The Reader recently declared that “Craft is dead.” No, this doesn’t mean that people have stopped drinking IPAs and your favorite craft brewery is going to be shut down, but it does raise questions about what makes craft beer “craft.” Recently with all of the drama surrounding 10 Barrel Brewing’s proposal for an East Village location, local craft beer enthusiasts began campaigning for people to start making a delineation between craft beer vs. what they are calling, indie beer.
Craft beer’s widely accepted definition, outlined by the Brewers Association, states that breweries must be small, independent and traditional. This all sounds well and good, but small is relative. Everything is small compared to Budweiser, which produced 16 million in 2013. Because craft beer is considered 6 million barrels a year or less, brewing companies can still be considered craft and also be one of the 10 biggest beer companies in the world, like Boston Beer Company, which makes Sam Adams. They produced 4.1 million barrels last year, still keeping them craft, though they are on pace to max out the 6 million barrel limit in another two years.
Furthermore, the definition of craft breweries being independent seems to be somewhat of a moving target with the recent sales of craft brew pioneers like Lagunitas to Heineken, Ballast Point to Constellation and even Saint Archer Brewery to MillerCoors. These beers are all sold under the “craft beer” tagline, in craft beer bars and are happily consumed by most craft beer aficionados. Does calling these not-so craft beers, “craft,” muddy the waters? Most people probably don’t care. But for the people who do, it’s just another thorn in the side of the truly craft beer community.
With the sale of SABMiller to Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) moving along at a steady pace, there is a certain amount of growing unrest in the craft beer community surrounding the idea of one giant beverage company to rule them all. Here are three issues that could arise from this merger:
1. 58% of global beer profits would be represented by the new ABI, creating a beverage behemoth.
2. Negative effect on the availability and pricing of hops and barley and other supplies
3. ABI would become the major supplier for independent distributers. This would allow them to pressure their distributers to only distribute ABI beers, further limiting the already small number of distributers in any given area.
On February 16th, the bi-partisan House Small Brewer’s Caucus, made up of 206 members from 43 different states, wrote a letter to the Department of Justice urging them to review the proposed SABMiller/ABI merger. Rep. Paulsen from Minnesota stated that “The proposed merger should be fully reviewed to ensure that an unfair advantage cannot be leveraged over our nation’s small brewers. If craft brewers are disadvantaged, it’s ultimately the consumer that will suffer from higher prices and less choice.”
This gets right down to the heart of the issue and why people are warming up to the “indie beer” label. If things keep moving the direction they are right now, then craft beer will be watered down by breweries bought out by Big Beer, and distribution could be strangled for truly independent breweries. That’s why independent brewers want to stand out now. So that consumers are aware and know where their dollars are going and whose pockets they are lining. Also, knowing that the beer you are drinking on tap at your local watering hole is there because the bar manager or owner tasted a really great craft beer and put it on, not because their distribution company told them to what to pour.
We will see if indie beer catches on. Right now it’s a pretty small subset of San Diego beer lovers that are passionate about this change in name. But being that San Diego is one of the major craft beer cities in the country, and therefore the world, we wouldn’t be surprised if this trend continues forward. So to answer the questions, no, craft beer is not dead. It is however, changing, adapting and specializing, just as it has always done.