The “Craft Beer” Label Needs to Be Retired, Not Replaced


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Beer distribution is a convoluted and often dirty racket with Byzantine laws, scams, and customs that vary from state to state. So are plenty of other businesses, my own included; I don’t mean to be unduly hard on beer distributors, particularly since I don’t know every last detail of their hustle. But I do know how to have the local newspaper read aloud to me, which is how I came to understand that one of the Boston area’s biggest beer middlemen was recently hit with a 90-day license suspension for essentially bribing bars to carry the brands they represent, forcing out competition and reducing consumer choice. (In a nicely meta-distasteful touch, this particular scandal was centered largely on Yuengling, which last year tried and failed to make a giant splash in Boston, a market not noted for its dearth of amber lager.)

The announcement that the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission had come down so hard on a company engaged in a practice generally regarded as common — if not a bit shady — was met with mixed reaction by the local beer community. On the one hand, it’s always nice to see enforcement of a law that is at least tangentially related to the protection of consumers and small businessmen. But on the other, a 90-day suspension of a large distribution company’s right to operate threatens a lot of middle-class paychecks. (The distributor has the right to appeal and/or propose an alternate penalty; it’s widely speculated that they will operate without interruption while forfeiting 90 days’ worth of revenue. This strikes me as a reasonable solution that will result in a significant financial hit for the company while keeping the beer flowing and the truck drivers’ mortgages paid.)

Amidst all the shock and schadenfreude, Andy Crouch, one of the sharpest and longest-tenured members of the Massachusetts beer-blabbing business, made an excellent point: Bribes aren’t one-way streets. There are bar owners out there at least accepting, and often soliciting, these pay-to-play arrangements. Why aren’t they being shut down, too? The answer is that some of the more egregious offenders will likely be punished by the ABCC in due time, but the idea of shared culpability got me to wondering if I should launch a quiet, personal boycott. There are hundreds of great places to get a beer in this city, and I don’t need to be lining greedy, anti-competitive pockets.

I looked into the issue with a bit of medium-strength Googling before abandoning the idea with my standard mix of good reasons, bad reasons, and lazy reasons. I don’t want to take tip money away from bartenders who have absolutely nothing to do with whatever scummy business their boss is up to; it’s hard to always keep the morality of any given boycott on a straight line. And more confoundingly, it was just too hard to figure out who owns what. The bar owner who came across as the most venal and obnoxious in the Boston Globe’s story about the Commission’s report wasn’t a mere “bar owner” at all; he was the head of Blah Blah Blah Hospitality Group, which seems to own various-sized stakes in half the restaurants in town, though I can’t quite figure out which half.

But if I wasted a few hours and brain cells trying to figure out precisely what faux-righteous posture to adopt amid this mess, at least I was rewarded by the realization that I don’t much care who owns which brewery, either.

You may have heard that a private equity group just acquired stakes in both Victory and Southern Tier. If you heard that news, then you likely heard it from someone who had one of the following two opinions about the matter: Either “Sell-outs! These precious lips will never be debased by another drop of Prima Pils!” or “Hey, get your head out of the clouds, beer is a business!” The latter position is often expressed in a sneering manner that suggests it is simply childish to care who owns your favorite brewery, and I can’t get behind that sort of condescension. But, tone aside, I’m sympathetic to the general stance.

I can respect anyone who objects to a specific ownership group. Anheuser-Busch InBev, for instance, owns a lot of beer distributorships that offer very strong inducements for retailers to favor their beer over the competition, and engages in other sharp-elbowed tactics that reasonable people may not like. Plus, sure, what fun is it to root for a gigantic international conglomerate? But, while AB has bought a few high-profile craft brewers in recent years, the more common trend is for breweries trying to work out succession or expansion plans to either join forces, seek outside investment from a more traditional financing source, or sell a minority stake to a respected larger brewery.

Duvel owns chunks of Boulevard, Ommegang, and Firestone Walker. Ballast Point turned grapefruit zest into a billion dollars of Constellation’s money. Founders sold a 30 percent share to Spain’s Mahou San Miguel. Lagunitas, whose owner spent years loudly but who-gives-a-shitedly railing against “selling out,” recently got deep into Heineken’s bed. Dogfish Head sold 15 percent of itself to a private equity firm. And of course the sky started falling back in 2011, when Anheuser-Busch swallowed Goose Island.

I completely understand why these and similar deals matter to the people who work for these companies. I don’t mean to dehumanize a Ballast Point brewer by saying, “You woke up one day with an entirely different ownership situation, so what? Dry your eyes and make some Sculpin, we’re thirsty over here.” But the overwhelming majority of people in the rowdy, amorphous blob that calls itself the “craft beer community” have no personal stake in this sort of thing. So we should stop pretending we do.

That means we need to stop kvetching over business decisions that don’t concern our own job security or cat-food funds. We need to stop defining our preferences backward, by listing what we hate first. Your disdain for Bud Light tells me absolutely nothing useful about how you actually go about your beer business. And the bad news is we can’t even rely on the traditionally positive way to express our beer choices: Claiming to like “craft” beer means less and less by the day, and I haven’t heard a single useful alternative.

Craft beer was at one time a somewhat useful term in that it replaced “microbrew,” which, in referring only to a brewery’s size, failed to account for the healthy growth of a smaller brewer who hit the big time. The “microbrew” tag served only to differentiate the nominally good stuff from the “macrobrew” made by Bud, Miller, and Coors. So along came “craft,” and the trade association that has spent way too much time and energy redefining the category in recent years.

The most commonly accepted definitions of “craft” have always been fungible enough to keep certain sacred breweries under the umbrella; we tweak the rules regarding production capacity (how can you kick Sierra Nevada out of the club just because the whole world is finally smart enough to love their Pale Ale?), use of adjunct grains (it’s been tough to hold a hard line against corn since Boulevard, which is very transparent with its recipes, introduced Tank 7 in 2009) and outside ownership (how the hell can the company that makes Kentucky Breakfast Stout not be “craft”?). So the term should be allowed to die a quiet, dignified death.

And it seemed to be, until last month when an odd movement in the San Diego beer underworld came to light. Seems some folk out that way seek to punish Ballast Point, et al, by rebranding our special little club “indie beer” as opposed to “craft beer.” This strikes me as an acknowledgment that beer can be finely crafted no matter who owns it. Which is very, very true! So enough with the labels.

I love all beer, and good beer even more than the rest of it. Sometimes good beer is made by a little mom-and-pop down the street, sometimes it’s made by an American division of a storied Belgian brewer, and sometimes it’s made by whoever’s pulling the levers at whichever holding company is in charge of Schlitz these days. The modern American better-beer industry spent way too much of its formative years defining itself, often simply in opposition to the existing beer brands. After a couple of decades of a marketing plan consisting of little more than, “Hey, look at us! We’re not Budweiser!” it’s time to make the transition to selling the beer on its own merits, rather than on the competition’s perceived flaws. I don’t care if your beer is indie. I only care if it’s good.

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