposed to bad beer, works just fine on my word processor.

Meanwhile, as you follow this saga, pay attention to the path of the legislation, and adjustments in the excise tax. Smoke and mirrors might produce the appearance of a craft purse from sow’s swill, but 100 pennies still add up to a dollar … each and every time.


Matt Nash said...

About 3 days ago I saw a Sam Adams commercial and I wondered what you thought.

胡虹 said...
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Anonymous said...

After many years of promises and attempts, I was finally able to attend the Great American Beer Festival in Denver this past year. I was saddened to see that some of the longest lines were at the mega-brewery - and their bastard "craft" offspring - booths. Like moths to a flame, endless patrons were attracted to the flashy banners as polyester clad barkers passed out 2oz servings of swill. And another cup hits the floor...

So be it, the lines were shorter for the real "craft" beer, and Oskar Blues was still pouring great beer from a can! Imagine that, craft beer from a can. Notably missing from the equation was NABC... maybe this year.

The point is, even the Brewer's Association isn't immune from the lure of cold hard cash. Why should the imposters get any more recognition than those who truly love making good beer?