When breweries masquerade as craft brands
Craft beer has become ubiquitous. Ten to fifteen years ago, few people had heard of craft beer, although a few drinkers professed to like “dark” or “imported” beers. Today, Dayton has nearly a dozen bars specializing in high quality beer and we are on the verge of a microbrewery explosion.
Nationwide, the craft beer industry has grown from a handful of microbreweries in the 1980’s to over 2,100 craft breweries. That number marks the highest total since the 1880’s. According to the Brewer’s Association, a craft beer advocacy group, craft sales grew 13 percent by volume and 15 percent by dollars in 2011 alone. This growth marks a long, steady expansion trend expansion over the last decade. The association also notes that craft beer now represents 9.1 percent of overall beer sales and that most Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewery. All of this is happening during a time when overall beer sales are seeing a steady decline.
One can understand how the craft beer movement threatens the large macro-brewers, specifically Anheuser-Bush InBev (Budweiser and Michelob) and SABMiller (Miller and Coors). Craft breweries offer a higher quality product, often locally or regionally produced. As consumers flock to these beers, craft beer is edging out shelf space from the big breweries. In response, the macro-brewers have gone on the offensive. In addition to acquiring imports such as Stella Artois, Leffe, Hoegaarden and Peroni, the big brewers have launched their own line of “craft” beers. However, in a stealth move typical of guerilla warfare, these big brewers obfuscate the fact that these faux craft beers are really products of the two large macro-brewers.
This dubious behavior has legitimate craft brewers up in arms. Last December, the Brewer’s Association sent out a press release vilifying the large breweries for this shady marketing. In it, they first define what it means to brew craft beer: “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.” For the record, 6 million barrels is a lot of beer. The largest selling craft brewery and fifth largest American brewer, Boston Beer Company (makers of Samuel Adams), only sold about 2.5 million barrels last year.
The release goes on to note how large breweries have been trying to enter the space by either buying up small and independent breweries or releasing their own “craft-imitating beers.” By definition, neither of these approaches represents true craft beer.
But the central complaint that the Brewer’s Association makes is not that the large breweries are entering the market. They see it as a nod to how important craft beer has become. And, in fact, some beers made by the larger brewers are actually on par with legitimate craft beers (e.g., Goose Island vintage ales and Bourbon County stouts, Leinenkugel’s Big Eddy series and AC Golden’s Ctayt Stout).
Rather, the Brewer’s Association takes umbrage with the fact that the mega-breweries are deceitful in how they market these faux craft beers. As a result, uninformed consumers are often unaware that what they are drinking is not a craft beer. The release states: “[M]any non-standard, non-light ‘crafty’ beers found in the marketplace today are not labeled as products of large breweries. So, when someone is drinking a Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer, they often believe that it’s from a craft brewer, since there is no clear indication that it’s made by SABMiller. The same goes for Shock Top, a brand that is 100 percent owned by Anheuser-Bush InBev […] The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers.”
To counter this issue, the association makes the call for the large breweries to be more transparent in their marketing. They ask that ownership be stated more clearly so that consumers can make informed choices. They also call on the consumer to inform themselves as to who makes what.
The larger brewers, not surprisingly, have not stepped up to the challenge. While SABMiller did issue a statement noting the long history of some of their more popular craft-like brands, they have done nothing to change the way these brands are marketed.
There are a lot of reasons to support legitimate craft beer. First, these beers generally taste better than faux crafts. In addition, buying craft beer often means supporting small local or regional businesses. Craft breweries often create new styles and test new brewing methods. At the same time, many craft brewers preserve time-honored techniques and styles. These factors are what make the craft beer movement what it is, and these factors are nearly impossible for the large breweries to replicate.
If the above is important to you, make informed choices. Refer to the sidebar to see who makes what and choose wisely next time you ask for a pint or take home a sixer.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.