Yes, this blog is miserably out-of-date, which is why I am preparing to scrap the whole thing and replace it with something more user-friendly. Please bear with me.
A beer style is an informal agreement between a brewer and a drinker, expressed via a label, by which the former tells the latter roughly what sort of beer they are about to buy.
– From The World Atlas of Beer, second edition, 2016
So the Internet exploded yesterday with news that Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Belgo-Brazilian monster brewing company that owns the Budweiser brand, wants to replace “Budweiser” on the labels of its U.S. flagship beer with “America.” Early reports that the application had merely been made to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau were replaced later in the day by news that approval has apparently been granted and the change will be allowed to go ahead.
A lot of commentators, particularly from within the ranks of the craft beer world, were vocal about how pandering and cynical they found this move to be, many citing the fact that, in terms of ownership, at least, Budweiser isn’t even a truly American brand of beer. Others noted that the move seems to be a clearly opportunistic way in which to capitalize on the same sort of jingoistic sentiments that have been propelling the Drumpf campaign since its start.
Me, I think it’s even more insidious than that.
You may not have noticed, but over the last few years AB InBev has been gradually fomenting an “us vs. them” relationship between mainstream lager drinkers and craft beer fans. It started even before the famous Super Bowl ad – you remember, the one about the pumpkin peach beer that aired shortly after the company had bought a brewery that once produced a pumpkin peach beer – but that was perhaps where it swung into full gear. It continued this year, of course, with another ad which directly, though perhaps less combatively, disparaged craft beer.
During this whole period, a “craft vs. mainstream” dialogue has not coincidentally arisen in the media, with anti-major brewery sentiment positioned as “snobbery,” mainstream lagers redefined as “real beers,” and craft beer appreciation derided as pinky-in-the-air elitism. Some of the craft beer press has itself been complicit in this, sometimes standing up for “well-made” mainstream lagers like Budweiser and defending brewery owners who choose to sell to larger companies like AB InBev.
If approved, the “America” branding of Bud may well be the next step in this oppositional positioning of mainstream beer. By literally wrapping the beer in the flag, Budweiser marketers are, I believe, attempting to make any criticism of the brand or the company behind it synonymous with criticism of America itself, which is just a short step from questioning the patriotism of anyone who might prefer to drink a different brand of beer. Thus, craft beer drinkers become anti-Americans and Bud drinkers are cast as the true patriots.
(For those who would hold AB InBev’s craft brewery ownership as a reason for questioning the above thesis, remember that all of the company’s craft possessions combined still represent but a fraction of the sales and profits generated by the Budweiser line. It is my contention that AB InBev would shelve its craft properties in a minute if doing so would staunch the bleeding that has beset the Budweiser family for the last decade or more.)
In any other summer, this move might elicit little more than a chuckle and a sigh – if, indeed, the company even bothered with it at all. But in the highly charged political atmosphere of 2016, make no mistake, I see this as a very large and heavy gauntlet being thrown directly in the face of the craft brewing industry. It will be most interesting to see how it all plays out.
A couple of important things have occurred recently in the English-speaking beer world.* First off, the U.K. beer consumers group, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), have launched a “Revitalisation Project” centered around what the group should really represent in the future. Then the Brewers Association in the U.S. released their annual list of the country’s top 50 breweries and top 50 craft breweries by volume.
To say that each has elicited a bit of commentary would be a massive understatement. Just scroll through Facebook to find an ample number of posts on each topic, or start here and here for the CAMRA side and here and here for the BA list.
The way I see things, however, they are really two sides of the exact same coin, that being the changing nature of beer in the 21st century. CAMRA was formed out of an interest to preserve traditional British ales – it centered on cask-conditioning and dispense, but at the heart was the character of the beer – while the BA was founded as a voice for small scale breweries in the United States and, to a much lesser degree, Canada. The vastly different dynamics of beer today, however, render both of these mandates significantly less relevant.
Cask-conditioned ale is indeed alive and well in the U.K., as any recent beer-drinking visitor will attest, something CAMRA can certainly count as a major victory. What’s more, traditional ales have been joined by any number of great cask and non-cask beers, from crisp lagers to American-hopped IPAs to recreations of historic stout and porter recipes. As CAMRA tries to figure out whether to mock or embrace these new brews, beer drinkers across the country are rushing to sup greedily from the new diversity of British beer.
Meanwhile, over in the United States, while the big breweries still control in excess of 70% of the domestic beer market, the tail that wags the brewing industry dog is undeniably what we popularly term craft beer. The BA can likewise count this as a success, even as asterisks on their top 50 list threaten to derail those numbers by excluding the likes of Lagunitas and Ballast Point and top operations like Boston Beer grow fat on sales outside of the craft beer realm, like ciders (Angry Orchard) and boozy seltzers.
None of which is to say that the need for CAMRA and the BA is past; it is not. The big breweries are still massively larger than even the greatest of the small operations, and there is no doubt in my mind that, craft beer forays and brewery purchases aside, they would be delighted by a return to simpler times and easier sales of bland, mainstream beers. Vigilance is key, and in the absence of anyone different – a less strident CAMRA, for instance, or a consumer-focused organization in the States – it’s best to keep these two entrenched in their respective, albeit necessarily changing roles.
So, too, does the word ‘craft’ still have a role to play, since it still has meaning for massive swaths of beer consumers, who see it as a point of differentiation between boring mass-market brews and more flavourful and interesting niche beers. That meaning will continue its slow erosion over time, sped through its co-option by companies like Mahou San Miguel, and eventually we will move on to new definitions, just as we evolved from ‘microbrew’ to ‘craft beer’ around the turn of the century.
*This is an important distinction. Although many in the US and UK appear to see their beer markets as closed, craft beer by whatever name you choose to call it is an international phenomenon, which is getting bigger and more pervasive all the time. What seems important in the US and/or UK, therefore, may not matter a whit in Spain or Brazil.
Ah, ‘tis the season of lists. For weeks leading up to Christmas, we have been instructed on the top gifting options for the x-type-of-person on your list. Following the big day, these lists were quickly replaced by ‘Best of 2015’ lists, covering everything from news stories to cat photos. And as the first day of 2016 fast approaches, reflective lists are ceding space slowly to predictive lists, advising us what to watch, drive, eat, see and travel to in the coming year.
And what to drink, of course.
I figure that the reason people write all these lists is because other people want to read and reference them, and who am I to buck the trend?! My specialty is beer, but I also dabble in writing about pretty much anything alcoholic, save for wine – which I leave to my more learned peers. And so, since people are apparently clamoring for advice on what to drink during the approaching twelve months, I might as well chip in with my two cents.
Presenting, then, Stephen Beaumont’s list of what to drink in 2016!
- Whatever the hell you want.
Thanks for reading.
That column, written by Jolie Myers, explains the definition of “craft” and goes on to describe the problems which, in this new age of $1 billion craft brewery take-overs, are inherent in that definition. In so doing, it covers much of the same ground and reiterates many of the same points that have been debated in what must now number in dozens of similar soul-searching articles. Ms. Myers’ conclusion is that “it’s time to reconfigure” the definition of “craft” and looks to, of all places, the US federal government for help.
The thing is, that’s not the problem with ‘craft.’ You know what IS the problem with ‘craft’?
Forget the Brewers Association definition and forget whether Ballast Point Sculpin IPA has suddenly, through an act of finance, gone from ‘craft’ to ‘crafty.’ Forget whether corn or rice may be added to the mash under the craft definition or whether 6 million barrels of production can still be considered small. (In the age of Anheuser-Busch InBev-SABMiller, believe me, it can.) ‘Craft’ is still a useful, globally significant beer term for one reason and one reason only.
People understand it.
Consumers don’t know that the BA has a definition of ‘craft,’ and if they do, they likely don’t care. They know that Michelob Ultra is not craft and Sculpin is, no matter if Constellation owns the latter and Boston Beer suddenly goes mad and decides to buy the rights to the former. Craft is about flavour vs. the lack thereof. Sculpin’s got it and Michelob Ultra doesn’t, so one is craft and the other is not.
This is popular perception and it extends far beyond the United States to China and Brazil, Italy and the U.K. (Although, admittedly, things are a bit more complicated in Britain.) A segment of those consumers, possibly a significant segment, will understand and care whether a brand is owned by a large company or a small one, and everyone within that segment will have their own definition of those terms. But the majority of people will likely go ahead thinking of Shock Top and Golden Road IPA and Goose Island Matilda and Blue Moon Pumpkin Whatever as craft simply because they taste like it.
If writers like Ms. Myers want to clarify things in popular publications, they would be wise to spend more time identifying who owns what and if smaller brewery beer X is comparable to or better than now-big brewery beer Y and less time obsessing over ‘craft.’ Because words are not defined by governments or trade organizations or columnists writing in magazines or online, they are defined by the way people use them.
Breaking news this morning is that Constellation Brands, a “leading beverage alcohol company,” according to NASDAQ, has agreed to purchase San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing for US$1 billion. This will bring Sculpin IPA and Grapefruit Sculpin into a portfolio that also includes Corona – which is owned by ABI, but the marketing and distribution in the United States of which is owned by Constellation – Clos du Bois wines and SVEDKA Vodka.
Although it’s doubtful that anyone without insider information anticipated this particular tie-up, it shouldn’t be surprising that the number three beer company in the U.S. would be interested in adding a craft brand to their line-up. Surprising perhaps that they valued Ballast Point at one billion dollars – a number that was bandied about and had many industry observers scratching their heads when Heineken bought half of Lagunitas – but not so much that a strong regional player on the verge of becoming a national force was deemed an attractive target.
In the release published in the NASDAQ website at 9:04 this morning, Ballast Point founder Jack White was quoted as saying:
“We started this business nearly 20 years ago with a vision to produce great beer that consumers love and to do it the right way. To achieve that vision, we needed to find the right partner. The team at Constellation shares our values, entrepreneurial spirit and passion for beer, and has a proven track record of helping successful premium brands reach the next level of growth and scale.”
So, the marketer of Modelo Especial and Corona Light shares Ballast Point’s “passion for beer,” eh? Please. Constellation may be many things, entrepreneurial and successful certainly among them, but let’s stow the passion talk, shall we? This is, I strongly suspect, another in a long and, no doubt, soon lengthening line of brewery purchases that have at their core an interest in cashing out on the part of the owners and/or investors.
There is nothing wrong with that. It would just be nice for someone on the receiving end of the bigger company’s largesse to say that. Just once.
Actually, no kidding involved! I went to China to learn about the local craft beer scene and visited five breweries. I wrote the trip up for the Growler Magazine and they have been kind enough to share it online. Check it out over here.
I’ve been writing regularly for the Growler since June, by the way, and since it’s a monthly magazine, that adds up to quite a few columns. So far, I’ve visited in print Buffalo, Kansas City, London and Toronto, as well as Beijing. Coming up next month is Asheville, North Carolina!
(I posted the screed below on Facebook this morning, but thought I’d repeat it here for those who may not have caught it in their feed. I’ve also updated it with the frankly cringe-inducing perspective offered by my friend and fellow writer Pete Brown.)
Articles like this, in which some dread disease — in this case dementia — is noted to be possibly offset by a change in lifestyle — in this case the cessation of drinking — drive me nuts. Yes, I admit that I have a vested interest in the popularity of alcohol, zero medical expertise and a healthy fondness for beer, wine and spirits, but come on! Every single story I come across like this is filled with qualifications and scary sounding pronouncements, and all too little in the way of factual absolutes. From this story alone:
- “Middle-aged people should go teetotal to reduce the risk of dementia” (Reduce by how much? What’s the risk in the first place?)
- “…the public should be advised that there is ‘no safe level of alcohol consumption'” (Just like there is no safe level of driving for avoiding traffic accidents, no safe level of exercise for avoiding heart failure, no safe level of sugar consumption for avoiding cavities…)
- “Research has found that one third of all Alzheimer’s disease cases can be linked to lifestyle factors –such as exercise, obesity, smoking and alcohol.” (So what role does alcohol play? Can it be offset by regular exercise? Is smoking worse?)
- “The new Nice advice says drinking any alcohol can increase the risk of dementia, disability and frailty…” (“Can,” but not necessarily “does.” Just like me walking to the other room “can” increase the risk of me stubbing my toe.)
My point is not that people should ignore all sound medical health advice, but that articles about studies filled with “can” and “may” and “could” are not really helpful in the greater scheme of things. Does drinking increase the risk of certain diseases or conditions? Probably. Is that increased risk offset by other mitigating factors, such as stress reduction, healthy diet and regular exercise? From what I’ve read on the subject, quite possibly. But even if not, running a story on how a lifestyle change “may” help to “reduce” the risk of something or other is hardly helpful.
Illustrating well the inanity and utter uselessness of such articles is another article offered up by Pete Brown shortly after I posted my diatribe. In his comment, Pete noted that another, directly contradictory report spawned this article only two days earlier. So beer drinking will either save you from dementia or cause it…or is in fact a benign activity when practiced in moderation that will not on its own have a direct impact on whether or not you get dementia at all. My bet, btw, is on the last.
For my readers in Ontario: I not a big promoter of events and neither have I ever hosted a ticket give-away, but OktoberFEAST not only looked to me like it’s going to be a great time, but it’s also an event in support of a good cause. So here you go.
Featuring ample amounts of Toronto food talent (Barque Smokehouse, Thoroughbred, Cheesewerks, Hawthorne and Oyster Boy, among others) and Ontario breweries including Beau’s, Double Trouble, Great Lakes, Junction, the new Lake Wilcox Brewing and Side Launch, among many others, OktoberFEAST promises to be a terrific night of food and drink, all in support of cancer research and support services for cancer patients. It all happens on Thursday, October 8, at the Berkeley Church, 315 Queen St. East.
We all likely know someone whose life has been affected by cancer, so there is no reason to not want to support this cause. I’d be there myself, but I will unfortunately be boarding a plane right about the time the Toronto event is getting started.
I am, however, able to offer you, dear reader, the chance to win a pair of tickets for the Toronto event. Just go to Twitter and either retweet one of my mentions, like this one, or tweet a link to this page and mention both me (@BeaumontDrinks) and the hashtag #OktoberFEAST. Two lucky winners will be selected Wednesday, October 7 at noon. I’ll tweet at you if you’re a winner and you’ll get your ticket emailed to you. It’s as simple as that.
When I first visited the United Kingdom slightly under two decades ago, making my way around the beer circuit was pretty easy. The Campaign for Real Ale, better known as CAMRA, published and still publishes an annual Good Beer Guide, so finding the best in breweries and pubs was a simple matter of buying a copy of the most recent edition, making a few pages of notes – no smart phones back then – and heading off for a pint or three.
Today, however, things are a bit more complicated. Since the dawn of the new millennium, and especially over the last decade or so, the number of operating breweries in Britain has exploded, even as the number of pubs has thinned considerably. On a population basis, the growth of craft beer in the U.K. has even dwarfed what we’re witnessing in the U.S. these days.
Consider this: With about 319 million citizens, the United States boasts 3,739 breweries, according to the Brewers Association’s mid-2015 statistical update, while the United Kingdom, with a population of about 64 million, claims somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1,200 breweries. Meaning that Britain has roughly one-fifth the population of the U.S., but about one-third the number of breweries!
(Read more at The Celebrator.)
Okay, let’s begin by getting one thing straight: There are not, as BrewDog’s James Watt recently tweeted, “so many breweries selling out to mega brewers.” There are a few, as many as a couple of dozen if you count the partial sales and purchases by private equity firms, out of the more than 3,700 breweries operating in the United States alone, plus the four hundred plus in Canada, eight hundred or more in Italy, in excess of 1,200 in the U.K. and so on and so on.
So no reason for panic.
But what if the brewery that sells out is one of your favourite breweries? An Elysian, for instance, or a Lagunitas or, most recently – as of this writing, at least – a Golden Road? Then what?
Again, no worries. Big breweries like Anheuser-Busch InBev, SABMiller and Heineken don’t generally do stupid things, and buying an existing, successful craft brewery only to tinker with their recipes and screw up their beers would be a decidedly stupid thing. The multinationals are buying these brands for their craft beer credibility, not their existing sales volumes, and so screwing with the biggest thing these brands have going for them would be paramount foolishness.
(You think these craft brewery buys are all about volume, you say? Well, consider this: In 2014, ABI’s Shock Top brand sold in excess of 14.1 million cases, according to the Beverage Information & Insights Group, while MillerCoors’ Blue Moon sold over 29.1 million cases. Lagunitas IPA, by way of comparison, sold a relatively scant 4.4 million cases, and the entire output of recently acquired Elysian was about 700,000 cases and Golden Road just over 400,000. In other words, the big breweries are doing far better with their made-in-house “crafty” brands than they are with the breweries they are acquiring.)
So that’s why it doesn’t matter. All a big brewery ownership means is likely better quality control and shelf stability for your favourite beers, and more than likely increased distribution.
Here why it does matter.
Leaving aside the less than 51% acquisitions, the half-and-half Lagunitas sale, for example, or the minority stake Founders sold, these newly acquired breweries exist and function at the whim of their owners, and their owners are not necessarily benign. Take Goose Island, for example, a case study of a successful big brewery buy-out if ever there was one.
ABI, which has owned Goose Island for a half-decade or so now, has been spending outrageous amounts of money and investing massive resources in expanding Goose’s barrel-aging program and promoting specialty brands like Sophie and Matilda. Which is great, until someone at head office finally decides that the revenues are not meriting the expenditures – which I’m not saying will happen, but might. At that stage, we could see the barrel program slashed, the specialty line cut in half or worse, and the hops in Goose Island IPA changed to cheaper and more easily accessible varieties. And there wouldn’t be anything that the brewers, managers or operations people in Chicago could do about it.
(As an aside, last night I drank a can of Goose Island IPA that my visiting west coast sister had left at my father’s house. I was unimpressed.)
More philosophically, however, the sale of a small brewery to a much, much, much larger one will put many craft beer fans in a bit of an ethical dilemma. Specifically, if you were drawn to craft beer as a supporter of the underdog, how do you react when that underdog gets sold to the very Goliath your David had been tossing stones at? Or, even more to the point, how does this statement by Meg Gill, owner of newly sold Golden Road Brewing, make you feel?
“Once I understood (ABI’s) vision and that they were going to win, I wanted to be on the winning team,”
To be clear, ABI “winning” means the effective end of independent breweries, or at least that’s how I see it. Because so long as there are more craft breweries outside of the ABI portfolio than there are inside, garnering increasingly greater market shares, then I cannot see any way of framing an ABI “win.” It’s really that simple.
So the bottom line is this: We all cast votes with our purchasing dollars and have the right to decide where we want those votes to go. If your concern is all about flavour and character and has little or nothing to do with ownership or oligopolies or multinational corporations, then you can and should continue buying whatever brand or brands of beer you want, whether they are owned by ABI or MillerCoors or the guy who lives down the street from you.
But if part of the reason you were drawn to craft beer is because it’s small and relates to you as a beer lover rather than as a consumer statistic and there’s a good chance you might bump into the brewer at your local bar this Friday night, well, you might want to think long and hard about your relationship with that recently purchased brewery.